Since one of the classes I’m helping with is doing a unit on postcards, I was asked to write a short postcard to my parents with the verbs missing, so the students could fill them in using the correct tense. (For example: “I __am having__ (have) a great time in Greece!”) With my Greek coming along nicely, I asked the teacher if I could also prepare one in Greek and have the students help me correct it. She thought this would be fun, so I wrote a letter to my dear friend Bennett in Greek! It was quite fun, actually, and I did really well except for one big, steaming mistake.
Instead of “I hope your rehearsals are going well!” (since Bennett is in a play right now), I actually managed to write “I hope your sheep is doing well!”
That’s right. Sheep. As in, Mary-sure-as-heck-didn’t-have-no-little-rehearsal sheep. This-has-mutton-to-do-with-rehearsals sheep. Oh-no-ewe-di’int-just-talk-about-a-sheep sheep.
When the students all started laughing, I figured something must be wrong–and when they started freakin’ baa-ing, I knew I was in for it! Apparently the words for “sheep” and “rehearsal” are differentiated by an article, and I used the sheep article.
With that and accidentally saying “You are a restroom?” instead of “You have a restroom?” to the server at an ice cream shop in Nea Moudania this weekend, and watching one of the interns point to the food at lunch and say “You are good!!” instead of “It is good!!” to one of the kitchen ladies, I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly what it means to learn a language through immersion. I barely knew the Greek alphabet a year ago, and that was the Americanized version of it (“Mu,” “Nu” and “Tau” are actually “Mi,” “Ni,” and “Taf,” for example). Now I’m surrounded by the language. I probably understand about 20% of all words spoken around me in a given day… and that’s because about 15% of the words spoken around me are in English.
I’ve come to the following conclusions.
The Code of the Trial-By-Fire Language-Learner
- You will, and I mean will, screw up. It’s inevitable. Whether you’re talking about nonexistent sheep or telling the nice man who just sold you ice cream that he’s a toilet, it’s gonna happen.
THEREFORE: Fail gracefully. Apologize if your well-intentioned mistake has caused offense, and be prepared to laugh otherwise. And when your students baa at you, honey, you baa back with all you’ve got!
- Native speakers will be so delighted that you’ve tried, so try! Even just being able to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Greek” in Greek has earned me a smile instead of a scowl on multiple occasions. And trust me, (coming from someone who is about as far from olive-skinned as you can get!) the times when you can surprise people by actually being able to speak a bit of the language are so worth it! You’ll give your country a good name in the mind of at least one person, and you’ll be surprised at what you may get in return.
THEREFORE: Listening and trying to understand are essential, but you must push yourself to actually try and speak as well. When you take a second to think about it, you know more than you think! I’ve learned the benefits of substitution. Most of the time, you do know how to say what you want to say; it’s just that you can’t directly translate the sentence you have in your head. Even if you have to just speak in broken sentences (Instead of “Where is the closest bus stop for bus number sixty-six?”, “Where… bus… six six… near?” worked for me once!), try to think of other ways to say what you want to say.
- You will learn so much more quickly if you actively study the language. It’s possible to get by for months with just “yes,” “no,” “thank you” and “excuse me,” but months go by quickly, and before you know it, you’ll be back home wishing you had used your time more productively.
THEREFORE: Set aside time each day. It doesn’t have to be much time. But even just 10 or 15 minutes a day can do wonders! And, be creative! Translate cereal ingredients! Write a letter to a friend! Figure out how to sing “Happy Birthday!” Anything helps; you just have to commit to doing it.
My Greek is coming along pretty well (all farm animal-related vocabulary aside), but I’ve got a long way to go in my book before I get to the travel section… which will be necessary when I go on my big exciting solo trip in two weeks!! Puttin’ on my big girl pants & heading out solo for most of a week. I’ll be traveling to Meteora, Ioannina and Delphi on my way to Athens for the 5k at the marathon. And I couldn’t possibly be more excited!
That said, must refill tea and hit the books again. Cheers!
I hope your sheep is doing well,