Books for learning Greek

Get Ur Greek On : A Week of Word Play Fun

I continue to work on levelling up my Greek lately. And as ever, it’s trusty old word play and linkword fun that help me get a grip on new vocab.

Thinking up creative ways to break down new words into familiar, memorable sounds can be a challenge. Story-based methods have always helped me, creating lots of funny hooks to grapple with. That said, a couple of them this week have really stretched the limits of my imagination…

Here are a few recent off-the-wall ‘scenettes’ I’ve come up with. I’d ask you kindly not to laugh, but actually, that’s the whole point!

(I’ve just noticed they all begin with α, too – a complete coincidence, as they’re just words related to whatever I was chatting with my iTalki tutor about!)

αποταμιεύω – to save (money)

apotamiévo

The story: I know a girl, Tammy. She hasn’t got much money. A poor Tammy, if you will. And that is why she has to save money! A-poor-Tammy + évo (a pretty common verb ending in Greek) = to save money.

αγκαλιάζω – to hug

angaliázo

Hugs are great, but they can be awkward. Sometimes, I’ll go in for a bearhug and we’ll meet at a really strange angle. Angle + ázo (another common ending!) = to hug.

αηδιάζω – to disgust

aidiázo

I’m actually very good friends with Cameron Diaz (honest – not). But once, she did this really horrible thing. Seriously, I was disgusted. I just screamed AYYYY Diaz, OH! so my feelings were pretty clear. Ay-Diaz-oh = to disgust.

Multi-language Word Play

All fun and games, for sure. And honestly, it can really help with vocab learning.

But if you study multiple languages, one concern might be that your stories get mixed up. When thinking of ‘to save money’ in French, for example (probably something like économiser), the a-poor-Tammy story looms large, and might threaten to blow you off course. In this case, just add an extra layer of storytelling: Tammy lives in Greece, of course. When picturing her, she’s looking forlornly across the bay, ruing her lack of dosh, from the caldera of Santorini.

Sorted!

In practical terms, imaginative techniques like these aren’t exactly a one-stop shop for fluency. The catch is that retrieval still isn’t instant, initially; you have to access those funny memories. What they are, though, is a first leg up to remembering a content word in the flow of conversation – a set of extra grabbers for your word-by-word lookup mental dictionary. It’s the actual use of those words in conversation that really starts to cement their foundations in long-term memory and begin to make them automatically available.

Note to my Greek teacher: when my attention wanders and I appear to be looking into space blankly, I’m thinking of Tammy. Don’t worry – I’ll be right back with you.

Alliteration - playing with matching sounds - can be a great memory help in language learning. Image from freeimages.com.

Alliteration Action : More Wordplay Fun for Vocab Learning

It’s been a week of language oddities again. Sifting through the little pile of dead hard to remember words, I’ve been on the lookout for more creative ways to make them stick. First there was rhyme. And now, here comes alliteration. Is there no end to this madness?

Madness it may be, but these tricks have been a valuable crutch in my recent language learning. Alliteration is a kind of rhyme in itself, of course, so it’s no wonder it has the same kind of mnemonic power.

Here are some of the more creative alliterative snippets and mnemonic buffoonery that have helped increase my polyglot memory stash this week!

Alliteration Avenue

First off, there’s a wee Greek word I was really struggling with. It’s εθισμός (ethismós – addiction) – and it’s just so similar to εθνικός (ethnikós – national), that the latter word was obscuring the new one.

What to do when two words are so easily mixed up? Smush them together in a single phrase! I’ve added the following to my increasingly whole-phrase decks on Anki:

ο εθνικός εθισμός
o ethnikós ethismós
the national addiction

The fact that this little chimeric snippet almost makes sense certainly helps. For instance, we could be talking about a TV programme, a sport, a celebrity power couple’s shenanigans – anything that grips a nation. And that e-e alliteration of the phrase adds a musicality, a hook, that makes both words easier to recall.

Now, if Greek is fertile ground for alliteration, then Swahili – which adds matching prefixes to words to make them agree with each other – is a cornucopia. You could say that it’s becoming my own addiction, in fact. So, struggling with -aminifu (honest) and maarufu (famous), I came up with:

mwanaume maarufu mwaminifu
an famous, honest man

Rolls beautifully off the tongue!

Morphological Madness

Wordplay offers some great roads into memory, and Swahili continues to provide the perfect playground. A little word that was causing me some bother lately was -lia (to cry, to weep). Since short words lack the tap-it-out-in-time rhythm of longer vocab items, they can have memorising disadvantages of their own. Swahili in particular seems to have these in abundance too, at least in its native Bantu vocab layer.

Key to banishing the fear with -lia was to learn the item morphologically padded out to give it some weight. I added it to the list as a conjugated example:

nililia
I wept

That includes not just the melodic l-l alliteration, but there’s also some nice linkword potential there. I wept enough tears to create the Nile. Dramatic. But unforgettable!

Similar Street

Finally, there is a tricky bunch of Polish words that has proven resistant to remembrance. The frightful four are:

grzebień (comb)
jesień (autumn)
kieszeń (pocket)
wrzesień (September)

No alliteration here, but we’re back to a bit of rhyming in -eń. Again, with a little creative jiggling, you can make some fun mnemonic sentences that put flesh on the bones: 

Wrzesień jest jesienią, i mam grzebień w kieszeni.
September is in Autumn, and I have a comb in (my) pocket.

