I continue to work on my Greek, with mixed results, and am reminded frequently of just how difficult learning a new language is. As I imagine happens with most new language learners, it seems to me that so many words seem nearly identical, with just slightly different arrangements of the same sounds. I remember my friend Peter commenting from Spain years ago on his fear of mixing up some very similar sounding words with very different meanings. The subtle difference in pronunciation of the Spanish words peine and pene, “comb” and “penis” respectively, understandably caused him considerable anxiety. You really don’t want to be asking a guy in your recently adopted country if you can borrow his penis.
I have struggled with similar linguistic mix-ups. I confuse zoí (life) and zóo (animal) so that if I want to comment that I have a good life, I’m just as likely to say that I have a well-behaved pet. I fear that I will someday ask whether I can make a visit to the female genitalia, rather than the monastery, confusing moní and muní. Or make a fool of myself by ordering the sliding patio doors (pandzouria) for an appetizer, rather than beets (pandzaria.) (I did, in fact, ask Helena once if I should close the beets because it was getting cool, but at least it was only Helena.) Or referring to my hat (kapelo) as my girlfriend (kopela.) Give me a second, I might tell my tennis partner, I just need to pull my girlfriend out of my tennis bag before we start playing…
Learning a language is humbling. You become less articulate than your average six year old and need to rely on the patience and kindness of others to get you through even fairly simple communications. But every day my Greek improves and I remind myself that a little lesson in humility won’t hurt me.
Just after writing the above paragraph, I made a visit to our local butcher to buy a pork roast. I was recalling my first visit to the butcher, when his simple question “With or without bones?” rendered me speechless and terrified. Today, I held a perfectly competent conversation with him about the different parts of the pig (okay, with a bit of pointing and gesturing involved), the quality and tenderness of each, and, yes, whether or not I wanted bones. Small victories, but these must be appreciated in the very long road of mastering a language.