Modern Greek has been on the agenda for a while.
Like many in the diaspora, I grew up with a yiayia, who sometimes spoke Greek, but mostly spoke English. Her own parents came to the United States back in the 1920s, so needless to say that the family is primarily “American” at this point. Except for Greek food on holidays, a few words, and maybe genetics, it would be hard to say we were Greek at all.
But after visiting the family village one summer and meeting distant relatives, I grew attached to a language that had felt foreign to me for the most part.
At the time, I was focusing on German and Russian for my college degree while at the same time dabbling in Japanese. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to take on another language. Learning Greek would have to wait.
Nowadays, focusing on Greek is a bit of a mood booster. Since it has a familiar lexicon to English and grammar similar to German, modern Greek doesn’t feel as intensive as other languages in my current roaster (primarily Hindi and Bengali). That is not it’s to say it’s easy. But the cognitive load is less.
The Modern Greek Language Today
Growing up, there were very few materials for modern Greek outside of phrasebooks, in the same way, that options for Japanese were basically nil. It was far easier to grab grammar guides for ancient or Biblical Greek than for the modern version of the language.
And, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in the older variants. That’s not what people spoke today, after all.
While it’s said Modern Greek first came into existence during the Byzantine Empire back in the 11th century, the language has continued to evolve over time. After the War of Independence ended in 1830, politicians pushed for a literary version of the modern language called Katharevousa instead of the vernacular Demotic. The two variations played a game of tug-a-war- over the decades until the two somewhat merged.
Like any language, Greek also contains additional regional dialects, including Tsakonian, Pontic, Cappadocian, Mariupolitan, and Italiot. Modern Greek and its dialects are spoken by the Greek diaspora across the globe.
How similar are Ancient Greek, Koine Greek, and Modern Greek?
There are three versions of Greek commonly studied for the record: Ancient, Koine or Biblical Greek, and Modern Greek.
To put it simply:
- Ancient Greek was spoken in antiquity. It has more complex grammar than modern Greek. For example, Ancient Greek used the dative case and had dual forms.
- Koine Greek is more similar to modern Greek, however, it retains some of the grammar related to the ancient Attic dialect.
- Modern Greek is spoken today. It has three cases, no dual forms, and incorporates a variety of new vocabulary terms.
If you understand modern Greek, it will be easier to get into Koine Greek. But ancient Greek would typically prove to be more challenging.
Common Challenges in Learning Greek
While many vocabulary words will be familiar to speakers of Indo-European languages, grammar can be a bit of a challenge. This is especially true if you’ve never dealt with case systems before. If you don’t know what cases are in grammar, that’s fine.
Because before we get to that, we need to talk about gender.
In Modern Greek, there are three genders: Feminine, Masculine, and Neuter. Gender is applied to nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, and each gender has its own endings. There can also be a singular feminine noun and a plural feminine noun. So each gender also has two forms depending on whether it is singular or plural.
These endings also change in relation to the case. The case system is a set of rules that determine what a noun is doing in the sentence. Greek has four roles or cases:
- The subject – Nominative case
- Object – Accusative case
- Possessive – Genitive case
- Invoking a person or thing (e.x. Oh, God!) – Vocative
The endings of words change based on the case as well. For example, you have individual forms for a singular masculine noun as the subject, the object, and the genitive. Then you’d have additional forms for the plural masculine.
I realize that’s a lot of grammar-speak. So let’s look at the phrase “the beautiful man/men”:
|Masculine Singular||Masculine Plural|
|Nominative||ο όμορφος άνθρωπος||οι όμορφοι άνθρωποι|
|Genitive||του όμορφου ανθρώπου||των όμορφων ανθρώπων|
|Accusative||τον όμορφο άνθρωπο||τους όμορφους ανθρώπους|
|Vocative||όμορφε άνθρωπε||όμορφοι άνθρωποι|
Other than that, pronunciation and spelling can be an issue, especially for English speakers. Greek has many long words with abounding vowels and diphthongs. There are two or three different ways to write the “ee” sound, for example. At the same time, listening comprehension can be difficult. Or at least, I have always found it difficult.
However, the good news is that, as we said, many vocabulary phrases will be familiar to anyone speaking an Indo-European language. Verb conjugations, even with irregularities, are fairly straightforward as they are split into two primary groups.
The pros to the Modern Greek Language
Learning Modern Greek, as with any other language, has its own advantages and benefits. First off, the student of the Modern Greek Language will recognize a significant amount of vocabulary – at least if their mother tongue is English or another European language. Greek vocabulary has long since permeated the modern European language groups and is still used frequently to describe medical terms.
