Greeks exhibit linguistic flair

There are 1 million Greeks with English diplomas from the University of Cambridge, or, to put it slightly differently, one in 10 residents in this country speaks an advanced level of English. That’s an impressive figure when compared with other European countries, where percentages of the total population with certificates attesting to their knowledge of English are much lower, said Michael Carty, Cambridge University’s representative in Greece, in an interview with Kathimerini. He attributed the figures to a flair for foreign languages. «Greeks speak very good English. When I was first in Greece and I couldn’t communicate in Greek, I saw with what eagerness people wanted to speak to me in English. For me, it was a sample of the courtesy toward the stranger. But as time went by, I found it was more than that: The Greek wants to show his bent for languages. His willingness to speak in English is due both to politeness and a talent for foreign languages.» Carty came to Greece 15 years ago. His Greek is now fluent, as is his grasp of Greek affairs. In fact, the number of Greeks who speak English is much higher than 1 million, given that many opt for the diplomas of other educational institutes, such as Oxford University. According to the Panhellenic Association of Foreign Language Schools and the EU, 80 percent of the population under 54 speaks English. In addition, learning foreign languages is a sine qua non for pupils. Eighty-eight percent of schoolchildren learn English as a foreign language, followed by French (61 percent), German (36 percent), Italian (35 percent) and Spanish (14.3 percent). The last-mentioned languages are growing in popularity. Greek children are successful language learners, with over 65 percent on average – a high percentage – gaining pass marks in certificate exams, by level and language, in all areas of the country. Of course, Carty observed, it is a Greek peculiarity that students hurry to finish their English courses and gain the relevant certificates. A trend that began in the 1990s, it has become a virtual fixture. A growing number of parents are deciding to have their children learn English, the main foreign language, from primary school. Children are sent to learn a second foreign language when they grow older. According to a survey carried out by the foreign language schools’ association, 14 percent of parents believe that ideally, children should begin learning a foreign language at age 6, or from the first year of primary school. «The eagerness of parents to have their children complete at least one foreign language – especially English – is due to the fact that in the last classes of senior high school, pupils focus all their efforts on getting into university. At the same time, certificates in Greece, foreign-language ones included, are of great value in the labor market,» Carty said. But haste to acquire a certificate reduces preparation time for the examinee. «In Greece, children who sit for the Proficiency exam on average prepare for it for 15 months. In other countries, average preparation time is three years.» The shortness of the exam preparation period in Greece, explained Carty, «has an impact both on the knowledge acquired as well as on results. That’s why we decided to set terms for enrolling for the Proficiency exam. It was considered to be an honest decision by foreign-language centers. It might not the right one from a commercial point of view, but it is from the educational one,» the Cambridge representative observed. To sit for Proficiency, students must have passed the First Certificate exam (a level below Proficiency) with at least a «B,» or alternatively, pass an entry test. «The pass rate for Proficiency in Greece has increased from 32 percent to 43 percent after the introduction of the entry test. The aim was to discourage pupils from sitting for Proficiency before they were ready,» Carty said. The question was how to maintain the certificate’s high educational standards, in keeping with the repute of the famous British university. «Our weapon, at a time when competition is growing more acute, is our prestige and trustworthiness,» he concluded. Despite leaks and complaints, Cambridge carries on testing Two-and-a-half years is the length of time Cambridge University educators need to prepare a test. Each exam, according to Michael Carty, is thoroughly assessed to ensure that it checks each examinee’s essential knowledge of English. The British university (through the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations) offers a range of exams for both students and teachers worldwide. In the last 12 months, over 1.6 million people sat for examinations in 135 countries. In Greece, the University of Cambridge has recently been on the receiving end of negative publicity after accusations that test questions for the Proficiency exam in early December were leaked beforehand, affecting 4,761 examinees. The issue is now the subject of a judicial probe. If the accusations are found to be grounded, Cambridge has proposed annulling the examination. Education Minister Marietta Giannakou has reportedly agreed. But people within the language schools have also condemned Cambridge’s new examination system which allows collaboration with examination centers in the regions. The Cambridge University representative replied: «For many years, Cambridge has been working closely with the British Council in Athens and Thessaloniki which hold the examinations throughout Greece,» said Carty. «The network has been extended to include 14 centers which have the authority to examine only those students that go to a language school which is a member of that center.» The centers are regularly inspected by official representatives of Cambridge ESOL, and are subject to strict procedural rules to safeguard examination standards and security. «It’s a tactic that the university has adopted, because worldwide it has 2,000 recognized centers,» said Carty.