Learning Greek, 2.1: A Tale of Two Lessons (and then some…)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

So goes the start of our tale, in which we meet two teachers, diametrically opposed in methodology and sociolinguistic awareness.

But wait. Let’s rewind a moment and set the scene properly…


I promised in the Prologue to this series that at the end of every week I’d blog about my experiences of learning Greek.

That was 3 weeks ago and now I’m finally writing the first post.

Oh dear.

I guess that was something of a pie-crust promise.

It has been an extremely busy 3 weeks, though, and the Greek-learning experience involved some turbulence before settling. Am I forgiven? Good. Let’s move on.

Here are the other promises and plans I made in that first post… along with a few confessions (and explanations)!

Things I actually did:

1. I need to be patient with myself.

2. I will make sure I get a good night’s sleep every night!

Well, 2 out of 11 ain’t bad, right?

OK, so it’s pretty poor. Shame on me. But in my defence, these are two Life Skills that I have definitely not already mastered, so there is some kind of achievement there.

And if I may clutch at another straw or two, research shows that taking breaks between study sessions, particularly when those breaks include sleep, is critical for learning (at least insofar as learning can be said to require the integration of new knowledge in long-term memory). So really, number 2 was very important. Well done, me.

Things I sort of did:

3. I’ll take a course: three mornings per week, three hours per morning, for 6 weeks.

Reader, I quit.

You may have seen this coming.

I only survived two lessons before I knew it wasn’t for me. Wanna know why? …’Course you do!

OK, let’s start with the good things he did, because I’m not a total monster:

  • He clearly made an effort to generate rapport with the group, using our names* and referring to things we’d mentioned previously.
  • He engaged in natural conversation with each of us, talking to us about our lives and asking real questions, not merely display questions.
  • He answered our questions more or less satisfactorily.
  • He corrected us frequently enough, and generally didn’t overdo it.
  • Although almost all input and explanations were given by the teacher, he did occasionally elicit things from us.
  • He drew attention to things which are easily confused and important points of difference, such as words with quite different connotations or common words where changing the stress changes the meaning.
  • He addressed pronunciation! Far too few teachers in ELT include pronunciation. I don’t know how Greek language teachers are trained in this regard. But don’t get too excited just yet—I’ll have more to say on this later.

And now the bad:

  • Our “course book” was a book of grammar exercises, akin to using Murphy as an ELT course book. These sorts of book are certainly not without any value, but there’s a time and a place for them, and the entirety of a 3-hour lesson, 3 times a week is not it. OK, so the teacher didn’t write (and possibly didn’t choose) the book, but he also did nothing to clarify, supplement or improve it for in-class use.
  • The balance of skills and language areas was inadequate. Perhaps this would have changed over the course of a few lessons, had I stayed to witness them. But in the first two, there was essentially just speaking and grammar. To interpret it a bit more charitably (but just a bit), there was speaking (to the teacher), listening (to the teacher), writing (to complete gap-fills) and reading (gap-fills), emergent vocabulary (but nothing apparently planned based on what was in the exercises), grammar (obviously) and pronunciation (correction).
  • No context was given before or during any of the exercises and none of the vocabulary present in the grammar gap-fills was explained unless we asked. When I asked about or looked up some of the meanings, I found words like “brooch”, “icon” (in the religious sense), “doll” and “mountain”. Yeah, that common lexical set.
  • There was no interaction that did not involve him. Not a moment. When we tried to address each other (there were only 6 of us, all friendly and apparently interested in each other), he would jump in. We’re not total beginners and were more than capable of asking and answering some basic questions, but we almost never got the chance. (I say “almost” because sometimes I just doggedly kept directing what I was saying at another student instead of him! But that didn’t stop him explaining or translating it to them, or answering it himself.)
  • He often answered his own questions within a second or two, not giving us enough time to process the question or even think before he jumped in and saved us the necessity of trying to answer.
  • He did not look closely at what we wrote, nor did he monitor. But then, he never let us do anything by ourselves, so when would he?
  • A pet peeve of mine: he asked leading questions which negatively framed and represented to us our presumed (in)ability, like, “This is difficult, isn’t it?” “You don’t like reading, do you?!” Questions or comments like these seem superficially to show empathy, but in effect implicitly reinforce learners’ impression that learning a second language is just too hard or unpleasant, a chore, a negative experience. (Though I’d have to say, in his class, those complaints were all true.)
  • When we were all having difficulty accurately producing the singular and plural articles and nouns in three genders and two cases (i.e. 36 possible combinations, with no context and sometimes using words we didn’t know the meaning of and had never heard), and I made a mistake with a feminine form, he laughed, “Come on! Feminine is easy!” I suspect this was an effort to lighten the mood and remind us all that declining masculine nouns requires remembering more endings than with the feminine or neuter nouns, but this entirely missed the point. It’s all new to us; we hadn’t actually studied all the patterns before being put on the spot to “practise” in front of the whole class; I hadn’t fully understood his lecture on the rules (the ones he actually told us about); and anyway working memory has limits, dammit!
  • *I said earlier that he used our names. At the start of the second lesson, I can’t remember how exactly, it came up that the name “Laura” comes from the laurel (or bay) tree, and that this is translated in Greek as δάφνη (“daphne”). But both forms exist in Greek as women’s names. He suggests, with a charming smile, clearly expecting me to agree, “So can I call you Daphne sometimes?” To which I replied (probably not without evident disdain, I’m afraid): “Well, I’d prefer my name.”

