Vocabulary; It’s all Greek to me!

This is the second in an occasional series of articles I am writing based on the theme of lessons I have learned the hard way. The first instalment concerned Teaching Practices while at university and you can find it here. I take up the story here with my first teaching job in Greece and my struggles to teach and learn vocabulary.

After successfully completing my teaching degree I taught for a while in the British State School system, but I had always wanted to work and teach abroad so I was regularly applying for foreign teaching jobs. I pretty much accepted the first foreign job that was offered to me, which turned out to be in Greece. In hindsight, I realise I was very naïve and should have asked a lot more questions before accepting the job. But I was young and inexperienced and besides that, I would have missed quite an adventure if I had turned the job down.

When people think of Greece, they think of white stone buildings shimmering in the sunlight against a background of deep blue seas and skies. Well, that aspect of Greece was never far away, but it was not where I was living. I was based in a small town in the interior of Crete, the largest of the Greek Islands. The town was about as far away from the sea as it is possible to be on a Greek Island. It was an agricultural trading post that was rather poor and run down. My apartment and the school where I was teaching both looked and felt as if they could crumble to the ground at any moment. Occasional Earthquakes didn’t exactly boost my survival confidence! My apartment boasted an outside toilet with a bucket and a freestanding water tap instead of a flush. Some might have called the place ‘rustic’ but when I had to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night there were a few other adjectives that came to my mind!

I was working in a private English Language School owned by two formidable and well-meaning women, whom I found to be both kind and terrifying. For them, it was partly a matter of status to have a “Native Speaker” on their payroll, but I came to understand they had genuine ambitions for their students to benefit and improve their limited life chances by having lessons with a Native Speaker. Like me, they were a bit naïve. They wanted to have a Native Speaker on their staff, but they hadn’t really thought through everything that would involve. They sort of assumed in a charming kind of way that everybody was Greek at heart… And could speak Greek!

The syllabus and teaching style which they insisted on in their school was somewhat conservative. They taught everyone from eight-year-olds to adults across the ability spectrum, but every lesson began with a vocabulary test based on what they had learned in the previous lesson. It was unthinkable to them that a lesson could begin any other way. I pointed out to them that I would have some difficulty implementing this scheme since I didn’t speak a single word of Greek. They shrugged as if that was a minor problem. “Well, you’ll learn while you are here!” They smiled.

I tried to make them understand the depth of the problem. “I have eight classes per day and each class begins with a twenty-word vocabulary test. That means I have to learn one hundred and sixty new words every day, five days per week and I don’t even know the Greek alphabet!”

They smiled again. “Wow! Just think how quickly you’ll learn Greek at that rate! You will be nearly fluent before Christmas!”

Now there are two things I should point out at this point. Firstly, I came to understand that this was a cultural issue. The two owners of the school believed with every fibre of their being that to speak Greek and to ‘be’ Greek was the highest aspiration any human being could have. They thought that somewhere in my soul, even if I hadn’t realised it myself, that was the reason for my coming to Greece. In their minds they were doing me a huge favour and to turn that favour down would have meant the job was over before it had begun. The other thing you should know is that despite my love of travel and my desire to teach English, I have never been very good at learning other languages. I have always thought this gives me an edge as a teacher; I understand how difficult learning languages can be and this makes me more patient and creative in my teaching.

Long story short… If I was going to keep my job in Greece (my first teaching assignment outside of the U.K.) I was going to have to learn the Greek alphabet and a ridiculous amount of vocabulary. It was non-negotiable.

I didn’t really think I would manage it, but I didn’t want to leave my first teaching job abroad without giving it a try. I also didn’t want to lose face in front of these two formidable women. And so began several months of stress and sleepless nights.

The way the tests worked was that the students were given a list of words to learn at the end of each lesson. At the start of their next lesson with me, they would write the list of words in Greek together with their English translation. I would then collect the lists and had to correct them before their next lesson with me. So, I would need to know if μήλο really meant apple! (And twenty other words per lesson, eight times a day)!

This was before the internet; so, after my teaching days, my entire evenings were given over to pouring over bilingual dictionaries trying to work out if my students were getting it right or wrong. I would look up the English word my student had written and try and work out whether what they had scribbled in their handwritten version of Greek bore any similarity to the printed version of what the word looked like in the Greek translation. It was more like cracking a code than learning a language. I didn’t really know what the Greek words sounded like, I was just about able to tell if the words the students had written looked something like what I assumed to be the correct printed version of the word.

I’m pretty sure it was during this period that what was left my red, Irish curls gave way to wispy white hair while I was pulling the rest of it out!