Furthermore, outside of a few hiccups, word order is largely the same in Greek as it is in English. The noticeable deviations for beginners are more like hiccups:
- Sometimes possessive pronouns go after the item described (my eyes becomes matia mou).
- Word order is much more flexible than in English.
- Articles (the, a, an) are used in Greek where they may not be in English (Nicholas vs. The Nicholas).
If you already know a language with the case system, as I did, the grammar feels like a breeze.
Modern Greek also provides a gateway to modern Greek culture, including books, movies, blogs, and whatever else you enjoy doing with your time. As a heritage learner, this has an additional value. I feel more connected to my ancestors, but at the same time, I can learn more about the world they left behind, and how my distant relatives experienced it.
The best way to learn Modern Greek
The good news is that learning Modern Greek is easier than ever. More and more resources have been released over the years by both major language learning publishers and Hellenistic programs, such as the Modern Greek Studies Association.
Personally, I’ve had success with a variety of materials, which I’ll list in a hot second. But I’ve also been weaving in and out of Greek since the start of the pandemic. I can read rather well, and now I’m focusing on increasing my vocabulary, refining my grammar knowledge, and enhancing my listening skills.
Looking back, this is how I would jumpstart a self-study course for Modern Greek over the course of a year:
This time is for getting a real feel of the language, its grammar, and its vocabulary. Completing the Language Transfer set is ideal for cementing your initial vocabulary and learning some core phrases. Learning the alphabet and using an elementary app like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone can help further accelerate your vocab acquisition, assist with listening comprehension, and foster writing skills.
I would put emphasis on Language transfer. It may be impossible to finish all Rosetta Stone or Duolingo content during this period unless you have A LOT of free time.
At this point, you want to dig in deep. If you’ve completed Language Transfer over the first 3 months or even gotten halfway through, you’ve developed a feel for how the language works.
Now it’s time to take that to the next level. I am using Oxford’s Take Off In Greek, which is supposed to cover A1-A2 and deals with tourist situations. I personally like the fact that it comes with native audio. It’s not bad, but there are other books you can use, which I’ll list in the resource section.
Here there is more of a shift into using what you’ve learned through your chosen textbook. Omilo, in particular, provides numerous free resources that can boost your reading comprehension and expand your vocabulary.
Resources to help you learn Modern Greek
So how can you begin to learn Modern Greek? You’ll want to practice all four language skills, which really start with mastering the Greek alphabet. But don’t worry, learning the new characters and sounds takes about a week max.
- Language Transfer – This is honestly the best introduction to Greek I’ve ever heard. Within weeks of listening to the audio tracks, I felt more comfortable speaking than I ever have, including in the low-stress environment of the local church’s Greek school.
- Italki – A MUST. Georgia, in particular, is amazing. I had to stop because of COVID, but I’m psyched to book another call with her. She’s incredibly passionate and is great at explaining difficult grammar concepts.
- Rosetta Stone – I know Rosetta has an “eh” reputation. But with the reduced price point, the speaking modules are extremely helpful.
- HelloTalk – More than iTalki, HelloTalk is great for getting notes corrected, even if you don’t have a lot of luck in private chats.
- Journaling – Sometimes, it’s just better to keep a journal. This is especially true if you are starting out and have limited vocab.
- Learning Greek Podcasts from the Hellenic American Union – This extensive list of practice topics is great for getting used to the language. And free, which is a huge plus.
- Helinika’s Immersion Playlist – Another freebie, Helinika covers a vast array of topics. This is great if you prefer to learn through immersion.
- Ertflix – The Netflix of Greece. Enough said.
- East Greek – A YouTube video series where Easy Languages asks Greeks on the street questions about their lives and interests. Since every video has English and Greek subtitles, it’s a great listening aid.
- LingQ – I read a lot. If you do, too, LingQ has a great A1-B1 library, many of which have videos, so you can get your listening practice in.
- Routledge’s Modern Greek Reader – This reader is composed of folktales and includes reading comprehension questions. It’s great if you’re out of the A1-A2 phase, and what a challenge.
- Omilo – Again, Omilo has a wide range of free eBooks and other materials for intermediate learners.
Grammar and Form
- Take Off in Greek – A classic, tourist textbook. It’s jam-packed with information and includes an audio CD.
- Kypros – A free, online forum. I could never quite get into it, but it’s great if you’re on a budget.
- 200+ Greek Verbs – Mastering verb forms takes practice. And there are not a lot of good Greek verb conjugators on the web.
- Get Your Greek On – An alternative textbook to Take Off In Greek. Also affordable and listed on the Modern Greek Student Association’s textbook list.
- An overview of Greek Grammar – A free, detailed online portal of Greek grammar.