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Granddaughter v. Granddad: Who’s Learning Faster?

by on January 08, 2020 4:00 AM

ATHENS (not the one in Georgia or Ohio) -- As language learners, my granddaughter and I are on the same level.

Penelope, 16 months old, is acquiring English. I’m working on my Greek.

Today, on a bus from Piraeus to Athens, we passed a familiar blue-and-yellow big-box furniture store. “Όλα για το σπίτι,” the sign said. I translated: “Everything for the home.”

“Hey,” I announced, “I understood a whole sentence.”

That’s how elementary my grasp of Greek is.

Penelope, meanwhile, has hit the developmental stage where she understands lots of whole sentences. Tell her to go get her baby (her doll) and she does. Recently, she started forming her own sentences, which is a bigger deal. 

“Sleep, Mommy,” she commands, which means she wants her mom to pretend to be asleep by closing her eyes and snoring.

I’m probably slightly ahead of her at sentence-making, with such fancy subject-verb-object constructions as, Θέλω μια μπύρα (I want a beer), Είναι από την Αμερική (I’m from America), and other similarly profound utterances that begin with I am, I have and I want.

Where Penelope has her Papi beat is in the area of vocabulary acquisition. When she appeared on my screen the other day she was spinning around. “Dizzy,” she said, clear as a bell. I didn’t know how to say “dizzy” in Greek. I do now: ζαλισμένος. I often feel ζαλισμένος when trying to sound out Greek words. 

For example: I live at the corner of Αλέξανδρου Μιχαηλίδης and Παρασκευοπούλου streets. Today, the names roll off my tongue; three months ago, they twisted it.

When it comes to pronunciation, call it a tie between granddaughter and grandfather. 

I cannot win this language competition and not just because Greek has three vowels that make a long E sound (Υ,Ι,Η), words in which the letter Υ (upsilon) can be pronounced as an E, F or V, and words that go on longer than a filibustering senator. 

I can’t win because one of us has a mint-condition brain; the other’s is clogged with baseball stats, song lyrics and memories of embarrassing moments. Because one is studying English all her waking hours and will continue to do so for the rest of her life; the other is studying Greek for four hours per week and will stop doing so in six months. 

It’s humbling to overhear preschoolers chattering in the street and know that my Greek will never be as good as theirs is now.

So why bother? These days – a far cry from when I was a kid with an afro, a backpack and a Eurail pass – just about every Greek speaks at least some English. And they seem to like showing it off. 

I walk into a shop. “Καλημέρα,” I say. “Good morning,” answers the shopkeeper. “Welcome.” I consider saying, “Θα ήθελα…” (Ι would like…) and then think, ah, the heck with it. It’ll be faster to stick with English. 

I’m hoping I’ll be more confident in a few weeks because it’s a truism when you’re in a foreign land that any attempt, however feeble, to speak local is appreciated. That seems particularly true in Greece, partly because people are so naturally gracious here, and partly because they seem genuinely surprised that anyone would even try to learn a language that they alone speak. 

Still, why bother, especially since by the time I’m able to converse at the most rudimentary level, it’ll be time for me to go home.

One answer comes from my friends Neena and Shreesh. Not long ago, they decided to learn 12 languages in 12 years. Greek is the first. As young retirees, they’re studying the language as a fulltime job.
The results are impressive. They rattle on at a level far beyond the restaurant and shop talk to which I aspire. They, too, know that they’re not likely to use the Greek they’re learning once their time here is done. So why are they bothering? 

Purely for the fun of it, they say, which, when you get right down to it, is a fine reason to do a thing. 

Greek, though challenging, is especially fun because it has so many words that form the basis of words in English. To take one example that’s close to my heart: The word for journalism is δημοσιογραφία – dimosiografia. The grafia part is pretty recognizable. Grafia as in graph, as in writing. (The word for painting is ζωγραφική – zografiki, or life writing.)

The dimos part of dimosiografia becomes recognizable if we write it as demos, the people, as in democracy. Journalism is the people’s writing. Gotta like the sound of that.

But then I’m humbled by the word for newspaper: εφημερίδα -- efimerida. As in ephemera. You know, here today, gone tomorrow.

The first trimester of my time in Greece is already over. Two more to go. Here today, gone tomorrow. But then I’ll get to make sentences – in English — with Penelope in person.


Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.







A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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