At first, my code-breaking skills worked to some degree. I could match one set of squiggly lines with another set of squiggly lines. However, if there was ever any dispute about the results I was completely lost. I wasn’t really learning the words or their meanings. I would need to employ other methods.

I began with the method that most students in the school were encouraged to use. Very simply this involved writing the sets of words in English and Greek in a vocabulary book, then covering the Greek versions and trying to write them again. Sometimes I would mix it up; leaving the Greek words uncovered and trying to remember the English translation. I found this method very boring and repetitive. It worked in short doses but then my mind would go to sleep, and I just wouldn’t remember anything more, no matter how many words I stared at.

A variation of this method involved writing words on cards; English on one side, Greek on the other. The advantage of this was that I was able to invent various games, memorising and rearranging the cards which made the process a bit less boring. But still, I wasn’t making much progress in recognising and memorising words although I do think I had succeeded in learning the Greek alphabet by this stage.

It occurred to me that my visual memory wasn’t very good and I needed to find a way to remember the sounds of the words. So, my next step was to borrow a cassette recorder from school and record myself speaking the words as I learned them. I would then playback the cassettes while I was drifting off to sleep. I wanted to believe that the words would slide into my subconscious while I was dreaming. Of course, I had no idea if I was pronouncing the words correctly in the first place. I’m not sure if this really helped me to learn the vocabulary, but at least my sleep improved!

I’m not sure where I got the idea from, but I eventually found the least stressful and most personally entertaining way to memorise words was to write the English and Greek words on slips of paper together with little pictures and then stick the slips of paper all over my apartment so that I would see them everywhere I went while I was at home. After doing some reading and research I streamlined this idea so that I wrote groups of words together (also illustrated with pictures) in the form of flow charts and mind maps which I pinned around the walls. I read somewhere that the key was to ‘NOT’ study them but simply look at them for a moment here and there as I passed them. I also came up with the idea of pinning the most urgent or troubling groups of words to the internal wall of my outside toilet. This worked quite well until the day my toilet was attacked by a plaque of snails, which was not the most delightful thing to see when I woke up in the morning! But that’s another story…

So, did any of this work? Well, yes I suppose it did in some ways. Within a few months, I was able to confidently correct the student’s vocabulary tests. I did learn the Greek alphabet and I did remember the written forms of more Greek words than I probably would have done otherwise. I couldn’t really speak much Greek though, nor could I understand much spoken Greek. Basically, I learned to recognise words in lists and commit a few of them to my short-term memory. Now, a few decades later, sadly I can’t remember much Greek at all.

I also learned that my students struggled with the tests as much as I did. This wasn’t obvious at first because they all seemed to do spectacularly well in the tests. That was because they cheated. Virtually all of them cheated. In the first few weeks, I was in awe of their ability to learn lists of vocabulary that I was really struggling with. But as time went on, I began to realise some of the tricks they were using. I have to say even now I am quite impressed with the inventive ways they came up with to cheat in the tests. Mostly it involved writing the lists in various places about their person, on the bottom of their pencil cases, on the bottom of their shoes, on their hands and arms etc… But there were some more inventive strategies. There was ‘creative cooperation’ in which one girl had the answers written on a paper pinned to the back of her dress but hidden by her long flowing hair. Every so often she would yawn and tug at the back of her hair so that everyone in the row behind could see the answers. There was also grand scale fraud in which students would write one set of answers during the test but actually hand me a set of answers they had prepared at home earlier. Then there were urgent trips to the toilet where answers were stashed and of course, Greek whispers around the classroom simply telling each other the answers anytime they thought I was out of earshot.

So, what did I learn from all this? Mainly I think that there are lots of different ways to learn vocabulary and that one size does not fit all. These days when I have students who are struggling with vocabulary, I try to find out what methods they are using to learn it and I suggest alternatives. I also learned that vocabulary is not the be-all and end-all of language learning. I think it would be fair to say that the students I taught in that school in Greece did have a larger amount of vocabulary than students of the same level I have taught in other countries and in other situations. However, they couldn’t actually communicate as well in English as many students with a lower level in other countries. Their knowledge of English was more academic than practical.

But imagine if they had employed as much creativity in really learning the vocabulary as they did in cheating the tests… As a teacher, that is what I want to tap into.

By making an effort to learn Greek I think I won the respect of the school owners and teachers I was working with. Perhaps that enabled me to win a few arguments as the year progressed and gradually start teaching my students in my own style.

I taught for a year in Greece and learned a lot about myself and people in general, as well as about teaching English. It was certainly an adventure. And if I ever have to do a vocabulary test again, I’m pretty sure that, one way or another, I could ace it! 😉

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