Some English speakers believe this one language is sufficient for all their needs, especially since English is so widely spoken. It’s possible to travel to, even live in other countries without learning their language because you can rely on finding English speakers anywhere, is their argument. But the widespread use of English can be a real hindrance if you do want to learn another language.
A few days ago we took our car to the garage for its annual service. I started to explain – in simple Greek (the only kind I know) – that the car was now 1 year old and ready for a service. I wanted to check whether this was just an oil change as suggested in the service booklet. Part way through my dialogue the salesman interrupted me to say ‘I do understand English’.
‘I know’, I replied, but I’m trying to learn Greek’. He kindly let me finish, and we soon had to revert to English anyway because my ability to take a conversation beyond the basics is still ‘in progress’, and my ability to understand, especially when the Greeks speak at their normal speed, is not that good. You can almost hear the cogs slowly grinding away in my brain, trying to process what I’ve heard into something I can understand before it gets repeated to me in English.
On other occasions my Greek question has been answered in English which can be discouraging. My Greek was understood, but the listener knew Greek wasn’t my first language so moved into his own second language of English, which he expected me to understand. I don’t go around with I AM ENGLISH tattooed on my forehead, so I assume people don’t automatically work out I’m English from the way I attempt to speak Greek, or maybe they do?
But then there are times when my first sentences in Greek are interpreted as my having a good understanding of the language, and the listener continues the conversation in Greek which goes straight over my head, so fast I can feel my hair blowing in the breeze created by the words speeding past. And I stand there looking confused, trying to remember how to say I don’t understand. You just can’t win!
Yesterday I visited my landlady for some Greek help. She had corrected a short email I sent her, and I wanted to understand the errors I’d made. She very patiently talked me through these, showing me where I’d use the wrong tense or article, and where my words were correct but I wasn’t saying something the way Greek people would.
I wanted to repay her help, and suggested that I help her children with their English, by writing them a few questions. I asked to see their school books to find out how far they’ve got and I was surprised. A 10 year old was being taught about different verb tenses in a second language. She wasn’t just being told ‘in English you say X’, her workbook explained that this was the simple past. Or she was being asked to answer questions using superlatives and comparatives. This was how she had learned Greek, her first language, and it was being used naturally to teach her a new language.
I brought some of the books back to show Ken.
‘What’s a superlative?’ I asked him. He just looked at me.
‘How about a preposition of place?’ I continued.
‘A what?’ he replied.
I an so envious! I was never taught English in this way (and nor, it seems, was Ken). When it’s your native language and you’re learning as you develop speech so much of what you learn is unconsciously done. So I know I can use the language correctly, I know that I use the simple past when it should be the simple past, not the continuous. I know I use the infinitive in the right place. I use superlatives and prepositions every day. But I couldn’t explain to anyone that this is what I’m doing because I never learned these things specifically in school.
If you really want to make me squirm all you’ve got to do is start talking about subjunctives or prepositions. What’s worse is that I feel I ought to understand them, but it’s become one of those mental stumbling blocks where the harder I try, the less I succeed. So as far as English is concerned I’m willing to continue in a state of conscious ignorance, trusting to instinct in my use of the language. But that’s not very helpful for my Greek.
One of my big struggles with Greek is verbs. Remembering how the endings change from one tense to another and which ending you use to incorporate the correct subject (I, me, they etc. aren’t used separately, they’re bundled up in the verb ending) is challenging enough, but then I also need to work out exactly which tense to use as well. And this is something where I have no conscious formal understanding from my own language to help me work it out.
Then there are the articles. When you’ve grown up with ‘the’ and ‘a/an’ being used for everything, the number of articles used, depending on case, gender etc. is daunting. Add to that the ‘helpful’ fact that you can put words in different orders in a Greek sentence and it will still mean the same thing, and it’s a good job we’re here for the rest of our lives as there’s a very long way to go.
It’s not all discouraging though: Greek people are often lavish with their compliments. Our car salesman told me my Greek was better than his English – which it definitely isn’t – but it was nice of him to say it, and my landlady complimented my efforts, especially the 2 sentences where there was no yellow highlighting of errors. And I know I’m not taking the easy route as I’m trying to use those things I have most challenges with, like different verb tenses and possessive cases, so in a way I’m setting myself more of a challenge than I might need to.
Now then, did she hit him or was it the other way round. Where’s that workbook…