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How to approach learning a new language

My notes on learning Greek one month in.

Written by Eva Dee on (about a 7 minute read).

We'll be moving to Athens in a year, so I decided to learn Greek in the meantime. Well, try to, at least. πŸ˜…

Greek is not my first foreign language, nor is it my first self-taught foreign language. Readers of this blog will remember my 6-month Spanish fluency experiment, which I'm excited to say, after ten months, is still ongoing... 😬

When it comes to languages so far, I know:

  • Slovenian, because my parents speak it
  • English, because I've been learning it since I was nine, I also have a BA in English language and literature
  • Mandarin Chinese, because I did a BA in Chinese studies and spent five years living in China
  • Spanish, because I've been self-studying since January of this year and using it as my primary language at home

There's also French, which I learned in high school for four years, but it never really stuck with me. Mostly, I think that's because I had shitty grades, and all the teachers told me that I sucked at languages, so I was rather half-assing it. Admittedly, I was also rather laissez-faire with placing those letter stresses, which irked my professor greatly and forced her into early retirement. True story.

This is just to say that when it comes to learning a foreign language, there's definitely no magic pill that will make you pick up a new language every three months or so. Talent is overrated, and in the end, it usually comes down to your motivation and the hours you put in. (Spoiler alert: it takes a long long time).

Besides studying languages, I also spent quite a bit of time teaching languages. While in China, I taught English (mostly adult 1:1 classes) to Chinese people and taught Mandarin Chinese to ex-pats. I also wrote lessons and podcasts for an online language course. Later on, I wrote a couple of books on self-learning Chinese and even hosted a 12-week Chinese language boot camp!


Meaning, that luckily I do have some ideas on how to approach this. And this is how:

Step 1: Get a general idea about the language permalink

Spend 10 minutes googling about the language and try to answer things like: Does this language have any relatives? How many speakers? How does the grammar look like? How hard is it?

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡· This is what my notes on Greek looks like:

  • spoken by around 13 million people (mostly in Greece and Cyprus)
  • doesn't have any language relatives and has its own Hellenic language group
  • according to FSI, Greek falls into the third group (out of four) in terms of difficulty, with around 1,100 classroom hours required to achieve fluency
  • there are four cases and three genders
  • and a Greek alphabet

Step 2: Get an idea about the sounds and the letters permalink

Time to get a little bit more detailed: What letters does the language have? How do you pronounce them? How do you write them down? How do you input them (via a computer keyboard)?

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡· The Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters, some of them with rather interesting choices for uppercase and lowercase variants. It's both familiar and infuriatingly confusing at the same time.

It makes me think of my mom trying a michelada for the first time. We took her to an authentic Mexican restaurant, and we ordered her one. She saw beer, thought, hey, I know that! and went right into it. The look of surprise/confusion/disappointment that followed just a second later - that's how I feel about learning the Greek alphabet.

So, for example, the first shocker was the fact that the letter B (you know, the good old beta Ξ²) is actually pronounced as v (like Victor) - all my life, a lie!

By some sort of twisted logic, this means that the Greek letter that looks like Ξ½ is pronounced like n. Hah!

There's more: Uppercase H is pronounced as Ξ™ (like in 'igloo'). The same letter in lowercase looks like this Ξ· (suspiciously a lot like an n!), but, plotwist! it's still pronounced like an i!

And then there's also a bunch of diphthongs and two letter consonant which are even more deceptive and not to be trusted.

Needless to say, I'm still in the 'alphavet' stage. πŸ₯

I learned how to pronounce the alphabet here and here. I practice my alphabet and reading on Duolingo and here (such pretty flashcards! ☺️).

Step 3: Learn some basic vocabulary and key phrases permalink

This is super important as it gives you a better idea of how the language sounds and also gives you an opportunity to get some early feedback on how you're doing.

I'd listen to the original recording and then repeat, trying to imitate the sound and the stress. If you can record yourself and (cringe) playback later, even better.

If you can utter your baby-steps Greek live to someone's face (preferably a native speaker who knows what's what), you've basically made it and you can slack for the rest of the day!

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡· The vocabulary portion takes me around 30 minutes each day, which I spend on Duolingo and Memrise. Also, did you know that Duolingo has a dictionary for each language combination? It's super handy!

For recording and playback, I really like Audacity.

4. Learn some grammar and basic structures permalink

It's essential to get some grammar rules in early on. As adult learners, we might not be as quick to memorize words as we used to be, but we are much better at understanding structures and making connections.

Things like rules for forming masculine, feminine, or neuter nouns. How do the verbs change when you use them for different people? Are there articles? How do adjectives and nouns work together?

Luckily I have quite a solid grammar foundation from my university days, but even if you don't, Language Transfer offers free audio courses and is an excellent resource for learning about grammar and sentence structure.

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡· Language Transfer Greek has 120 lessons, and I'm 20 lessons in. I listen to an episode or two a day, typically during πŸ• walks which is neat because I get to confuse people with my Greek mutterings. Due to my Swiss cheese memory, I have to re-listen every lesson several times before it sticks, but that's alright, Mihalis from Language Transfer is plenty entertaining.

5. Start learning about the culture permalink

This is generally the fun-est part of learning a language. It's learning without really working that hard. It's allowing your interest and hobbies to take over; you can do anything as long as the content is somehow related to your target language.

This can be food, music, literature, food, movies, art, and did I mention food?

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡· We've watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I was told is rather legit (the second movie wasn't that great). And I've also been:

If anyone has played the board game Santorini, let me know what you think of it.

Step 6: Repeat? permalink

I think this covers up the basic attack plan and summarises what I've been up to this past month.

My strategy is basically the same for the next month, except I want to add on a weekly 1:1 iTalki class. I'll let you know how it goes! 🀞