Breakthrough Greek

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Review of "Breakthrough Greek"

published 29/04/2003 | Schmutzie
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"Greek Without Tears"

I’d wanted for years to visit Greece. The history and literature of the country have been a passion of mine since I came across the Greek myths as a child. I longed to see Athens, and a few other famous places, but most of my pleasure in visiting another country lies in getting right off the tourist beats and meeting people, seeing how they really live.

By choice I usually travel on my own, and after a terrifying experience some years ago in Russia I decided that I’d never go anywhere again unless I spoke enough of the language to cope with problems. Greece seemed an impossible dream, as I was incapable of learning Greek. There was only one problem, but it was a fundamental one: the alphabet. Because of the rather strange form of dyslexia from which I suffer I could not get to grips with it at all.

Ironically, I can offer tips galore to anyone else trying to do so, including using flashcards, learning two or three symbols a day, transposing the Greek into your own system of phonetics, diving in head first, plenty of other methods. Oh, I could teach it. But no way on earth could I learn it. I tried to follow the BBC’s Greek Language and People course on TV, and bought the book. The course is so unspeakably bad that I was almost put off for life. I bought Teach Yourself Greek, a very sound if dull book, but no solution to the alphabet problem. I had the Talk Now! CD, and was doing well with vocabulary and pronunciation. But I still couldn’t really get anywhere because of the alphabet.

Two years ago I picked up Breakthrough Greek in my local bookshop, and all my problems were solved. This course uses a simple system of reproducing the Greek words in our alphabet, so that you can read them as easily as if they are the English they resemble; and with the help of the cassettes you can do very well.

Kalimera= good morning.Ya sas=hello. Epharisto= thank you.

I could do this ! Really excited, I bought the whole pack, book and three audiotapes for £27.99 on Amazon. The full price is £39.99, but it’s worth it.
The book is a paperback, well set out, with black and white photographs and sketches. (More recent editions of the courses in this series have colour illustrations). It’s nothing like the wonderful presentation of Italianissimo, but it’s quite good enough for the price. The layout is spacious, and the lessons could not be improved upon.

I had five months in which to learn, and I approached Greek in a way novel for me. As a rule I am a great believer in learning languages in a formal way, with a thorough study of grammar. I think this is essential for any serious student of languages, including our own. A knowledge of English grammar is a must for all professional writers. After all, if you know how a language works you can use it more efficiently and subtly, and know exactly what you are doing. I’m often amused and pleased that the grammar in a salacious article in The Sun is just as sound as a staid piece in The Times.

I saw at once that the formal approach would not get me as far ahead as I needed to be, for the grammar is not easy with all the cases of some of the parts of speech to learn, and three genders of nouns. I decided to go for the ‘direct method’, learning as many useful phrases as possible, and hoping to be able to adapt them. This worked well, and the layout of the lessons helps.
We can have a look at the first lesson, and you’ll see that at once you have some very useful material.

On the left page are three mini-dialogues, which consist of simple greetings, and asking how someone is. On the right are notes, which you could miss out if you wished. I didn’t. It’s all easy.
When you can say these phrases, you go on to the next page. Two more mini-dialogues, saying ‘excuse me’, saying where you’re from.
The next set says you’re from the UK, there on holiday, and allows you to ask and give names.

That’s all you have to learn in chapter one, but already you have the basis for a simple introductory conversation with a Greek.
All the dialogues are on the tapes, and are spoken by Greeks. There’s also a guide, who gives you tips in English. Both his English and his Greek are so good that it’s impossible to tell his nationality.

The little dialogues are followed by a list of the key words and phrases. I tested myself, by covering first the column in Greek, and then the other in English. Written practice comes next, simple multiple choice questions in English to test your comprehension, and a little crossword puzzle.
Using the tape, you listen and you tick boxes for more multiple choices. It’s all made lively by amusing little sketches to help you. The exercises are kept short, and little writing is necessary.

There’s a section on grammar, which you could skip. The exercises there are more formal, but I enjoyed them, and found that without at first realising it I was learning a lot of the grammar. In this chapter, it was the key verbs ‘I am’ and ‘I do’. (There is no infinitive form in Greek).
The Greek alphabet is taught letter by letter. In this chapter it’s K and A which I did manage to learn because they are the same in English !
Then there’s a short article ‘Did You Know?’ with facts about life in Greece, and its history.
Finally, you do oral work with the tape.
You can see that the chapter is packed with things to learn, things to do, and information; but take my word for it that you don’t feel in the least overwhelmed. Everything is presented in tiny ‘bites’, it’s all well spaced out, and there’s no feeling of pressure or information overkill at all.
You should find no problems with pronunciation. There is a guttural sound which may be unfamiliar, but if you know the Spanish ‘j’ and the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ you won’t find it difficult. The intonation is not dissimilar to English.

