Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Your Greek Learning Library – for Just Over a Fiver!

If you walk into any high street bookshop, language learning can seem like an expensive business. Brand new, shiny textbooks are a not inconsiderable purchase for many, requiring careful deliberation. Modern Greek is no exception. A glance at off-the-shelf prices for some popular titles includes an eye-watering £34.99 (TY Complete Greek) and £42.99 (Colloquial Greek).

But brand new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

You might have followed my recent efforts to recreate the bookshop shelves of my youth. Buying (and in some cases, buying back) those old language learning titles made me realise something: there are some fantastic, used language learning books out there. Some are out-of-print; some of them are simply earlier versions of the same, expensive, new resources. True, a few references and social contexts might have been updated. But chapter for chapter, they’re often almost exactly the same.

And the best thing? They’re all cheap as chips.

Greek on the Cheap

So which three used book treasures should be at the top of your Greek learning list? There are quite a few to choose from, but here are some tried-and-tested favourites to set you on your way. They’re titles I’ve used – and am using – myself, and they’re all extremely effective in different ways.

At the time of writing, all of them were available for £2-4, including postage, on eBay.

COLLOQUIAL GREEK (N.WATTS)

Routledge Colloquial, the mainstay of many a serious language learner, still feature this excellent title by Niki Watts. However, the 1990s edition of the book, available for a snip at eBay, is just as solid a resource as the current print. What’s more, the dialogue audio is available for free on the Routledge website – and many of the dialogues are identical between the editions. Even where things differ, that’s a good opportunity for you to use your nascent Greek powers to make sense of it all on the fly!

TEACH YOURSELF Modern GREEK (S.A.SOFRONIOU)

The old version of Teach Yourself Greek saw reprints well into the 1980s, and is a traditional language manual with a much more old-fashioned, grammar-based approach than Colloquial Greek. However, that step-by-step route is methodically perfect for building up a sound knowledge of morphology and syntax, helped by the fact that the book is arranged into short, easily digestible chapters. Use it side by side with a more modern, communicative course book, and you’re hitting the language from all sides. I know iTalki teachers who still swear by this book!

Hugo’s GREEK IN THREE MONTHS (Z.Tofallis)

Like the Colloquial and Teach Yourself titles, there are alternative incarnations of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months. I recommend the older version for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the second edition was completely rewritten by Niki Watts, author of the Colloquial title, and it’s nice to have a variety of different educators on your bookshelf. Secondly, that older title is a little gem, containing some lovely list sections on colloquial and idiomatic Greek, and a unique taster of modern Greek literature in the appendices.

Brushing up old books – quick tips

Here’s the rub: shiny, new books can be attractive for that very reason. There’s nothing quite like getting an untouched, pristine copy of a language learning book in your hands. Used book are just that, and when they drop onto your doormat, they sometimes turn out to be quite obviously so.

But don’t let it put you off! It’s quite easy and inexpensive to spruce up tatty old books. As a self-confessed germaphobe and long-time OCDer, there are some techniques that clean and sanitise enough to satisfy even me (and I’m a right fusspot). There’s enough material there for a whole article, and I’ll most likely write one soon, but in the meantime, here are some quick tips:

  • use surgical spirit (rubbing alcohol) and a soft cloth to gently buff glossy book covers – this brings a real shine back to them, and the alcohol both evaporates quickly (not saturating the book) and has antibacterial properties
  • moisten cotton buds to tease out dog-eared pages gently, rather than ripping / breaking delicate damaged paper with your fingers
  • carefully sand the page edges of books with a nail file to lighten yellowing and remove small marks like foxing
  • leave books to flatten between boards topped with heavy items (like other books!)
  • deal with any ‘old book’ odour by leaving the book in a plastic bag with a spoon of bicarbonate of soda for a week or two (or longer)
  • invest in some plastic dust jackets to cover your books in – after you’ve given them a loving makeover, these will protect them for even longer!

There’s a real Zen about giving old books some TLC in this way. It’s both very chilled and extremely satisfying – especially when you marvel proudly at your learning stash, realising that you saved yourself pounds and pounds in the process.

A memory knot tied to a finger (image from freeimages.com). Greek passive verbs like 'remember' can be tricky to conjugate.

Greek passive verbs in the past – quick tricks

I’m all for pattern-spotting and quick heuristics for faster fluency. If something will help me communicate faster, it’s a win in my book.

