Advice, Culture

Word of the Day: Learning One Greek Word A Day with My Yiayia

Learning Greek words with my grandmother

I never thought I would enjoy talking at a light fixture for 30 minutes until my 96-year-old yiayia finally figured out how to FaceTime. Even though she hasn’t completely figured out how to correctly position the camera, I’ve still been able to talk to my yiayia for the first time “face-to-face” in months—which I’m happy about whether I’m looking at her or the light bulb. So in honor of her technological success and the fact that I’ve been trying to learn more Greek with her, we decided to have nightly FaceTime dates so she can teach me a new Greek word every night, and it’s the highlight of my night.

Talking with someone who speaks a different language is a great way to add vocabulary to your lexicon. Some researchers say you need to know about 800-1000 word families, or lemmas, to understand 75% of a language, so I figured the more words I can learn on top of my Greek lessons the better. It turned out the lessons were even better than I expected, because when you learn from a native speaker you get a sneak peek into the culture behind the word you’re learning.

When I started these nightly lessons we skipped over a lot of the easy stuff because I have a really basic level of Greek. I already knew how to say “hello” and “goodbye,” γεια σου and αντίο, say “please” and “thank you,” παρακαλώ and ευχαριστώ, and ask “where is the bathroom,” πού είναι τουαλέτα. I also have a pretty good vocabulary for anything that has to do with food, because if you want to eat well in Greece you have to know what to ask for!

I’ve heard a lot of stories surrounding the words she’s been sharing with me, but I’m going to tell you all my two favorites. The first one went along with the word πύλη, or gate, and is about what my Yiayia calls “the language of the πύλη.” She told me that in Kefalonia, the Greek island she is from, there is a secret language that people communicate through their front gates. She said, “If the front gate of a home is open a little bit, it means the homeowner is inside, but doesn’t want visitors unless it’s an emergency or the visitor really needs to talk. If the gate is halfway open, it means you can come in if you have something to say. And if the gate is all the way open it means you can come right inside the yard, tap on the kitchen window or the front door, and have a nice chat just because.” 

I loved this idea of walking through a neighborhood and knowing who wanted to socialize depending on the position of the front gate.

Another one of my favorite words that I learned was παπαρούνα, or poppy. I thought this word was a fun one to say, but what I liked most was the story that went along with it. After explaining the word to me, she told me that every time she is stressed or feeling angry she imagines a huge field of red poppies. This is because when she was younger and living in Kefalonia, giant fields of poppies would bloom in the late spring/early summer, and she loved looking out over them. This story not only took me back to the islands of Greece, but also inspired me to try a few visualization tools these past few days when I was stressed or overwhelmed. 

I loved this idea of walking through a neighborhood and knowing who wanted to socialize depending on the position of the front gate.

I challenge you guys to try talking to someone you know who speaks another language and see if they can teach you a new word (and maybe a fun story to go along with it).  I loved being able to connect with my yiayia in her native language and it made me even more motivated to continue learning Greek through the Rosetta Stone App where I’ve been specifically studying to communicate better with family with the “Family” Your Plan. I hope that as I progress through my lessons I’ll be able to communicate better than ever with her in Greek. 

Relieve cabin fever by learning a new language

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