Saturday, April 2, 2016

Learning to Speak Greek

"I want to ask you a question."

That was the simple message I had intended as I struggled to communicate in my newly-learned-broken Greek, with my brother-in-law. I was alone with my children in Greece--and by alone, I mean without any English-speakers. I knew by his facial expression, that whatever it was I had said to him, was not what I had intended. I waited patiently for my husband to arrive a month later so he could translate. I found out that I had actually told my brother-in-law I wanted to make love. The two words are similar.

By the same token, a few years later, my brother-in-law struggled to use the English he had learned. I was holding his infant son and my guess is that he wanted to say, "the baby loves you." What he actually said was, "I love you, baby."

Language is so integral to who we are and when one is surrounded by the incomprehensibility of an unknown language it can be a very frustrating situation.

My attempts at learning the Greek language have been many, the first of which was back in the early 1980s after having fallen in love with my husband, Nick, who was a Greek immigrant in the kitchen of a diner. At the time, I was enrolled in a college computer class trying to learn the language of computers which turned out to be far more illusive than the Greek language--for me, anyway. Rather than attending to the nuances of Cobalt Computer language, I sat in class writing and rewriting the Greek alphabet. Now, if my handsome Greek cook had spoken Cobalt, I might have become a computer programmer, but alas, that whole college stint didn't work out very well, but that's a different story entirely.

Fast forward to the newlywed couple about to embark on a trip to Nick's village of Margariti, in rural Epirus Greece, 1983. I'd bought a book in Queens, New York called Greek Made Easy. Even as I write this, the title makes me laugh. I'd studied it faithfully, hours a day, to prepare for my trip but once there, no one understood a word I was saying, or trying to say. A book entitled, Greek Village Language would have been much more useful.

Fast forward another ten years as I acquire my position in the local school district, teaching children who do not speak English. It's a very rewarding and sometimes comical job. Some examples of the questions students have asked me are:

1. Why do people always say "cheeses" when they are upset? The student was actually trying to interpret the exclamation "Jesus!"

2. What does "speechy" mean? This one was a little harder for me. I asked the student in what context he'd heard it. His answer: "I said to someone, 'how are you?' and she said, 'just speechy.'"  Interpretation: Just  peachy.

3. A middle school boy had learned about his school email account, his google account, and several other educational accounts where he needed to apply a username and password but he came to me baffled at the social studies teacher's request to write a rendition of what a teen's life would be like in ancient Egypt. The student sat at the computer ready for my explanation, "What is a first-hand account" he asked, "and where do I get the password?"

4. An italian girl at the high school misunderstood the pronunciation for the plural of test (and probably got her own pronunciation from a biology class). She declared as she yelled to me down the hall regarding the numerous exams she had that day, "Mrs. K., I have so many testes!"

The point is, miscommunication can be frustrating but more so, it can be humorous. And it is with those moments in the classroom or at home with my own non-native English speakers or among my husband's family members in Greece that I have acquired volumes of miscommunications--some leading to a laugh and some leading to the end of a relationship. My first novel, Your Own Kind, was a vehicle for those mishaps as well as for the clash of cultures that can also take place within miscommunication. Below is one example. Enjoy!

Excerpt from YOUR OWN KIND:

Sarah is at work in the kitchen of a Greek-owned restaurant. 

        He was soaked in sweat as he loaded pans of food into the steam table. His shirt stuck to his skin and the front of his apron was drenched. Beads of perspiration rolled down his forehead into his eyes and dripped from his nose. 
        "Get me a teesha," Big Gus said.
        "A what?"
        "A teesha, a teesha--you deaf?"
        Sarah just stared at him as she continued to hold the salt canister and then Alexandros was speaking Greek to him, as it dawned on her what he wanted. She ran around to the cabinet and grabbed a tee shirt and tried to pass it to him through the steam. 
        "What I do with this?"
        "A tee shirt."
        "Yeah, a teesha--over there." One of the older women walked in. "Never mind. You--Vicky, give me a teesha."
        The older woman handed Big Gus several tissues from the box next to the cabinet and he honked loudly into them and shook his head. Then, he turned to Alexandros and spoke in Greek.
        "What do you want with this one? She thinks I want a shirt to blow my nose."
        "Don't bother her."

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  1. Replies
    1. Jim, thanks for the shout out on your blog,

  2. Really enjoyed reading your experiences and the miscommunication s, cheered me,thank you.

  3. Very funny accounts of the meaning being lost in the translation...
    Indeed, I agree with you on the fact that the language is integral to who we are, our experiences & our background.
    I have quite a few funny examples (I actually made up a "dictionary") of Greek-Canadians making up new words that derived from English with a Greek ending. The end result a funny new word that was accepted by many, passed from mouth to mouth ...sometimes through generations & becoming part of their vocabulary. Being young & fresh of the boat back then, I did not like it & I was thinking that "they" (Greek villagers that were here since the 50's) were mutilating our beautiful language. I didn't see till later -that I tried to work & learn French- how frustrating is when someone is surrounded by an unknown language & the need to bring your own familiar tone or element in order to lighten the effort.

    1. George, you should share some of your "dictionary" with us. I'd love to hear some of your examples. I'm sure many Greek Australians, Greek Americans, and British Greeks (Why don't we refer to them as Greek British? LOL!) share such an experience with English and Greek or as it's known in the popular Facebook Group: Greeklish.