That’s why I was recently chuffed to add a special new trick to my Greek arsenal. Specifically, it relates to the past tense of passive verbs. Well, I say passive, but many Greek passives correspond to active forms in English, and are quite high frequency:

θυμάμαι thimáme I remember
κοιμάμαι kimáme I sleep
φοβάμαι fováme I fear

Passive Knowledge

Passive conjugation is very different from the active in Greek. You usually come across it quite late in Modern Greek textbooks, too, so it can be an issue for many beginner to intermediate students.

Thankfully, there’s a shortcut that works for many of them. Namely, -άμαι (-áme) often becomes -ήθηκα (-íthika) in the first person past tense. Strictly speaking, that past is actually the aorist, the tense that expresses a single, completed action in the past. So we have:

θυμήθηκα thimíthika I remembered
κοιμήθηκα kimíthika I slept
φοβήθηκα fovíkthika I feared

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. But that -ηκα (-ika) fragment appears almost everywhere in other passive conjugations, like a variation on a theme. With a few extra rules, like -ζομαι > -στηκα (-zome > –stika) and -εύομαι > -έυτικα (-évomai > –éftika), you can cover even more:

ονειρεύομαι onirévome I dream ονειρεύτηκα oniréftika I dreamt
εργάζομαι ergázome I work εργάστηκα ergástika I worked

Once you have those active rules down, it’s pretty easy to extend it to other common conversational forms like ‘you …’ – for that, simply replace -a with -es:

θυμήθηκες thimíthikes you remembered
εργάστηκες ergástikes you worked
κοιμήθηκες kimíthikes you slept

As a rule of thumb, it works quite well for speeding up conversation forms. And of course, if you misapply it, or use it on a verb that doesn’t fit the pattern, the person-and-tense markers of -ηκα/-ηκες are strong enough that (hopefully) you’ll still be understood. There’s no shame in mistakes when you’re learning – especially if they don’t get in the way of communication!

I’m a big fan of learning frequent forms over whole verb tables generally – it’s a trick that just works. Hopefully, with this handful of –ηκα and –ηκες, you’ll be set to speed up your own Greek conversations too!

A pile of second-hand language books, mostly 1980s Teach Yourself titles.

Second-hand Language Books : Practical Treasures For A Pittance

Brand-new learning resources can cost a fortune these days. But there’s another, cheaper and more nostalgia-piquing way: second-hand language books from the 80s. After all, aren’t the 80s cool again now?

My most recent time trip started a couple of weeks ago, reminiscing with my parents. The conversation wandered to G.W.Hurley’s, a little local bookshop and newsagent in Burnham-on-Sea, nestled in the High Street and still going after 100 years in business. As a youngster, I spent a lot of time in Burnham on family seaside holidays, and I credit my first fascination with languages to that very shop.

Budding Linguist’s Aladdin’s Cave

In G.W.Hurley’s, my nan and uncle would unleash young Rich, not yet in secondary school, for many happy hours. It was like an Aladdin’s cave for a curious mind. There, in the tiny language section – maybe two shelves at most – were these pocket-sized, blue-covered Teach Yourself books that offered windows into other worlds. Other 80s kids will know what I’m talking about – those uniform covers that bound those contemporary TY editions series together. French, German, Spanish, and more… All the subjects I’d heard the big kids studied when they went to secondary school.

Well, sifting through those happy browsing memories got me digging through some old storage boxes in the present day. I knew I still had at least a couple of those cerulean gems lying around. Sure enough, after some rummaging, Teach Yourself Finnish and Teach Yourself Maltese saw the light of day again, pristine and proudly cared for, but forgotten for some years. I’d had others formerly, too, since either passed on to friends or family, or donated to charity shops. But I had a thought:

How cool would it be to recreate a bit of those 80s language bookshelf feels?

Second-hand Language Books, 3, 2… 1!

First, I set to looking in the most obvious place: the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh. The city is a goldmine for used books, and it seemed rude not to take advantage. Sure enough, the search threw up plenty of the bonnie blue paperbacks, some more elusive than others. You’ll not struggle to source the cyan volumes of Teach Yourself French, German, Italian or Spanish at all. It’s quirkier titles like Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat (which isn’t even really a thing any more…) and Teach Yourself Swahili that are trickier (and more expensive) to hunt down.