In short, there were many good reasons not to continue with this course. But one short exchange during the first lesson really clinched it. Looking back, I don’t really know why I even went to another lesson. Could I have been certain at that early stage that we weren’t a compatible student-teacher pairing? I suppose I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, as a fellow language teacher. And this course was at a long-established and well-renowned school. Surely its reputation must be worth something? But as for what definitely made my mind up, I’ll come back to this later…

Fortunately, I know a few people in the language-teaching industry, and Marisa helped match me with a teacher from her team for one-to-one lessons at CELT Athens, for which I am very grateful. A fairly simple exercise, comparing and contrasting a few key content and style differences between Teacher 1 and Teacher 2, will show you why.

Full disclosure: I took the notes for Teacher 1’s lesson during the lesson itself, but in Teacher 2’s lesson I was too busy and engaged, so I made notes with approximate timings immediately after the lesson ended.

And thus begins our Tale of Two Lessons…

  Teacher 1 Teacher 2
Lesson staging 40 mins:

Round the class, one by one, the T asking each student to recount what they did yesterday and interjecting now and then with comments, questions and corrections.

25 mins:

Checked answers to homework #1 (grammar gap-fill).

27 mins:

Checked answers to homework #2 (grammar gap-fill). Also spent 5 minutes explaining an apparently irrelevant grammar point no one seemed to be having any issue with.

13 mins:

Checked answers to homework #3 (grammar gap-fill).

 

(Total: 105 mins.)

5 mins: Warmer and aims

Brief chat, then WB organised, ready for lesson. Lesson content briefly introduced/explained.

Approx. 10 mins: Set context, pre-teach lexis

  • Context – look at image; look at example language; tell T what is familiar?
  • Concept checking anything student isn’t sure of.
  • Adding new vocab to WB.

Approx. 25 mins: Predictive task & gist listening practice.

  • Context – look at image.
  • Pre-teach key vocab + concept (do someone a favour)
  • Listening for gist.
  • Concept checked some vocab.

Approx. 20 mins: Focus on accuracy: vocab and pronunciation.

Without tapescript:

  • Shadowing the T (short chunks).
  • Shadowing the T/responding to prompts (longer chunks).

With tapescript:

  • Reading it aloud myself (whole passage).

(10-minute break)

20 mins: Focus on fluency.

Freer practice of key vocab via speaking task (in a pair with the teacher).

 

(Total: 90 mins. including short break)

Approach/methods No discernible underlying pedagogical principles. Communicative Approach.
Materials Exclusively grammar-focused, decontextualized, no graphic support, all book-based. Short recording, accompanying tapescript, supporting images.
Planning & prep Apparently none. Adequate—certainly fit for purpose and personalised to my needs and goals.
Use of whiteboard Used to record emergent vocab and some aspects of grammar rules. Not organised. Wiped off and re-filled about 4–5 times during the lesson. Messy, and sometimes difficult to read handwriting. Two different colours, but purposes inconsistent. Prepared for the lesson at the start of class, organised into sections for things which would definitely come up and a misc. section for other things that might arise during the lesson. Different colours used for different purposes, mostly consistently. Very clear handwriting, easy to read.
Instructions Given in English. Clear enough—the task for a generic gap-fill is pretty obvious, though. Given in Greek with accompanying gestures/pointing to appropriate part of material. Some instructions don’t match the task on the page, indicating that the T has thought about what I should be doing with the material and isn’t just trusting the material to ‘teach’ me.
Monitoring None. Nearly constant.
Student-centredness Every single interaction with the teacher or channelled through the teacher. No pairwork, no groupwork, and st-st interaction is never prompted, facilitated or encouraged by the teacher. Very student-centred. Worked at my pace, responded to my specific areas of difficulty. (Of course this is much easier in one-to-one context.)
Use of L1/English Lots of English used throughout to explain rules, translate words and build rapport by chatting with the students. Almost all teacher talk is in Greek, including instructions, explanations & concept-checking. Only occasional L1 use for things that weren’t relevant or the immediate focus of our attention so could just be skipped past.

