Pronunciation of Greek is the major problem in learning the language, according to an English speaker living on the island of Crete.
“My plea to the Greek people would be to please be patient with us and to try and grasp what we’re trying to say – even though it sounds all wrong to your ears. With practice, we will get better,” Tony Cross says.
By Tony Cross
As an English speaker who has struggled (mostly unsuccessfully) to learn Greek over the last 15 years, I can tell you exactly what our problem is.
It’s not the different alphabet; with a bit of effort everyone can get to grips with that.
It’s not the rigid grammar either, though that does come as a shock to native English speakers who use adjectives, adverbs and past participles often without any understanding of what they are.
The problem, and really the only problem, is in the pronunciation.
English is a rich and varied language that often changes over quite short a time. The English that was spoken when I was a child, for example, is very different from the English that the young of today speak. I quite often find I have to think about what young English people are actually trying to say!
In addition, there are many very strong regional accents in the UK and it can be difficult for a Londoner, say, to understand what someone from Yorkshire is actually saying. I have a good friend from Yorkshire who now lives here, and I often have to ask him to repeat what he’s just said — in English!
The consequence of all this is that English people are very used to hearing what was said and turning it around in their heads in order to make sense of it. This means that when people learning English want to practice by talking to native English speakers, and they get the pronunciations all wrong (as learners of any language do), we are still quite able to understand what they are saying because we are so used to hearing English spoken in varied ways.
Greek pronunciation is rigidly defined
I meet many local Greeks who tell me that they are embarrassed to speak English because they know that “their English is not that good.”
Actually, it’s almost always perfectly fine and I have no difficulty at all in understanding what they are saying, even when their sentence construction is all wrong and they get their genders and tenses mixed up. For example, if someone says to me “my wife he knows not any English” — even with most words badly pronounced — I can still understand that his wife doesn’t speak English.
In Greek, you cannot do that. The Greek language and its pronunciation are so rigidly defined that Greek people are simply not used to hearing it pronounced badly.
I have lost count of the number of times I have said something to a Greek person, only to have them shrug and look at me quizzically. When they find out what I was trying to say they will kindly repeat it in perfect Greek for me, when I tell them that is what I just said they shake their heads and say “No, it wasn’t”!
When we learn Greek and then go out to practice our schoolboy Greek on the general population they almost always don’t understand us — because our pronunciation is all wrong – and any mispronunciation of their own language, unlike ours, is so foreign to Greek ears.
After many times of trying to speak Greek to locals and not being understood, we give up and revert to English, which many people do speak well enough to get by.
Most of us are trying really hard to become reasonable Greek speakers. Most of us want to be able to speak Greek to be able to take full part in the local culture.
My plea to the Greek people would be to please be patient with us and to try and grasp what we’re trying to say – even though it sounds all wrong to your ears. With practice, we will get better.