So, onto wider territory, and Amazon Marketplace, eBay and AbeBooks. I couldn’t believe my luck: the sites are replete with second-hand language books from multiple bulk sellers, many with free postage. And, even better:

Many are available, in great condition, for less than a couple of pounds each!

Needless to say, I started racking them up. I began with some of the familiar titles, including those I’d given away years ago. Teach Yourself Everyday Spanish, Teach Yourself Italian, Teach Yourself Modern Greek. But then, as I searched, I started coming across other lovely, nostalgic gems that I used to have and love: the Hugo In Three Months books, the old Routledge Colloquial books with the white covers, the Cassell’s Colloquial handbooks. I started adding in languages that I never studied, or want to study in the future, or have just a passing interest in. In other words, I found myself recreating the whole bookshop! And friends, it is becoming addictive. Somewhere in the process I seem to have become a book collector.

Four 1980s editions of Teach Yourself language books.

Into the blue…

Practically Speaking

In any case, as they arrived, and I excitedly leafed through them, I realised what gems they all are, especially considering the minuscule price. It turns out that the timeframe that I chose for purely nostalgic reasons – the Eighties – is a lucky pick. Older than that, and courses can be a bit too chalk ‘n’ talk for many. In other words, the style is that classical, old-fashioned, rigid presentation-plus-reproduction model. Now, I don’t mind this at all myself – in fact, I learnt a whole load of Polish that way – but it doesn’t always foster the most practical, real-world skills!

On the other hand, in the 80s, we see the focus in language learning beginning to shift to a more communicative approach. In response, TY had already started to rewrite whole sections of their language catalogue. We begin to see printed dialogues, for a start, with a focus on colloquial language. And that is generally much better suited to today’s polyglot goals. The second-hand language books of my childhood era started to treat language as a living, dynamic thing, rather that very meta way of the past of knowing about a language.

A page from the 1980s edition of Teach Yourself Italian.

No longer all chalk ‘n’ talk – the 1980s swing towards communicative language learning is reflected in more colloquial dialogues like this one in Teach Yourself Italian (1985).

It’s also interesting what was included in earlier volumes but dropped in rewrites. Hugo’s Greek in Three Months from the early 80s, for example, has an incredibly useful section on Greek idioms and common turns of phrase. I’ve never seen anything like it in later manuals, and it’s already proving handy in my iTalki conversation lessons.

A page from the 1980s edition of "Hugo's Greek in Three Months", entitled "Idiomatic Expressions".

The brilliantly useful ‘Idiomatic Expressions’ section of the early 80s “Hugo’s Greek in Three Months”.

Lastly (and leastly…) some of those little blue beauties are gorgeously pocket-sized paperbacks. While they won’t quite fit into the average pocket, they do seem to be generally more compact and portable than modern tomes. They’re ideal for stashing in a bag for trips and reading on the move.

All that, and for less than two quid a pop. Language learning on a budget!

All Paths Lead to Rome (and Madrid, and Berlin, and…)

In short, a nostalgia trip led me to rediscover some truly useful resources hiding in the past. First and foremost, these titles were personally meaningful, even beautiful, for the thoughts and feelings they stir up. But for pedagogically sound materials at an amazingly low price, you could do a lot worse than go hunting in the 80s. Those windows onto target languages and cultures may have dated a little, but the learning is sound.

I have more on the way… and browsing for them has become my latest linguistic compulsion!

Second hand language books.

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Rules Rule! Understanding Adjective Pairs

Finding fluency in a foreign language is often a question of spotting heuristics – patterns, tricks and rules of thumb that help map out the shape of the language in your mind. They can help you mark the boundaries that most often lead to mix-ups and common ‘gotcha’ errors as a non-native speaker. Recently, I spied one of these in Greek, and it’s already helping me to avoid errors.

The tricky feature in question is the existence of Greek adjectives derived from the same root, but with subtly different meanings. They come in pairs ending in -ικός and -μένος, and you can get a feel for the pattern in the following examples:

κουραστικός tiring κουρασμένος tired
αγχωτικός stressful αγχωμένος stressed
ενοχλητικός annoying ενοχλημένος annoyed

For a while, I would tend to unthinkingly say one when I meant the other. It led to some classic Greek comedy moments: “I’m annoying” instead of “I’m annoyed” and such like!

