Learning Greek in Cyprus can be tricky, especially for people who are not in daily contact with the language through family relations, work, or social life. Indeed, one of the most common comments that I hear from my students is how little contact they have with the language outside the classroom. Although not peculiar to Cyprus, the issue is more exacerbated here, compared to other countries, since apart from the omnipresent reluctance of language learners to start speaking the language they are learning lest they make “a fool of themselves”, in Cyprus there is the additional obstacle of almost all locals wanting to show off their English. And while that works for most cases, the same cannot be said for all cases. So, how could we go about overcoming these obstacles in practicing outside the classroom what we learn in the classroom, or even better, enhance our knowledge of the language by learning things that we wouldn’t normally learn in class?
To start with, I think that it is really important to read signs, leaflets, or anything that comes our way which doesn’t seem too daunting. Walking through the city and forcing oneself to look repeatedly at shop-signs means that when we come to the point of having to learn what is there in the city in terms of shops, we will already know the vocabulary and we can concentrate on other aspects of the lessons. This also applies to shopping for food, clothes, shoes etc.; if we were to make our shopping lists in Greek by looking the terms up in an online dictionary (it shouldn’t take us more than 5 minutes), we would be in a position to do it automatically after a month or two. So, “reading signs, reading leaflets, doing shopping lists, what else?” one might wonder. “This does not give me any actual verbal practice with the language”. Granted, but it does make it easier for you and for your potential interlocutors to engage in some form of speaking since you will already have some vocabulary under your belt.
Now, let us move to the actual speaking part. Why do most native speakers often switch onto English after some time (ranging between 3 seconds and 5 minutes depending both on the Cypriots’ perceived level of competence in English and our actual level of competence in Greek)? Apart from the aforementioned alacrity of Cypriots to show off their English, there is also the issue of our own speed of communication in Greek. So, if we speak relatively quickly, we are more likely to get them to speak back to us in Greek whereas if we speak really slowly then they immediately switch onto English. It is important to note here that people who speak fast, albeit with mistakes, manage to engage in dialogues with locals a lot more than those who speak absolutely correctly but slowly. Discussing this with a friend who was learning Greek in Nicosia and had few opportunities to practice, he asked me, “so, how can we speak quickly without adequate practice?” This is indeed a valid predicament, and what I tell my students, generally, is to learn some stock phrases by heart; phrases like “next week” (την άλλη εβδομάδα), “next weekend” (το άλλο / επόμενο σαββατοκύριακο), “this Thursday” (αυτή την Πέμπτη), “last year” (Πέρσι) need to become automatic, so that we have more time to think about adjusting our verbs in terms of tense and person. Phrases like “I do not mind” (Δεν με πειράζει), “it does not matter” (Δεν πειράζει), “why not” (Γιατί όχι), “in other words” (Δηλαδή) ease the conversation and inject an easier and more casual flow into it. Additionally, we can improve our conversational skills by having imaginary dialogues (our imaginary friends, unlike our local friends, speak to us in Greek). Imaginary dialogues are a great vehicle to language learning since it is there and then that we spot what we do not know (words, phrases, grammar) giving ourselves the chance to look things up when we have the time to do so.
My last suggestion has to do with finding a couple of people who speak only Greek (grocer, colleague, gardener, in-laws) and really investing time in speaking to them. Not having the option of switching onto English really forces us to speak whatever we know and, unfailingly, to learn from such exchanges. And remember that every time we walk away after a brief exchange in the language we are learning where we did not have to fall back onto the comfort of our own native language, we are left with a feeling of euphoria that we have managed something. And it is bit by bit that we enhance our confidence. And when we are more confident, we are also more likely to say to those stubborn locals: “Please speak to me in Greek” (Μιλάτε μου στα ελληνικά, παρακαλώ); and we might be lucky not to hear “ok, no problem”.