Anyway! Back to…

Things I sort of did:

4. I need to make more effort.

Well, in a sense, I did make an effort. Despite seeing the diabolical syllabus in advance, I enrolled for the course. I reasoned that a good teacher can work wonders, even with a mere list of grammar points. (And, incidentally, I still believe this.)

Then, despite the first lesson proving me wrong in this respect (at least in this teacher’s case), I came back, undeterred (well, ish), for a second lesson. I mean… no one is perfect; everyone has an ‘off’ day; it was only my first lesson; I’m an unusually over-qualified judge as language students go; etc.

But there’s more at stake than my pedagogical sensibilities, effort and general comfort when it costs 675€ for 6 weeks of this torture. And in this case, δεν αξίζει!

5. I need to put in the hours.

I did! I put in 6 painful ones! Plus a few more for homework. And I’ve also been using Greek at every opportunity during the day, in shops, cafés, etc. I even spent a few hours in the fabric/crafts district of central Athens talking to shopkeepers about the kind of fabric and thread I was looking for. I learned (and still remember) more useful Greek from this than from those lessons.

An insight into my thought (and translation) processes during that afternoon of fabric & thread shopping.

But I admit, I could have put in a bit more time every day to consolidate my learning and improve my memory (see points 7 and 8, below).

6. I need to actually apply what I know to be effective from research and experience.

Again, I sort of did:

  • I used my L1 judiciously, both in and out of class;
  • I reflected on my motivation and goals and tried to self-regulate my emotional state so as to get the most out of study time;
  • I participated (as far as the teacher would let us) in peer interaction and peer teaching;
  • I took notes in ways that make sense to me;
  • I actively resisted succumbing to Death by Grammar, pursuing every available opportunity to increase my range of vocabulary and use it in natural conversation, both in and out of class.
The Gram(mar) Reaper

7. I will do a little bit every day, rather than just one huge day of study.

I did, if you consider that I’m using Greek every day in my general interactions. But I have to admit, I felt zero motivation to revisit the content of those two lessons every day.

8. I need to revisit my habits and strategies periodically with a view to iteratively changing and improving them, based on what I’m finding more or less useful to my own lived experience.

If attending and ultimately quitting a poorly taught course counts as a strategy, then OK, I did this. But seriously—I know I still need to work on developing better language-learning habits. To really improve my proficiency in Greek, it’s not enough to use the same functional language in the same sort of interactions every day—this is why I was politely corrected today by a waiter for the zillionth time when ordering a Coke in a café. (Coca-Cola is a feminine noun, not neutral, duh.)

Things I did not do

9. The evening before every lesson, I will revise what I learnt in the previous lesson(s). I will look for patterns and categories and re-organise my notes accordingly into advance organisers.

I repeat: I felt zero motivation to revisit the content of those lessons. In fact, when I look now at the notes I scribbled during class, do you know what patterns I see?

no time to think!

not wrong level, just wrong teacher

?

[unfinished word – didn’t know how to write down what I’d just heard]

?

Why?!

??

“Feminine is easy!” NOT FOR ME

hw will take “only 1 hr”

The patterns I see there aren’t linguistic. They’re patterns of confusion, frustration and irritation. Patterns of thought in the mind of a student who didn’t feel listened to. Patterns of thought in the mind of someone attending a lesson where the teacher just taught the material, not the learners.

10. As far as possible (given what is reasonably foreseeable from the class timetable and syllabus) I will brainstorm and/or write down what I already know about a given topic/language feature before we study it in class, so that I am primed to process it more effectively during class.

This wasn’t really possible, as we didn’t know lesson-by-lesson what we’d be studying, or so I thought. As it turned out, what we’d be studying in one class was what we’d done for homework in the previous class. And when I say “studying”, I mean “checking answers to, with occasional clarifications and frequent correction”.