Greek Columns

But by taking a moment to analyse how meaning matches up with form in those two columns, the rule bubbles to the surface. Grammatically speaking, the second of each pair here are passive past participles. They express the state a person is in when X has been done to them. In these cases, that equates to made tired, made anxious, made annoyed. Now, more often than not, these marry up with past participles in English (like tired or annoyed). In Greek, it’s -μένος that indicates that in the adjectival form.

By contrast, the first column adjectives relate more to the inherent properties of the person, thing or situation. That is, the potential effect on something else – the ability to cause to be tired, anxious or annoyed. English tends to form these in a variety of ways: present participles of active verbs like tiring or annoying, suffix formations like stressful, or often, clumsier adjectival / participial phrases like anxiety-inducing. However, in Greek, you’ll often get a simple -ικός, turning an active verbal root into an adjective.

So, it all boils down to one easy rule in Greek. Talking about how it caused you to feel? Then it’s -μένος. Talking about what it does to you? Then it will be the –ικός part of the equation.

It’s a neat example, and a good illustration of how taking the time to pattern-spot can sort out some real zingers in your language learning head. Of course, we all do this automatically and below the level of our awareness most of the time. But with those sticky mistakes, it never hurts to join up the dots out loud!

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Readers for Impatient Story Lovers

If you go as giddy for language books as I do, then you too probably came over all a-flutter at the release of the Teach Yourself / Olly Richards range of easy readers. They come in an exciting range of languages, covering not only the biggies like French, German and Spanish, but also some less well served languages like Icelandic and Turkish. Irish and Japanese are just around the corner, too.

To the frustration of Modern Greek learners, though, there’s still no title στα ελληνικά. The need for graded Greek learning material urged me to cast the net a bit wider, and happily, I found some excellent alternatives to curb my impatience.

Here are three favourites I’m getting a lot of use from in recent studies.

THE ROUTLEDGE MODERN GREEK READER

As a language buff, I thought I’d mined all that Routledge had to offer. I’m not sure how I missed this little gem, then, sitting outside of its better-known ranges like Colloquial and Essential Grammars

The book consists of 25 very short stories adapted from popular folk tales. In fact, the compendium was pulled together by a dedicated folklorist, Maria Kaliambou, lending a real sense of authenticity to the collection. Alongside each tale, there’s a Greek-English glossary, as well as a set of graded comprehension questions – just like the Teach Yourself stories range.

The cover of Routledge's Greek Reader.

The Routledge Modern Greek Reader is pricey – certainly more than the tenner the Olly Richards story books will cost you. But there’s little else like it with such great support for foreign language learners right now. Definitely recommended for moving your Greek up a notch!

From the Greek Web

Like in Iceland, many prescribed texts for schools are freely available on the Greek interwebs. If you have the patience to drill down the links at Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο, you can find Greek e-books on all kinds of subjects. Likewise, ebooks.edu.gr and openbook.gr are worth a look. There are two resources in particular that fill that Short Stories in … slot nicely.

ΚΕΊΜΕΝΑ ΓΙΑ ΝΈΟΥΣ ΣΕ ΑΠΛΆ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΆ

Texts for Young People in Simple Greek

My favourite by far is actually a set of books aimed at young overseas and non-native speaker students from 11-15. Despite the target audience, the stories are fairly fun and engaging, and draw from a range of social topics that make good class discussion material. There’s also a good mix of dialogue and prose, across both colloquial and written styles.

 

ΑΝΘΟΛΌΓΙΟ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΚΏΝ ΚΕΙΜΈΝΩΝ

Anthology of Literary Texts

Despite the haughty name, Ανθολόγιο λογοτεχνικών κειμένων is a collection of abridged, lively snapshots from Modern Greek literature intended for native speaker schoolchildren. With both poetry and prose, it’s not only a bite-sized way to get more Greek reading in, but also an introduction to authors, styles and themes in contemporary Greece.

Both this and the previous resource are aimed squarely at schools in Greece, so there is no English vocabulary support, unlike the Routledge volume. That said, they make for pretty good TL-rich immersion!

And of course…

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Harry Potter. If you can get hold of them, an honourable mention has to go to the J.K.Rowling series in Greek translation. They’re par for the course in polyglot circles, and if you know the originals, you’ll have a helping hand. I’m currently slaving my way through the third book myself.

