Γεια σας! That’s Greek for “hi everyone!” One of my concerns coming to Greece was that I didn’t even know how to say hello. Coming from Ecuador, where I spoke the language, this was really intimidating to me. How was I supposed to manage in a country where I couldn’t even ask for directions (and I wouldn’t be able to understand their response even if I could). Luckily for me, pretty much everyone (even the small shop owners) speaks a little bit of English. Some speak more than others, but pretty much everyone speaks enough that I can get what I want.
I do want to be able to speak in their language, however. Part of it is that I love languages, and the other part is that a persons’ face lights up when they see that a foreigner is trying (however badly) to speak Greek. The people of Athens really appreciate when students come to learn about the culture and language, and are more than happy to help with pronunciation and basics. As part of the CYA program, I have a 2 hour Greek class twice a week, which is helping me learn the basics, but of course the best way to learn is to try to speak. I tried to order an ice cream in Greek (after explaining my situation – that I don’t know very much but I want to learn) and the shop owner ran through the word for milk (γάλα) with me 4 or 5 times until I could get the initial sound right.
And the other day, I had my first spontaneous interaction in Greek. As any second language learner will probably know, having someone randomly speak to you in your target language is a completely different ball game from initiating the interaction. Your brain is still functioning in English (or whatever your first language is) and it’s hard to make the switch. I was in the laundromat and was asked something by the woman sitting next to me (in Greek). It was way more advanced than anything I know, so I couldn’t hold a conversation but I managed to remember (and say) (Δεν καταλαβαίνω) – I don’t understand – in Greek rather than immediately resorting to English. It’s a small step, but it was exciting that my brain could actually produce words that are relevant to the situation.