11. I will spend 30 minutes every morning testing myself on what I’ve learned recently, i.e. focusing on remembering previous learning content, not simply re-reading/re-studying it.

I have no good excuse for not doing this. I was just too busy living the life in Athens! In future, I really do want to make an effort in future to spend 30 minutes studying every morning, before I go out into the city and have to use my Greek in real situations.

The dog ate my homework…

“But wait! What was the clincher???” I hear you say.

Alright, I’ve given you some examples of the good and bad things the teacher did. Now we’re going to see the truly ugly.

But before I get to that, though, please note: I have generally taken care to critique and criticise the teacher only for things for which I really think there is no excuse. I am all too aware of the appalling conditions of pay, benefits, job security, resources and more to which many language teachers around the world are unfairly subject. When it’s clear that systemic failures are the reason behind a teacher’s lack of training or preparation, I wouldn’t dream of victim-blaming. But some things come down to a person’s general professionalism and attitude towards other human beings, and it’s a combination of these, principally the latter, which ultimately clinched my decision to quit the class and find another teacher.

OK. Ready?

First of all, for the non-Greek speakers among you, you need to know that one feature of modern spoken Greek is to pronounce the <ντ> letter combination as /d/ at the start of words and as either /d/ or /nd/ within words. For example, πάντα (English translation: “always”) might be pronounced as [ˈpa.nda] by some speakers and [ˈpa.da] by others.

Or, as Holton et al put it (2004, p.5):

So far, so uncontroversial, right? These expert linguists have made it clear in two short sentences that two variant pronunciations exist and, it is implied, neither is uniquely (in)correct.

Unfortunately, Greek, like every other language, has its particular targets of linguistic discrimination, and it turns out that the pronunciation of <ντ> within words as /d/ is one of them. I soon learned that this teacher subscribes to the bigoted view that a person’s pronunciation can be used as a proxy for their general… character? personality? moral worth? I don’t really know how to adequately describe such views, other than that apparently, predictably eliding one consonant from a cluster of two in certain common phonetic environments is abhorrent and should be avoided at all costs.

I should also point out that I already knew two variant pronunciations existed, and had elected to go with the one that elides /n/ because I felt that this was the one I heard most frequently in all the conversations I’ve participated in or eavesdropped on over the past 5 years and 3 visits to Greece. So although it took me a second to realise what was happening when he corrected my pronunciation, the penny quickly dropped.

This is how the exchange went:

Me: …something something πάντα ([ˈpa.da]) something…

Teacher: [ˈpa.nda]!

Me: Huh?

T: [ˈpa.nda]! [ˈpa.nda]!

Me: [Suddenly understanding why he’s parroting this back to me with an extra consonant.] Oh. But—

T: [ˈpa.nda] is the correct way to say it.

Me: I always hear people say [ˈpa.da].

T: Just because 50% of Greeks do it doesn’t make it correct!

Me: But—

T: It’s the same in all languages: you know, the Queen doesn’t speak like the person on the street!

Me: OK, but I’m not the Queen; I’m your average person on the street.

Rest of class: [Looking politely perplexed at why this is becoming such a drama]

T: Look. Please understand why I want you to say [ˈpa.nda]. Dockers in Piraeus* say [ˈpa.da]. Homeless people say [ˈpa.da]!  [Laughs in a way that suggests I should also laugh at the thought of being mistaken for a member of one of these ill-favoured social groups]

Me: Wow.

T: [Sigh + wry smile.] You really want to say [ˈpa.da], that’s fine, say [ˈpa.da]. Everyone else—please do not imitate Laura! [Laughs jovially.]

Rest of class: [Laughsperhaps a bit uncomfortably… or did I imagine that?]

Me: [To self: This guy badly needs an education in sociolinguistics. Right now. But not from me.]

*Piraeus is a historically working-class neighbourhood of Athens, as well as the location of the port and thus where many sailors, dockers, etc. can be found, with all the associated sub-cultural baggage and discrimination.

In short, in the space of about 1 uncomfortable minute, my new Greek teacher made it very plain that he did not find my pronunciation of πάντα as /ˈpa.da/ socially acceptable, and his facile attempt to justify this—and accompanying ingratiating chuckle—may well have convinced a few of the other students to adopt this pejorative attitude, too. But I sincerely hope not.