So there you have it: three alternatives in the absence of a Short Stories in Greek. Of course, if Teach Yourself happen to be reading this: please give us a Greek version soon!

Have you come across any other easy reader gems in Greek? Let us know in the comments!

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Wiktionary Trails : Tracing Cognates

One of the greatest things about Wiktionary, the crowd-sourced, multilingual lexicon, is the wealth of etymological information included in its entries. If you’ve ever wondered where does that word come from? then Wiktionary is a good place to start.

I’m a fiend for digging into my vocab’s provenance. It’s a natural curiosity and desire to join the dots up. Once I start pondering on a word, I have to follow it right down the rabbit hole.

Let’s play Wiktionary

This week, it was the Greek παίζω (paízo – I play) that I randomly chanced to cogitate upon. If you have a bit of Greek yourself, you might well recognise the connection with παιδί (paidhí – child). That’s a self-explanatory etymology, since playing is something children are especially fond of. And from παιδί, you can see a host of other connections thanks to Greek’s generous donations of words to science and medicine: paediatrics, pedagogy and so on. 

What I didn’t know was how much deeper the interlanguage connections of παιδί go. At first glance, paidí (paidí) doesn’t look much like other Indo-European words for child, save perhaps the Irish páiste, which may itself be a borrowing from Greek via Latin. I’d assumed it might be a loanword from a neighbouring, non-Indo-European language. But the truth lies closer to home; the Wiktionary entry throws light on some hidden family resemblances.

Setting off on a Wiktionary track and trace, it turns out that παιδί goes back to a diminutive form of Ancient Greek παῖς (pais – child). That, in turn, has been traced back to a reconstructed Indo-European form *peh2w-, denoting smallness or few in number. The Greek, then, seems ultimately to have arisen from the notion of a small person.

The relevance of that might not ring any bells. That is, until you check out the Wiktionary page and peruse the raft of guises this root has been cast to across other languages. These are just a few:

  • Latin: puer (boy), puella (girl); paucus (few)
  • Spanish: poco (few)
  • Italian: pocco (few)
  • Norwegian: fá (few)
  • English: few
  • Russian: пти́ца (ptíca – bird)
  • Polish: ptak (bird)

It’s the idea of smallness that links all these. Suddenly, παιδί (paidí) doesn’t seem such an outlier after all.

Wherever the trail may lead…

You might wonder what all the point of this meandering is, of course. Well, I find it helps to create a bird’s eye view of related languages you study, especially if you’re a regular dabbler. If you know the wider terrain, and make connections between linguistic territories, there are more connections for your brain to secure those words and phrases in memory.

And that can only be a good thing!

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.

Repeated colours - repetition in resources like Glossika can be key to securing fluency. Image from freeimages.com

Getting Repetitive : Securing Foundations with Glossika

I’ve reached a milestone on one of my favourite platforms this week – 8,000 Greek repetitions on Glossika.

8,000 is a weird number to celebrate, I hear you say. Well, yes – I was going to wait until the magic 10,000 to sound the klaxon. But it’s still a nice round number, after all.

And the truth is, I’ve started to see huge benefits even before hitting five figures.

Greek has been my great lockdown revival project. I spent some time learning it in my twenties for travel, but had more or less left it to go stale since then. The decision to use Glossika to revive it was partly one of curiosity, having read the success stories online (admittedly on Glossika’s marketing site!) and dabbled with it a fair bit in the past. But I’d also hit upon the benefits of mass sentence techniques independently, and wanted to try an out of the box technique just for the convenience of a quick start.

A Do-Over From the Ground Up

The thing is, the starter material is actually quite low-level stuff. Many of the A1 and A2 sentences are pretty basic in terms of grammatical complexity and vocabulary. What’s more, this set of basic material is recycled over and over again in sets of sentences that often differ very little from each other. 

But it’s exactly that ground-floor, base-level language that makes up the bulk of everyday speech. Practising this core material so intensively creates a super solid foundation for conversational fluency.

And the effect is really quite astonishing.

Just a year of Greek, and my conversational fluency has surpassed my Polish, which doggedly remains around A2 (B1 if I really try hard – let’s call it B0.5!). My Greek accent and prosody feel quite natural; I’ve developed a Greek voice. And it’s not because Glossika has taught me a raft of complicated grammar and vocabulary. It’s because it has titanium-plated my basic foundations in the language.

