“Me want now go yon church?”
“What name belongeth yon market?”
This is how I imagine what my Modern Greek sounds like: a combination of Shakespeare and Tarzan. You see, I’m bad at Greek. (It’s not all Greek to me, but a good portion of it is.) I can read some Biblical Greek (a simpler version of Ancient Greek a la Homer), but I know only a little Modern Greek—and it’s words with very little grammar. A foreigner from the 10th century.
Last weekend I got back from a trip to Greece. I went with my youngest daughter and my mother, so I was speaking mostly English. As the “language guy” of the family, and so the only one with a desire to speak Greek, all Greek-speaking responsibilities of the trip belonged to me. While those in tourism spoke pretty good English, many Greek people’s English was basic at best, so without Greek we were cut off from speaking substantively with many people.
Without a language to speak in a country, I feel a sense of homesickness, as if the foreign language is my native land. The space we connect in: that is my home.
It’s been a long time since I traveled somewhere where I was bad at the language. I went to Portugal last year, but I could speak Portuguese without much work, thanks to some Spanish and a lot of French background.
Before that, it was Latvia and Estonia in the summer of 1995. People there tended to speak Russian well—indeed, many people were ethnically Russian—so I didn’t feel hampered. In Tallinn, Estonia, I could say little more than “good morning,” “excuse me,” and the numbers 1-10, but I spoke a lot of Russian. (I also learned how to ask Estonians gently, “I’m sorry. Do you speak Russian?” While all spoke Russian, the recent fall of the USSR did not encourage them to continue speaking it.)
Upon sailing across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn, Estonia, to Helsinki, Finland, a strange depression hit. This was the most acute sense of “homesickness” I felt. Once I got to Finland, everyone spoke English very well, and I couldn’t say “Good morning” in Finnish. I felt claustrophobic, locked inside my mother tongue. I felt lonelier and more isolated than I had my entire trip.
In Greece last month, I had a similar feeling. On the one hand, I never felt such isolation as I did two decades ago; this time I was always with Mom and my daughter. On the other hand, I was sad by my inability to connect with those around me through language. I enjoyed talking to taxi drivers, restaurant cooks, salespeople, and tour guides. But we could never get through the shallow layers to something deeper.
My bad Greek got us started, at least. “You’re not Greek, are you?” more than one person asked, indicating that by attempting to speak and pronounce correctly I may be different from the average tourist. After that, though, the conversation switched to English. They spoke English for the sake of convenience, and I went with the language my family could follow in.
I felt the gap, even though so many people spoke English. If I had been alone in Greece, I may have insisted on continuing to push the envelope in Greek, even if the other person switched to English. I would have asked more questions about how to say “delicious” or “spoon” in Greek, for example. My impulse would have driven me to dignify their language and to enjoy speaking it as much as possible. Only after many weeks—if not months—would I have been able to carry on a decent conversation, but I would have gladly taken up the work of building up to it.
The ache to connect, to hear meaning in the language, to make myself understood in the language—these all drive me to continue to learn languages, in spite of sounding like Tarzan Shakespeare.