All subsequent chapters follow the same pattern. Indeed, all the language books in the Breakthrough series have this pattern. It’s very effective. By the time I’d finished the course, just before I was to visit Greece, I realised that I’d learned an enormous amount. There were practical things :
Ordering food and drink; getting tourist information and directions; going shopping; telling the time; travel arrangements, hotel bookings and enquiries.
Less practical but equally useful in getting along with the Greeks: talk about yourself and your job; give opinions about things; ask people about their lives; talk about families.

How would it all work out in practice?
Wonderfully well is the answer. The proof of the usefulness of any language course is how it all works when you come to use it.

When I can speak a language, there’s a huge thrill in speaking it for the first time when I’m on holiday, even if it’s one I’ve spoken for years. With a new one, the thrill is so intense it’s almost erotic. I’ve never been nervous, as I discovered long ago that people like you for having a go, however stumbling your efforts. (Well, that’s been true of all the countries in Europe I’ve been to except one……..but in the interests of peace I won’t say which. I’ve been corrected and lectured there several times over minor errors.)

Even in the bustle of Athens, faces lit up when I spoke in Greek, this beautiful language. Off the beaten track the reception I got was wonderful. Two lovely memories of many remain in my mind. In a tiny village in Crete, I was thirsty and walked into a café for a coffee. Everyone fell silent. As my eyes got used to the darkness in there after the blazing sunshine, I realised I was in a ‘men only’ establishment. They were staring, though not in a hostile way, just surprised.
"Excuse me, sirs," I said. "I did not understand. Men only. I shall go now. Good day to you."
Several jumped to their feet, and huge smiles spread like lightening.
"Lady, lady, come in. Welcome !"
I was there for over an hour, and had a delightful time chatting and joking with all the old chaps.

A few days later I visited a small pottery in a village near Rhodes. I was looking at some beautiful mugs, far too expensive for me, when a man said in broken English. "You want buy heem?"
"Very beautiful, " I said, "but too dear for me."
He continued in Greek. "Why do you speak our language ?"
"Because it’s beautiful, and so is Greece."
"I am giving you these mugs."
"You are kind and gracious."
I was then kissed and hugged by all the workers in the pottery, and given coffee with tiny cakes. It’s this sort of thing which makes learning a language worth while.
The course had equipped me to cope very well with all the different situations I encountered.

Greek has a lot of dialects, and both pronunciation and some vocabulary can vary a lot from island to island. It was not a problem. They are a polite and friendly race, and a request for them to repeat something or slow down usually brought results. It certainly need not put anyone off. In any case, and this is true of any language, if you persevere, after a few days you get an ‘ear’, and it all becomes easier.


The course did me proud, What I couldn’t do was read signs, or any printed matter, but I had my trusty Rough Guide Greek Phrasebook with the alphabet in it, and ran into no problems with things like street signs and timetables. Most people would have no difficulty learning the alphabet from the way the book presents it.
I recommend this excellent course. I’ve had a quick look at the German, Spanish and French ones in the series and can see that they are equally sound. All are very well presented, very practical and fun to use. They do not have the glamour of Italianissimo, but at that price you don’t expect it.

Going to Greece this year ? Ask me, or steveuk, if you want to know more. He speaks fluent Greek.
More useful books : Rough Guide, Greece; Lonely Planet, Greece; Rough Guide Greek Phrasebook.

© Schmutzie 2003

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Comments on this review

  • j_mcb published 08/07/2003
    This sounds like a beautiful language to learn. It was great to hear the reaction you got from the Greeks when you spoke their language! They seem extremely friendly. A fantastic opinion! Joe
  • hepialid published 20/06/2003
    Sounds like an effective and enjoyable way to learn. I wonder, do they do a similar series for other languages? Andy.
  • Worrals published 20/06/2003
    Wow, sounds as though you learned a lot. I generally crib enough phrases to cope with ordering from menus and asking for toilets, but you were having proper conversations!
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Product Information : Breakthrough Greek

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Listed on Ciao since: 29/04/2003