Not that it matters in any practical way—I will never condone such wilful and deplorable accent prejudice—but out of curiosity, I conducted a bit of casual field research over the next few days, in which I elicited words containing this pronunciation feature from some of my Greek friends and colleagues from various walks of life. (A bit like Labov—but hopefully more ethical, since I told them immediately afterwards why I’d asked and reassured them that I couldn’t care less how they pronounce <ντ> spellings and anyone who does is an ill-formed twit.)

Here’s what I found:

People who said /nd/ in casual speech (the teacher’s preference, likely a relic of Katherevousa)

  • a teacher
  • a cleaner
  • a professional interpreter

And people who said /d/

  • a person in a co-working space (no idea of their profession or socioeconomic background)
  • two teacher trainers
  • several professors of linguistics
  • a professor of sociology (among whose family, incidentally, there are a number of sailors)

So basically, from this very unscientific study, I conclude that pronunciation of one ending or the other is not relevant to whether a Greek person has a basic education, a PhD, a job as a sailor/docker, a home, or is of a certain age, gender or class.

The homeless thing particularly annoyed and shocked me. I just couldn’t believe he invoked that unfortunate group of people as his example of whose linguistic behaviour not to imitate. He didn’t even look ashamed of the comparison.

It should be obvious, but for the record: whether someone happens to have a fixed abode is not reflected in the way they speak by any consistent phonetic or other linguistic measure I’m aware of, and is certainly not a reliable indicator of any other aspect of their class or character.

But then, it would be harder for someone to make such a pejorative judgment as this /d/-or-/nd/ nonsense involves if they’d deigned to undertake an even-slightly-more-than-superficial consideration of another person’s circumstances, context and fundamental humanity, wouldn’t it?

Coincidentally, a few days after that lesson, this tweet by photographer Marc Davenant about his new project appeared in my Twitter feed:

And a week later, so did this tweet (click here to read the rest of the short thread):

You can read more about the project by going to Marc Davenant’s website. Here’s a short excerpt:

excerpt from Outsiders photography project website
Photography by Marc Davenant.

What a great way to document this population and their lives compassionately, to “make the invisible visible”. If you agree, and if you can afford to, you can click here to make a donation to the project.

The end.

For now…

Reference

Holton, D., Mackridge, P. & Philippaki-Warburton, I. (2004). Greek: An essential grammar of the modern language. London: Routledge.

5 thoughts on “Learning Greek, 2.1: A Tale of Two Lessons (and then some…)

  1. Ah yes you have come across a stereotypical Athenian male attitude. The guy was trying to get you to speak posh Greek which is technically correct but hardly anyone outside of Athens uses. It helps when you travel to other areas of Greece to know what the words should sound like so you know what they are talking about when there changed in each area.
    The panta pronunciation is difficult and I think I say panda because it’s the closest to an English word. The reason he was so aghast at your pronunciation is in the 1960s Piraeus was full of prostitutes. Watch Never on a Sunday for background and also read Zorba the Greek by Nicholas kazsantis.

  2. Hi Laura.

    On reading this, one thing strikes me: the emotions and powerful reactions which the first teacher created in you that caused you to write this long and passionate account.

    I think this is typical of good ELT people; we suffer from knowing our job and what our teachers ought to be doing with us. Wearing both hats – learner and observer of one’s teacher – doesn’t always work so well.

    Your post gave me almost a deja vu of my French course – taught by a very traditional teacher who, luckily, was a friend and agreed to let me tell her how to teach me 😀

    My other experience was while learning Turkish – this one is worth blogging about for a different reason, to show how a group of sophisticated learners can respond to the concept of negotiating methods and, to some extent, content.

    Thank you for your kind mention – I knew Alexandra would be a great fit for you; I hope you two can continue.

    Don’t be afraid to negotiate with her. She can handle the challenge.

    Marisa

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. Sorry you had to go through the first experience, but sadly it doesn’t surprise me that much. I had a similar experience in a C1 French class in Paraguay at an internationally reputable school, and I persevered for far too long with the classes – I think I continued for about 3 months/12 classes of Saturday afternoons, 3 hours a week. I was never sad when my school asked me to cover a class at that time!
    I’ll be sharing it with our teachers so that when they think their classes aren’t good enough, they have a little perspective 😉
    Sandy

    1. I think it must happen all over the world, and for all L2s. And of course, it’s really hard to be a good teacher, as we all know. But methodological issues can be overcome with training and/or negotiation with learners, as Marisa suggested in her comment. It was absolutely maddening that this first teacher just wasn’t interested in actually discussing ideas and choices, but rather asserting his authority and “expertise”. Ach jo…

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