Thursday, October 04, 2007

Day 4: Re-speaking Greek

I am starting the day with the almost perfect breakfast. Yoghurt, honey, instant coffee (yes, I know, I know but I couldn’t be bothered making Greek coffee!) and bread, fresh bread from the little corner shop, just delivered from the bakery…mmm.

And I found out the proper way to ask for a normal white loaf. She had remembered me asking for a normal loaf the other day and said:

Aplo? Etsi?

Ah, aplo, ochi kannoniko, malista.

Another of the little words or phrases which are occurring to me as my memory of Greek is slowly being prised open.

She was stocking the shelves when I went in and as she stood up she put her hand to her back and said, “ow!”

From nowhere the word, ponaei, came into my mind so I said it:

Ponaei? Hurting?

Nai, nai, dyskolo einai.

Never being one to avoid a conversation in a shop I suddenly had little pictures of my legs, stiff muscles, walking up and down the steep streets and I wanted to say something like, “yeah, my legs are killing me too from walking up and down all these bloody streets.”

And I could feel my brain frantically searching as I stood there, probably looking a bit vacant, but all it found was a black chasm, an empty abyss where once words and phrases would have been ready to jump joyfully into a conversational sentence and, frustratingly, where words and phrases suddenly appeared again after I had left the shop and walked a few steps down the lane …I suddenly knew how to say what I had wanted to say – but it was too bleedin’ late, wasn’t it. Just too late to go back in and say, “ah, you know you said ‘ow’, well, my legs …blah blah blah.”

That’s going to bug me all day that now…as it does when you think later on of all those clever things you could have said in an argument, etc…

Snatches of language are starting to light up, though, as my brain goes searching around the archives, looking in the Foreign Language Centre: Greek Section but sometimes it just can’t get the filing cabinet open in time.

Perhaps this is how a stroke patient feels as he or she slowly renegotiates the speaking ability.

This language speaking thing has always fascinated me. To begin with of course I used to make the mistake that everyone makes when they learn their first foreign language. I doubt if it is possible to avoid it in fact. You think first in your own language and then translate the sentences you have thought out into the target language. This is where all the hilarious errors come from when foreigners speak English (and when the English speak foreign languages, of course) because languages just do not work in parallel on a one-to-one basis and a sentence which is perfectly correct in your language can sound a bit weird when translated literally into another. An example from yesterday was my waitress in the Tsinari:

You very very good speak the Greek!

Apart from the ‘you’ at the start which in Greek wouldn’t be there at all, the Greek verb form already expresses the personal pronoun, that is pure Greek vocabulary and word order translated into an English sentence. In this case it works but in other cases it doesn’t!

For example when a German looks pale, holds his head gingerly in his hands and says,

"I have a cat."

You could be confused if you didn’t know that the German sentence he is translating means, I am suffering from a hangover.

You could write a book about these problems (in fact I have: My Book)

When you have finally got far enough with a language that you don’t do that any more, you realise that you are actually thinking in the target language and that what you are expressing are simply ideas and thoughts which are somehow constructed non-verbally.

And this is what I do and am doing at the moment. Because of the fact that I used to be fairly fluent in Greek and because the Foreign Language Centre in my brain knows that if I want to say something in Greek I have to think Greek, I basically wait for the words, phrases and sentences to arrive more or less ready to be spoken and sometimes, at the moment a little too often, nothing arrives!

Imagine a combination of the feeling you get in your head when you have to broach a difficult subject and you say to someone, “hmm, let’s see, how should I put this …” and you look up in the air and perhaps finger your chin looking for the apposite expressions, and the feeling you have in your head when you say, “oh, what’s the name of that guy who was on TV last night…” and you just CANNOT remember.

That combination is the feeling I have quite often at the moment trying to re-speak Greek.

I have a plan though. Trying to speak and learn languages in the respective country is all about strategies; asking people questions to which you already know the answers just to hear how they express themselves is one strategy, another is learning the equivalent of “thingymajig” in the target language and saying that with a wave of the hand as if you have forgotten the word which you don’t actually know and thereby inviting the other person to supply it.

The plan is simple but ingenious. I go back into the shop, ask for something low down on the shelves. When she gets it and stands up there is a good chance that she will say, “ow!” And then we have lift off and I can launch into my sentence!


Anji said...

That is well put. Which language do you dream in?

I used to love the way adult students would suddenly start to find thier English coming back to them

Neutron said...

Hi Anji, I'm glad you're enjoying it. When I finally manage to get some sleep I dream mostly in English but from time to time in German and Greek too. How about you?