Many years ago, before gap years were invented, I spent my gap year in Greece. There were few foreigners around, and I either spoke Greek or not at all. It took me about 6 months to get the hang of it. After that, I visited again for work or holidays, but my Greek gradually got more and more rusty. I wanted to improve it, so I could have a real conversation with the people we met along the way. As for Alan, he knew how to order a beer in Greek. In fact, he’s learnt to do that in a lot of languages. But he wanted to be able to hold a simple conversation on his own rather than relying on me.
It’s useful to know at least a little Greek, since few of the people you meet in the mountains can speak English. In the villages, you may find somebody who has worked in Australia or the States, while the younger people have often learnt some English in school.
I’m lazy when it comes to learning languages. Hours of learning German strong verbs put me right off grammar. I like to listen to language tapes, which I can combine with doing something else. Or as soon as I can, I like to read. I go for simple stories, with a limited vocabulary, and I don’t worry if I can’t understand half of it. I only look words up in the dictionary if they come up several times. The more you read, the more you understand, and somehow the flow of the language sinks into your brain.
And then I like to talk! I’m not shy about horribly mangling the language in my attempt to communicate, and Greek villagers are delighted you’ve made the effort, and incredibly patient as you try to get something across.
Here’s a few tips from our experience:
Don’t be put off by the alphabet. It’s only twenty four letters, and several of those are old friends (remember π (pi) from school maths lessons?) or similar to our own alphabet. It’s worth learning so you can read signs, and it shouldn’t take more than an afternoon or two. Bus journeys are a good time to practice. But apart from the alphabet, it’s best to avoid spending too much time grappling with the written language.
The Hellenic American Union provides an excellent series of 80 free podcasts, starting from a fairly basic level. You can download the text too.
My friend Lani recommends Memrise (free), for all levels, including 1692 Most Important Words in Greek, Greek Cooking Terms and even Greek for Unicorns. I never quite got my head round that last one. Lani has promised to put a Greek for Hikers collection on there…. In the meantime, the hikers’ vocabulary at the back of the Mountains of Greece guidebook is a useful resource.
For reading, I like Mills and Boone from the Hellenic Bookservice. Search under “Modern Greek Literature in Greek”. There are plenty of other titles, but Mills and Boone have a strong, predictable story line with a limited vocabulary. They only cost a fiver, too.