Learning Languages


Three weeks into Greek, and it remains fascinating (whilst also being a challenge to learn lists of grammatical endings). So many of our English words are derived from Greek; often when I am trying to work out how to say a new word, I have one of those wonderful moments when I suddenly see the link to English. For example, I was reading something which I knew meant ‘throat’ and as I stumbled over the letters, sounding out the strange symbols, I gradually said: “la-larin-larinch. . .Oh! It’s larynx!”

Another wonderful example is the verb ‘to throw’ which is basically ‘ball,’ so when we play with a ball, we are playing with a ‘throw thing.’ This verb is used in the book of Mark, when he tells the story of Jesus explaining why he has chosen grubby fishermen and cheating taxmen instead of the established religious leaders. He says something about not putting new wine into old wineskins, and the verb in the Greek which is translated in my Bible as ‘put’ is actually that verb ‘ball:to throw.’ Which gives the whole story such a casual, over-the-top feel, doesn’t it: “Well, you wouldn’t chuck new wine into old wineskins,” has a different feel to it entirely.

There are lots of these snippets of truly fascinating facts, but there is also lots of boring learning. I am hopeless at learning charts of verb endings, which is why I could never learn languages at school. I think it becomes too mathematical. For me, starting with all the grammar rules is a problem, partly because it relies on memory and my memory is rubbish. Learning Greek is very different to how I learnt, when I decided to learn Mandarin.

Those of you who are new to my blog, may not know the story. Basically, from 2009, I had the most awful headaches/migraines due to a brain tumour which they wouldn’t remove because it was in the middle of my brain and removing it would cause too much damage. Being ill is incredibly boring, and when feeling completely useless after yet another day in a dark room struggling with pain, I realised that actually, whilst I couldn’t do anything, I could listen, which meant I could learn a language. So I started to listen to CDs and videos in Mandarin. I am not a linguist, and I never managed to learn French at school, but I decided that I would teach myself to learn Mandarin in the way that a Chinese child would learn, gradually acquiring more vocabulary and not worrying about the grammar. I bought some children’s books, and music, and learned things like “Mr. Mouse lived in a shoe,” and “I need an assassin who can kill without being seen.” Perhaps not really terribly useful for real life conversation but wonderfully easy to remember. I used all those long boring waits in hospital waiting-rooms to translate stories, and it occupied my mind and stopped me worrying about what the neurosurgeon might say. Gradually I absorbed the language. I tried to understand the meaning of the words and phrases without translating them into English, and as the written characters are very visual, and represent things not words, this was possible. I could listen to phrases and understand them, without consciously turning them into English. (Not much use if I want to ever sit an exam, but perfect for communicating–especially if I ever need an assassin!)

I wanted to practise, and learn some ‘real’ vocabulary, so I started to go into the local restaurants to teach English to the staff, which is where I learnt to ask for coffee with one sugar and all the language that real people actually use. As I could do very little at that time apart from Mandarin, I learnt quite fast.

I also joined a small class of parents at Jay’s school, and even now the teacher sometimes tells me that the language I have picked up from my friends in the restaurants is inappropriate in polite conversation. I think I speak very bad Mandarin with a strong yokel accent. But I speak enough for friends who speak no English to have coffee with me, and we chat about our children and in-laws and husbands in Mandarin. In fact, some of my very best friends speak very little English.

When the doctors did finally operate (and damage my brain because it was that or die) one of the things I worried about was that I would lose all my Mandarin. I didn’t—I lost other things, and I did forget lots of what I learnt, but the basic understanding remained.

So now that I am learning Greek, I want to use some of the ability I acquired through my casual learning, but it’s a very different situation. I need to learn the grammar this time, because I want to take an exam, but I know that staring at charts and lists is hopeless, so I have to put the words into sentences, and tell myself stories to make the words relevant. I want to be able to read the New Testament in Greek, but I will be tested on my knowledge of grammar–whether I know from the ending of the noun if it is masculine, past or future, the subject or the complement. It’s not easy, especially as my knowledge of formal English grammar is very weak (like my learning of Mandarin, when I was at school we learnt how to use the English language, not the structure of a sentence). Sometimes I struggle, but I am determined to continue.

I hope you learn someting interesting too this week. Thanks for reading. Take care.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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