Learning Greek, Part 1: alphabet and apps for that

So, I’ve starting learning Greek.

Why? How? Well…

aka Santorini

In September 2014, I was due to go to Athens for the ELF7 conference. I decided to arrive a few days early so I could take in the city’s many historic & cultural sights, and I also planned a week’s holiday after the conference so I could visit the Cycladic islands.

All in all, I was super excited to be going on this trip and to top it all off, I was really keen to dabble in a new language. I’d previously learned a very little bit of Russian but otherwise had never learnt to read another script, and other than a vague intuitive sense of some English words with Greek origins, I didn’t know anything about the language.

A Greek friend of mine (γεια σου Σωτηρία!) started me off before my trip with the alphabet, numbers up to 10 and some useful phrases. She explained the meanings, helped me with the pronunciation and warned me of any potential mistakes or easily confused words/concepts (e.g. there’s more than one way to say the numbers 7 and 9). After that, I was on my own…

The trouble is, learning on your own is pretty hard to keep up. There’s plenty of research to suggest that I’m not the only one who finds this to be so, but not as much advice on how to avoid it. My intrinsic motivation has led to the discovery of the apps I’m sharing in this post, but not much further. In the hope of creating some extrinsic motivation (if peer pressure counts) to continue dedicating a bit of time every week to studying the language, I’ve optimistically titled this post “part 1″…

Why use technology to help me study?

Normally, I’m content with any tool, techie or otherwise, as long as it helps. In this case, tech was especially helpful because I was travelling to the country where I was going to be immersed in the language, and I couldn’t really take lots of little bits of paper with me to spread out and move around. (And I do so love to study this way – witness the Post-it-mania in this post.)

More recently, I’ve started working in Cambridge, but as I’m still living in London, I’m doing a lot of travelling every day. Again, I can’t exactly spread out with all my flashcards and stuff on a train… so my phone and tablet have been invaluable. (As a matter of fact, I’m even typing this on my iPad during my commute!)

So what tools have I been using?

1. Greek keyboards

In order to use the apps I mention below, I first needed to be able to type Greek letters.

To type in different alphabets on a computer, there’s a great website you can use. Here’s the Greek keyboard (and other languages, plus the IPA, are also available in a menu on the left): http://greek.typeit.org

On an iPhone/iPad, you have to add a keyboard other than English (or whatever language you’re using by default) in the Settings menu. Here are the steps I followed on my iPhone 5C:


2. Flashcards

As a total beginner in Greek, one of my main tasks has been to master the alphabet. And as a fan and scholar of pronunciation, I wanted to start by understanding and remembering how the different letters were pronounced.

Modern Greek is relatively straightforward in its sound-spelling relationship, so I wanted to make a simple deck of flashcards, each with a letter (both uppercase and lowercase) on one side and a phonemic transcription on the other, then test my memory.

To do this, I’ve been using Flashcardlet, which is a really simple free app for smartphones & tablets which allows you to create your own double-sided flashcards, with either text or images on either side.

Helpfully, you can create multiple decks, e.g. one bunch of flashcards for vocab on a certain topic, another for key words/phrases and their translations, another for common collocations, etc.

You can also download decks that other people have made, to save you the trouble of putting together something that probably already exists somewhere; but I prefer to make my own.

For example, the second letter of the Greek alphabet is pronounced /v/ and my flashcard looks like this:

'front' of flashcard
‘front’ of flashcard
'back' of flashcard
‘back’ of flashcard


To move through the deck, you simply tap/swipe on each card. Tapping turns the card over so you can check if you’ve correctly remembered what’s on the other side; swiping moves on to the next card. Oh, and double-tapping brings back the previous card, just in case you need to go back!

(Note: this app is actually an offshoot of a website, Quizlet, which I’ve never used. Sandy Millin has produced a great blogpost about that here, if you’re interested. Also, I’ve been using Flashcardlet on an iPhone, but I think there is an Android option… try reading this post.)

3. Matching pairs game

a.k.a. Concentration, a.k.a. Pexeso… any more?

Being able to match the uppercase and lowercase versions of the same Greek letter has been a surprising challenge for me. I’ve always been aware of this when teaching students whose first languages use different scripts, but this is my first experience of this as a learner.

Normally, to build up my recognition memory of a system like this, I’d make matching cards on paper and play the memory game that many of us will probably be familiar with from childhood. But due to the aforementioned travel conditions, I needed to find a more portable solution!

After much searching, I found this free app, Matching Pairs 2 (again, for iOS – not sure if there’s an Android equivalent):


I say “much searching” because what I was looking for was an app that would let me create my own decks. There are loads of apps out there for children featuring barnyard animals and the like, but I wanted to make a deck of Greek letters, dammit! And in the end, this was exactly what I was able to do with Matching Pairs 2.

The process of making the cards was a bit long-winded, to be honest, because the app won’t let you input text in your bespoke decks of cards – you can only use pictures from the camera/photo-roll on the device. This meant I had to:

  1. type all the Greek letters into Word on a computer;
  2. take a screenshot of each letter and save them as individual pictures;
  3. send the pictures to my iPad, so they’d be saved as images in my camera roll;
  4. select these when making cards in the app.

This sounds like a lot of hassle, but after about 30 minutes it was done and now I can play with the cards in the app to my heart’s content. 🙂

Here’s what it looks like partway through a game, when you turn over 2 cards which DON’T match:

No match...
No match…

And when you’re lucky enough to find a match, it shows you briefly:

It's a match! So in a second, these two cards will disappear from the grid and I'll keep looking for more pairs...
It’s a match!

…and then the matching pair goes ‘pop’ and disappears, so you can keep searching the remainder of the laid-out cards for more pairs.

Very simple, but very effective.

I actually paid to upgrade to the full version so I could use bigger game boards, as there are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet! But it was worth it and very cheap – I forget exactly how much but definitely less than £2 GBP (about $3 USD or 2.7€ EUR).

That’s all for this post. Let’s hope it’s not too long before the next one…

3 thoughts on “Learning Greek, Part 1: alphabet and apps for that

  1. Hi Laura,
    To make cards for matching pairs in the future, you could try making one slide for each word on Powerpoint, then saving the slides as images. Not sure if that’ll work, but if it does, it should be a lot faster!
    Thanks for the link to the Quizlet post, and you should definitely take a look at it because there are lots of games on there, and you only need to make one set of flashcards to play them. For example, Scatter would probably do a similar job to matching pairs, and I imagine that there is a ready-made set already on the site for it so you don’t have to make your own. It’s very quick to make your own cards, and you can do it through the free app.
    Memrise is also brilliant for building up vocabulary, and there will definitely be Greek on there. I’ve used it for Mandarin, Russian, braille, Thai and Polish 🙂
    In terms of learning languages on my own, I’ve found the best thing to do is aim for 10 minutes every day and to track it on a paper calendar – I don’t like seeing X when I didn’t manage to find the time. It’s a manageable amount of time to find everyday, and I often end up doing more. When I used to try to find an hour or two a couple of times a week I ended up never doing anything.
    Good luck!
    PS I did Greek for an hour every two weeks with my friend in the Czech Republic, so can kind of read the alphabet and know some basics 🙂

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