Going on Vacation? If You Just Get By on English, You’re Missing Out

Working in research and development for Rosetta Stone means having the opportunity to work with and learn about a lot of different languages. We are encouraged to spend significant time using our products the way our learners do, to remind ourselves of their perspective and to ensure that our products’ language content and pedagogy is as good as it can be. (It helps that I’m a complete language geek and love learning any language.)

One of the great perks about working here is the employee benefit for completing three levels of any language: we get two extra vacation days to use in a country where the language we’re learning is spoken. After spending some time learning Greek a while back, I decided to make it my goal to complete all three levels before taking a vacation in Greece. Fortunately, I achieved that goal just a few weeks before my scheduled departure.

The entrance to one of the ancient marble mines.

The entrance to one of the ancient marble mines.

Speaking Greek as a tourist in Greece was really a great experience for me. The vast majority of tourists in Greece don’t speak the language, so a little linguistic effort can go a long way in getting help and learning about the culture. Restaurant and hotel staff were almost always surprised; compliments and offers of help were frequent, and I had the opportunity to learn even more of the language.

Of course, these days, most Greeks working in the hospitality industry speak English pretty well, so there was only rarely an actual need to speak Greek. But on the island of Paros, in the Cyclades, I ran into a situation where it proved quite helpful. I’d taken the bus several kilometers out of the town where I was staying to visit the ancient marble mines there. I had planned to hike from there to a convent in the hills that enjoyed a panoramic view of the island and the sea, then make my way across the island on a thousand-year-old Byzantine road still partly paved with marble.

Benjamin Keller

Benjamin Keller

When I arrived at the mines, it was clear there were no facilities or maps—just a maze of paths across an arid countryside. I came upon a woman selling marble Cycladic figurines and asked her about the prices. When she could tell I knew more Greek than just how to ask what things cost, she asked where I was from. Eventually, we started a conversation. It turns out she was not native to Greece but rather Russia, where a group of ethnic Greeks has lived for millennia, and she emigrated to Greece 12 years ago. That’s why she spoke next to no English!

Once I had seen the mines, I bought a figurine from her and asked for directions to the convent. Unfortunately, my map wasn’t very detailed, and that particular area had so many dirt paths and roads, it was hard for her to explain to me which direction I needed to go. Excitedly, she offered to drive me to the appropriate trailhead. I was fairly sure I had misunderstood her until she started packing up her wares and putting them into the back of her little car. We drove up a nearby hill a while and stopped next to a small house, where a long wall separated the dirt road from the backyard. She asked me to come with her, and on the other side of the wall I was surprised to see her husband’s marble shop! He was hard at work with a grinding wheel, making the figurines that she had been selling, with piles of marble stones all around. She explained my circumstances and he showed me how he made the little statues.

After that, they pointed me in the right direction—on up the hill we’d started climbing—and wished me a safe journey. Of course I thanked her profusely for her help. About 15 minutes up the road, I realized that I hadn’t gotten either of their names. And that likely none of my adventure that day would have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to learn Greek.

The woman’s husband working on a figurine.

The woman’s husband working on a figurine.

A view from the center of the island of Paros, high in the hills.

A view from the center of the island of Paros, high in the hills.

A view from the Byzantine road, several hours later that day. The island of Naxos is off in the distance.

A view from the Byzantine road, several hours later that day. The island of Naxos is off in the distance.

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Benjamin Keller

Benjamin Keller is associate editor in chief at Rosetta Stone. In addition to several years’ experience in publishing, he has an MA in German from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a BA in German and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Richmond. He previously served as content expert for the Rosetta Stone Version 3 Swahili product. In addition to studying Spanish and Modern Greek with Rosetta Stone TOTALe, Ben has taken courses in French, Latin, German, Swahili, Middle High German, Old High German, Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, Swedish, Sanskrit, Finnish, and Ancient Greek (in that order, he thinks). A native of Western New York, he still calls soft drinks “pop.”
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