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‘Charmed by intonation, vocabulary, etymology,’ many choose to study Modern Greek for pleasure

He fell in love with the language while listening to the songs of Vassilis Papaconstantinou on a cassette given to him by a Greek friend. Fran, a student at the University of Granada’s School of Classical Studies, bought a home-learning course and began to study Modern Greek. That was just the beginning – a summer course on the island of Rhodes, then courses in Thessaloniki followed. He later spent part of his university coursework as an Erasmus exchange student in Ioannina, completed a dissertation on the poetry of Nikos Gatsos and took part in a lexicography program at the Modern Greek Studies Center in Granada. He is by no means unique. Every year, dozens of people from around the world take part in Greek-language courses. Not all of them want to study here, or need it for their work. Kathimerini spoke to several of the people studying at the Athens University’s course for foreigners and at the private Athens Center. «With Greek, it’s hard to guess meanings and to find links with other languages,» said Barbara from France, who has been in Athens for eight months studying at the Athens Center. «For example, if you know Spanish, then Italian is easier. That doesn’t apply to Greek, but that’s why it’s so interesting. It’s logical, like mathematics, if you think about it.» Facility in learning Greek depends a great deal on the student’s mother tongue, according to Maria Antoniou, a professor at Athens University’s Modern Greek Department. «A Chinese person would be expected to find Greek more difficult than an Italian, but one can’t generalize. Individual factors play a great part, such as a talent for foreign languages and the student’s proficiency in his mother tongue.» Yolanda, who was born in Santiago, Chile, has been in Greece for 25 years. She recently joined an advanced class in Greek. «No matter how well you speak the language, you can never say that you know it perfectly,» she said. Her goal is to apply for entry to the university’s School of Philology. «Foreigners are charmed by the intonation, the vocabulary, the etymology,» said Antoniou. «They like the freedom of the syntax and the flexibility of the vocabulary, the precision and clarity with which they can express even the finest nuances. And of course, the fact that their own language has many words with Greek roots.» Language also helps visitors understand the culture better. «At first I was puzzled by the way Greeks talk, as if they were arguing. I quickly realized that the Greek language is full of passion, as are the people who speak it,» said Emily, an American PhD student of Minoan civilization who has been coming to Greece every summer for the past six years to take part in excavations. She felt out of things by not knowing the language. «At a certain point, I thought it showed a lack of respect on my part to come to Greece so often and expect people to speak to me in English. So I decided to join a beginners’ class in the hope that one day I’ll be able to read a Greek bibliography for my research,» she added. To practice, Emily watches television («mostly soap operas, where the vocabulary is more basic») and foreign films, where she reads the subtitles. «Still, every time I hear Greeks talking among themselves I do get discouraged. I know I still have a long way to go.» A student has to complete 600 hours of tuition to be able to take the Greek language certificate examination, required for any foreigner applying to enter a Greek university. As for the textbooks, gone are the days when professors used their own notes as course material. Apart from the very popular textbook «Greek Language» by Georgios Babiniotis, there are several others on the market, with more being published. Modern Greek is spoken by no more than 12-13 million people around the world, yet it holds a fascination for foreigners. «Greece is a beautiful country that exerts a charm on anyone who visits it,» said Robert Kenny, a British doctor who has been coming here for 30 years. «But if you don’t know the language, I think you can’t really appreciate fully what it has to offer.» This article first appeared in K, Kathimerini’s color supplement, on July 30.