Friday, 15 May 2009

Living the Life Bilingual: Part 1

It’s slightly surreal living in two languages. And in my case, it’s not any old second language. Oh no, I couldn’t just pop across the Channel and settle in France. I had to pick a place with a whole new alphabet.

Fortunately, most Greeks under the age of 240 can at least make themselves passably understood in English - and many under 50 speak it better than we do. So, we Little Englanders can function pretty well here even if we are too lazy or arrogant to learn the lingo. But that’s not the point, is it? It just not polite not to make the effort - and anyway you miss out on an awful lot going on around you if you don’t have a decent grasp of what’s being said.

Greeks can seem pretty intimidating when you first arrive. You get off the plane at Athens airport or the ship at Piraeus port and all around you are people waving their arms and shouting at a rate of knots. Passions run high, voices are raised, moustaches (male and female) quiver, faces turn a delicate shade of magenta. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. And then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers.

It’s a powerful incentive to learn Greek. It’s only when you get at least a rudimentary grasp of the lingo and an inkling of the national character that you realise that they are not at each others’ throats – well, at least, not all the time.

I’ve been here for 20 years and have got a fair handle on the language by now (some people even occasionally pay me to translate it). There are times when I don’t know which language I am thinking in.... Unless there are swear words involved. I swear more easily in Greek than I do in English (it feels less 'naughty' and the meaty Mediterranean vowels of “malaka” and “gamoto” are far more satisfactory than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents).

I’m English, my Other Half is Greek, so our 12-year-old son is properly bilingual. He’s been hearing both languages since the moment I saw those little blue lines on the ‘Predictor’ stick. I guess it is only natural that there is a third language at play in our house – Gringlish, a strange mish-mash of Greek and English.

For instance, based on the Greek verb “pistévo” (believe), we often describe something beyond belief as “unpistévable”.

So, if you ever bump into me, please forget me if my conversation is littered with exclamations of "Ela, re", "Bravo" or "A pa pa".

They're just some of the unavoidable side-effects of living the Life Bilingual.

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