Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It’s Still Greek to Me (Though It’s Now Becoming a Little Clearer)

Despite attending a fancy private school – with commensurately fancy fees – Sophia cannot take both A-Level Greek and GCSE History this year due to scheduling problems. Since she has an inspiring history teacher and the Greek Department is not to write home about, we opted to pursue Greek lessons privately. She speaks Cypriot dialect fluently and is comfortable with spoken Greek, but her reading and writing are not as good as they should be.

I cast around for teachers and decided to try for Maria, my former teacher at InterLingua in Paphos. I had done three years of classes with her, and my Greek’s simple but not bad, and any foreigner who speaks decent Greek here in Paphos has been a student of hers at one time or another. She’s kind, experienced, and a wonderful teacher.

Maria agreed to take us on. Yes, ‘us’. I decided that since I had to fetch and carry Sophia, and wait around for her, and that my Greek could sure use some improvement, that I would go for lessons too. ‘I cannot teach the A-Level course’, she said. ‘I’ve never done that…’ But I was adamant that passing the exam was less important that attaining proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing, and I had the course materials and past papers to work with when we reached that stage, so we began classes on Saturday mornings using a textbook for foreign students that attend Thessaloniki University and need proficiency in Greek before attending their degree classes. Sophia found the review of the basics boring, I found it necessary, and we both found ourselves enjoying the experience – and learning from the varied reading and writing exercises that she gave us every week.

The experience was not to last. Family obligations meant that Maria had to give up our Saturdays, so I went in search of another teacher. I found her in a neighbouring village, Anarita. Yes, she had taught A-Level Greek before, yes, her Saturday mornings were free.

We went to our first lesson a fortnight ago, and I was dropped in the deep end. I could make neither head nor tail of the passage that she gave us to translate, only realising that it had to do with t.v viewing, and that the author had a poor opinion of mass media. Sophia fared better, but found the piece tough going. Later at home, I showed it to Phil, a good English speaker, and one well-used to reading and writing formal Greek.

‘But this is hard even for me!’ he said, helping me through words, phrases, and metaphors while I scribbled down verbs and vocabulary for later memorization.

In class the following week – the setting is one for a true cultural experience: the extended family residence in the heart of the village, granny dying her hair, grandpa whittling, mum cooking behind the curtain that delineats our classroom from the rest of the house – I mentioned that maybe we could start with something easier, and Kyriaki agreed that that might be a good idea ‘But this isn’t a difficult passage!’ she said. ‘You’ll find much harder translations on the real exam.’ She passed us photocopies of declension tables, and lists of verbs that are irregular in the past continuous.

What we’re encountering is the split between teaching for accurate communication, for knowledge, for enjoyment – and teaching for the passing of an exam. Maria, with her experience, is able to cover both. Kyriaki, barely into her twenties, I think will struggle as the education system here is not geared to flexibility: she knows how to teach A-Level Greek, but not ‘Advanced Communication’ in Greek.

We’ll see. Meanwhile, I am filling out my photocopies, learning to decline irregular neuter nouns, getting to grips with the past continuous – a tense that we use practically interchangeably with the simple past in English (as we use the future continuous and simple future). I am reading the Little’s anthologies and working through their textbooks trying to catch up with Sophia in grammar and vocabulary, and have started reading The Little Prince.

I do a lot of waiting around in the car for one child or another to do one class or another, and now, instead of Suduko, I do Greek homework. The other day Sophia spotted my pile of books on the back seat: a ring binder, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek, a fourth-grade textbook, our declension tables, an invaluable tome that I bought over a decade ago called Three-Hundred and Thirty Three Greek Verbs, and my Greek copy of St Exupery’s classic.

‘Mum,’ she said. ‘You really are a nerd, you know? But it’s ok. I still love you…’

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