Modern Greek one of the up-and-coming languages for the young to learn in Sofia

SOFIA – On the third floor of Sofia University, in a high-ceilinged room that smells of freshly painted wood, a group of Bulgarian students read Greek literature in the original, learn Greek history and analyze the etymology of Greek words with almost the same ease with which they use their mother tongue. Elena, Petya, Monica, Radostina, Vesela and Rozita, the second-year students who were present during our visit, and their fellow students are among 2,500 Bulgarians who competed for one of just 25 places in the first year of the Modern Greek Literature Department at Sofia University. Popular Greek is one of the three most popular foreign languages at the university, so entry requirements become stricter every year. The best students receive awards from the Greek Embassy and are highly sought after in the job market. «There are now five state and private universities teaching Modern Greek in literature or Balkan studies courses,» Stina Poromanska told Kathimerini. Professor of Greek linguistics at the university, president of the Costis Palamas Modern Greek Society of Bulgaria and the winner of many awards for her work, Poromanska is the doyenne of Modern Greek studies in Bulgaria. «The St Clement of Ochrid Modern Greek Literature Department in the Faculty of Classical and Modern Philology of Sofia University was founded in 1992. It takes 25-30 students a year out of 2,500-2,600 applicants,» explained Poromanska. «The curriculum includes more than 1,500 hours of practical language learning in Greek. It starts at beginner’s level with an intensive course of 120 hours a month. «Other courses taught in the department include ancient Greek civilization and literature, general linguistics, theoretical grammar, Modern Greek dialect studies, literary theory and translation theory.» Why they learn As the English language becomes increasingly dominant worldwide, it seems strange that a growing number of Bulgarian students are choosing to study Greek. «It’s true that Greek is seen as one of the most up-and-coming languages in Bulgaria,» said Poromanska. «The interest of young people is, of course, due to the economic penetration of Greece into our country. Don’t forget that we are home to more than 1,500 Greek companies, while in some sectors, such as banking, Greek companies dominate. This explosion of interest in the Greek language will even out, naturally, but at the moment fluent Greek is much sought after. None of our students fails to find a job.» At the privately run New Bulgarian University (NBU), which has courses in Greek, we get our first opportunity to ask students about what baffled us most on our trip to Bulgaria: Why would a young Bulgarian want to learn Greek? «I lived in Greece for eight years, in Peristeri, but I’m not improving my Greek with the thought of returning; I want to use it here,» said Stanislav. «I wanted to learn an uncommon language; it was a spontaneous decision,» explained Tsveta. «I went to Thessaloniki for a six-month course and ended up staying there for two-and-a-half years.» Iliana has different motives. «I graduated from a classical senior high school, where I studied Ancient Greek. Since then I’ve had a special interest in the language and its development.» «It’s different from other languages and much harder,» commented Sonia. «I wanted to study in Greece because my mother lives there; she’s married to a Greek. But I didn’t manage to go so I decided to study Greek here and then do postgraduate studies in Greece,» said Elli. ‘Piraeus needs me’ Diana offered the most unexpected reply of all: «I’m of Greek origin; I’m a Sarakatsani. I learned a little Greek from my grandmother and I wanted to know more about my Greek roots.» A day later we entered the grand gateway of the historic building of Sofia University, accompanied by Assistant Professor Milena Milenova. The question came up again, this time with students in the university’s Modern Greek Literature Department. «I admit that in the past I wanted to study in the US but I couldn’t afford it,» said Petya. «Greek more or less came by chance, and now I’ve decided to stay in Bulgaria. Besides, Piraeus Bank needs me, even if it doesn’t know it yet,» she added, and the class laughed. (Piraeus is one of many Greek banks that are active in Bulgaria.) «Greek is a very attractive language,» said Elena, «but I’m afraid about our careers because universities aren’t so close to the needs of the market.» «I think the future of Bulgaria is in tourism and, because of the distance, I think Greeks could become our best visitors,» added Monica, «and not just to Sadanski» [a village in southern Bulgaria with very cheap goods where thousands of people from northern Greece shop every weekend]. «Getting a job is certainly an important incentive for learning Greek,» said Milenova, «but it is not the only one. Greek civilization, the cultural affinity between between the two peoples and our shared Balkan identity are important for many of our students.» Exploitation Most of the students at the NBU have visited Greece and had lots to say about their experiences there. «Greeks are a lot like Bulgarians; they are warm and friendly,» agreed Elli, Iliana and Diana. «But, to be honest,» said Tsveta, «the average Bulgarian doesn’t have a good opinion of Greeks. I think the reason is the attitude of many Greek entrepreneurs. Some of them come to Bulgaria and think they’ll find cheap labor. I used to think that since we were working with a Greek, who was from a European Union country, that we would get a better wage. But in fact many Greek companies exploit their workers. On the other hand, since I’ve lived in Greece, I know that the majority of Greeks don’t have a good opinion of Bulgarians, and that’s because most of the ones who went there as migrants are not highly educated.» Students at Sofia University confirmed this view: «If I migrated to Greece, I would most likely end up cleaning houses,» said Radostina. «I’m afraid that’s the most common fate.» They want teachers and a Greek school The love of Greek literature and civilization is not confined to the universities. «In 1993, we founded the Modern Greek Studies Association of Bulgaria to propagate the Greek language and literature in Bulgaria,» Poromanksa told Kathimerini. «We have held many events on translation and literature, with guests such as Ioanna Karystiani, Pavlos Matessis, Rhea Galanaki and Nikos Fokas. «In 2001, we held the first Conference of Balkan Modern Greek scholars in Sofia. Every year we run a Balkan translation competition for students of Modern Greek, not only from Bulgaria but also from the universities of Belgrade and Ankara.» The work done by the university and by the other institutes that teach Modern Greek is impressive. How could the Greek state help them? «We can’t complain,» said Poromanska, with disarming sincerity. «As you can see, the Greek library at the university was donated by the Alexander Onassis Foundation and the Greek Culture Ministry. We also get considerable assistance from Athens University and especially from Professor Babiniotis and Professor Kontos. What Greece could do is to boost the incentives for teachers to be seconded for the Greek departments at the universities. And I insist that a Greek private school should be founded in Sofia. I’m sure it would be well received.»