Granted, that’s not quite as musical a my Greek and Swahili efforts. Polish nouns change so much according to case and number that it’s quite difficult (as a non-native!) to get them into a sentence where they still rhyme.

That said, it’s the process that helped here. Just thinking for a couple of minutes about how to squeeze those words into a single sentence has helped lodge them a little more in my memory.

One last note on that Polish quad set. Sometimes a bit of historical linguistics and etymological digging can assist, too. Namely, grzebień is actually cognate with the English word ‘grab’, via the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰrebʰ-, which may have meant something like ‘to scratch’. Probably not what you want your comb to do to your head, but you can see the connection!

I go full-on geek with wordplay and sound effects when it comes to vocab. But it’s an effective and fun way to work with the most stubborn rascals!

Let's dally in the valley: rhyme can be a great aide memoire. Picture from freeimages.com.

A Rhyme to Remember : Wordplay Vocab Fun

I was really struggling to learn a new word lately. It was κοιλάδα (kiládha), or valley, in Greek. Nothing would make it stick. That is, until I realised the power of rhyme.

The word  has an obvious and natural rhyme in Greek: a much more foundational, essential word, namely Ελλάδα (Elládha), meaning Greece. Suddenly, I had a way to anchor the new word to the existing one in memory:

η κοιλάδα στην Ελλάδα
i kiládha stin Elládha
the valley in Greece

It creates such a musical phrase, and one that is so easy to picture in the mind, that suddenly, remembering it is no longer a bane. Finally, it stuck!

Rhyme is a brilliant aide memoire for words that stubbornly refuse to settle in your mental lexicon. Like other techniques such as rhythm, rhyming enlists sound effects and wordplay to add a memorable dimension to learning material.

So why is it so effective?

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyming is a triple whammy when it comes to language learning. First of all, the creation of a rhyme anchors one new word to another existing one, neural-networking on what you already know. But it also creates a story, a vivid mental picture that helps with recall (much like a beefed-up version of the Linkword system). That valley in Greece of mine is a really nice tableau to bolster the words with a visual cue.

But even more powerfully, rhyme circumvents the ‘words in isolation’ problem of learning new vocabulary. Instead of a lone word, we have added value in the grammatical context of the rhyming snippet, even if that is simply the odd article or conjunction as above. Every little helps. 

Like Lego, rhymes are extendable, too. You can expand the lexical scene by tagging on more and more rhyming words, with your memory the only limit. Another difficult-to-remember word for me in Greek, for example, is χιονοστιβάδα (chionostivádha), meaning avalanche. As another -άδα (-ádha) word, I can simply build it into my little poem:

η χιονοστιβάδα στην κοιλάδα στην ελλάδα
i chionostivádha stin kiládha stin elládha
the avalanche in the valley in Greece

Read phrases like this out loud, and the rhythmic dimension also becomes very clear – yet another support to bolster the memory.

Rhyming Grammar

In fact, learning whole snippets of language in rhyming couplets, rather than individual words, can support grammar acquisition. The following German pair serves as a great example of the dative case with feminine singular nouns:

  • an der Wand (on the wall)
  • in der Hand (in the hand)

You can build rhythmic rhymes like this into more extensive ‘mini poems’ to contain a range of vocab and grammar points. This can be a lot of fun: teaching German, I regularly worked the rhyming game into my lessons. In advance, I would put together a daft bit of verse containing the central words and structures for the current topic. Nothing too extensive – just a few lines of rhyming couplets. Perhaps something like this:

Ich habe einen grünen Hund, er ist ziemlich klug,
Er spricht mit Katzen jeden Tag, und fährt dann mit dem Zug.
I have a green dog, he’s pretty clever,
He talks to cats every day, and then takes the train.

Admittedly, that is a pretty nonsensical scene. And you have to think a little creatively to make this stuff scan! But it is worth the effort: in there, we have some animal vocab, a transport word, and a host of important grammatical points: adjective endings, verb conjugations and so on. Two lines, but packed with handy language learning gems.

These poetical delights would be on the whiteboard when my students entered the room. As the lesson kicked off, we would read through the lines together. Then, I would rub out a few random words, and we read again, reciting the missing words from memory. The process would repeat – rubbing out, reading, rubbing out, reading –  until nothing would be left on the board.

But – as if by magic! – the students could now recite the whole thing. At the end of the lesson, I would ask them to try again from memory once again, and, to their surprise, they could reproduce the whole thing. What a great confidence boost for kids who so often doubted their language learning abilities.

A Rhyme-Honoured Tradition

The power of rhyme is hardly a secret – it is a famously great technique for aiding memory. We have myriad oral traditions of epic poetry to prove the point. For millennia, stories have been passed from generation to generation through memorised verse; ancient texts such as Beowulf may have literary lives stretching back long before they were ever written down.

But you don’t need to be a literary genius to benefit personally – just a handful of words will suffice for some verse. And let’s face it: as beginners, we only have a handful of words to play with. But that makes more a greater creative challenge, right? 

And for when words fail, you can turn to online, multilingual rhyming dictionaries like the following:

The wordplays needn’t stop at rhyme, either. You can play around with other techniques, such as alliteration, to create more memorable vocabulary notes. Duolingo has recently introduced the phrase deiseil agus deònach (ready and willing) into its Gaelic course, for example. Doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?

Rhyme Stone Cowboy

So, a little rogue rhyming can go a long way to making tricky vocab stick. Next time you feel the uphill struggle, maybe try going for a ride in the kiládha stin Elládha