In short, I feel comfortable with Greek now.

An Additional Tool

Glossika isn’t a perfect or a totally self-contained system, of course (what is?). For one thing, I wouldn’t recommend it as the sole learning route for a total beginner. I’ve tried it – I felt totally lost. Before starting Swahili last year, I attempted to work through the first set of sentences in Glossika’s A1 course. Without a bit of pre-existing grammar knowledge and general language structure, I found the forms completely confusing. I had more questions than answers.

On the other hand, if you are a returner learner, or already have the basics – even if that’s simply some A1 words and phrases – Glossika’s mass sentence drilling can give your language skills a fuel injection.

As for me, I’m at 8,000 and counting. My next step is to introduce it into my other languages, particularly Polish, which is my lifelong challenge (and frequent nemesis!). It’s about time I gave that a leg-up!

Glossika is a premium product with a price to match, but can prove its worth many times over with a bit of commitment.

Glossika : The Mass Sentence Drill Machine

A colourful disco. Expressing what goes on at the disco is made all the easier by aspect. Image from freeimages.com

A Handy Aspect : Expressing Continuity and Completeness the Neat Way

I’ve been doubling down on Greek and Polish lately. And it struck me that they have similar tactics for expressing something we might not be overtly familiar with in English: aspect.

Aspect refers to how an action plays out over time. Typically, that includes notions of whether it was continuous, or complete / finished (telic). In grammatical terms, the opposition is between imperfective (the ongoing sort of action) and perfective (the completed one). It’s something we express in English, but typically we employ a bunch of strategies (and often several words) for it:

  • I was eating (continuous, no end point)
  • You have eaten (a complete action – the eating started and finished)
  • She ate it up (ie., she ate all of it – it’s gone now!)

So far so good; it’s nothing we’re not used to. After all, English does like its wordy, compound verb constructions.

An Intriguing Aspect

On the other hand, Greek and Polish – two languages you might not normally lump together – actually deal with this type of accent extremely similarly and succinctly. Firstly, Polish (and other Slavic) verbs come in aspectual pairs, each one expressing one end of that continuous-complete continuum:

  • 🇵🇱 robić (to do – imperfective, continuous, repeated, habitual etc.)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobić (to do – perfective, completed action, started-then-finished etc.)

Likewise, Greek has a system of alternating verb roots to express the same:

  • 🇬🇷 γράγω (ghráfo, write – root stem, used for imperfective forms)
  • 🇬🇷 γράψω (ghrápso, write – dependent stem, used for perfective forms)

As unfamiliar as the system of aspect-within-the-verb can seem at first, when you get used to it, it turns out to be a very economical and elegant way to narrate action. Just a tiny tweak alters the framing of your story:

  • 🇬🇷 έγραφα ένα γράμμα (éghrafa éna ghrámma: I was writing a letter – and it wasn’t finished before whatever happened next happened!)
  • 🇬🇷 έγραψα ένα γράμμα (éghrapsa éna ghrámma: I wrote, and finished, a letter)
  • 🇵🇱 robiłem moje zdanie domowe (I was doing my homework – but didn’t necessarily complete it)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobiłem moje zdanie domowe (I did my homework – and it’s complete!)

Neat, right?

Aspectual Automation

When first getting to grips with aspect in a new language that makes it explicit, you have to do a quick ‘mental check’ before you narrate events. What happened? Did it finish? Did it carry on? Was it interrupted? It’s the kind of thing that native speakers do intuitively. But, after a while, you start to do that aspect calculation automatically, too.

Luckily, if you also study Romance languages, you have a head start. In Spanish, for example, the difference between the imperfect and the preterite is one of aspect:

  • 🇪🇸 escribía una carta (I was writing a letter)
  • 🇪🇸 escribí una carta (I wrote a letter)

But it’s the Germanic languages, like English, which have tended to lose their in-verb markers of aspect. English has ended up with just two synthetic (inflected, single word) tenses, present and past; for all the other fancy, nuanced stuff, we need to fall back on our bunch of words techniques.

Aspect can be a tricky thing to get your head round if you haven’t grown up with the concept overtly in your first language. But it’s a fun feature to master, especially for telling stories in your target language(s)!

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