The Greek language is the native tongue of over 13 million people in Greece (and Cyprus and Albania). It’s a language of the Hellenic language family, which is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. This means that despite Greece’s and the Greek language’s importance in world history, the language isn’t closely related to any another languages in the world.
The idea of democracy was famously invented in Greek and it’s the language of philosophy and an amazing ancient culture. But how hard is it to learn Greek?
Due to the fact that Greek isn’t closely related to other languages, such as English, there are aspects of the language that’s more difficult than others. It’s got another Alphabet that you need to learn to read and write, it’s got some unusual sounds that might be difficult to pronounce for an English speaker, and then the grammar is quite different too. On the plus side, English has borrowed quite a few words from Greek throughout history, so some of the vocabulary might seem familiar. Yet other words are indeed very foreign!
All in all, Greek is a relatively difficult language to master. It’s more difficult for an English speaker than Dutch, French and German, but it might be easier than Russian and Arabic.
Let’s look at some of the features that make up Greek and see how difficult they are!
The Greek Alphabet Is Not That Hard To Learn
The word “alphabet” actually came from Greek. It’s the name of the first two letters, Alpha (α) and Beta (β). There’s also a connection between the Latin alphabet that we use to write English today and the Greek alphabet. The Greek script is the ancestor of not only the Latin script, but also the Cyrillic script used by languages such as Russian and Ukrainian.
This means that there’s a strong resemblance between our alphabet and the Greek one, meaning that it’s quite easy to learn. It can be done in the space of a few hours or less, but I recommend to spread out some writing exercises over 5-7 days in order to revise the Greek alphabet a few times and really get it under your skin.
So in other words: The Greek alphabet isn’t a huge challenge. Everyone could learn it within a few days. But what about the pronunciation of the individual letters?
Greek Pronunciation – Is It All Greek To You?
While most of the letters in the Greek alphabet have similar sounds in English, there are a few sounds that do not exist in modern spoken English. While they don’t exist in English, they’re quite common in many languages around the world, and you’ll most likely have heard them before in some way or another. Watch the video below for a quick walk-through of the Greek alphabet.
While most of the letters in the above video are pretty straight forward, there are probably a few that catches your eye.
Among them are:
- Γ γ = This letter is pronounced like a French (Or German) R.
- Ρ ρ = This is a thrilled R. (So it’s important to make the distinction between this one and the one above).
- Χ χ = A little like the “lh” in “Lichtenstein” or “loch”. It’s more or less similar to a Spanish “J”. Sometimes it’s pronounced more raspily like the Arabic “خ” or the Dutch “g”.
And that’s pretty much it. There are obviously quite a few Greek letters that we don’t have corresponding letters for in English, but the sounds do exist.
All in all, Greek pronunciation shouldn’t be a huge challenge for an English speaker, although there are a few letters that you’ll need to get used to. If you can’t pronounce them off the bat, put pronunciation a side for a while, while you keep listening to Greek. It’ll become easier after a while.
What About Greek Grammar – Is It Hard To Learn?
Greek grammar is a bit different from the Germanic and Romance languages most Europeans speak, but it’s not as complicated as in some Slavic languages or languages such as Arabic or Hebrew.
The Greek word order is mostly subject – verb object, like in English, but because of the Greek case system, it’s also possible to change the order of the words without loosing the meaning of the sentence. This can take some getting used to!
The four Greek cases, of which the three are more frequent, change the endings of the nouns depending on the function of the sentence. This means that the information will be present in the noun itself rather than in the word-order, making it possible to be a little more liberal with Greek syntax.
The noun endings equally change depending on number (like in English: one apple, two apples), but the gender, of which there are three, equally plays a part in nouns endings as well as the articles used.
Add to that that Greek verb conjugation is a lot more complex than English verbs.
I could write a long list of all the features of Greek grammar that makes the language complicated to learn, but on the other hand, I don’t really think that the complexity of the grammar is the real problem with learning Greek.
While you can spend a lot of time studying grammar, learning the rules and dissecting and analyzing Greek phrases, it doesn’t really help you that much when you need to use the language. Using grammar is more often than not instinctive.
Think about it: How often do you think about the rules of English grammar when you speak? My guess is never. This is because people learn their mother tongue from hearing it used correctly over and over again. They get used to it, and eventually, language mistakes will simply start to sound wrong. This is what you’ll have to archive in Greek too. You need to listen and read enough Greek for the language to become ingrained in your mind, so you don’t need to think about it.
So sure, the grammar is more or less complex, but I wouldn’t consider it the kind of difficulty that you need exceptional talent in order to master. You just need to get used to it.
Is Learning Greek Vocabulary Difficult?
Now finally the words. Learning words is essential to mastering any language. As for any language, remembering words becomes easier when they remind you of something you already know.
In English there are numerous political, scientific, philosophical and technological words that have their roots in Greek. This will obviously help you learn some vocabulary. But on the other hand, everyday words in Greek are rather different from the Western European languages we’re more used to hearing. This means that you’ll need to dedicate more time to learning words and getting used to them.
I’ve written an article on the topic of remembering words while learning languages that goes more into detail on this subject. Generally, however, I can say that learning words in foreign languages is all about creating associations. The more connections you can create in your brain in relation to each new piece of information, the better you will remember.
These associations can be everything from memories of actions, pictures, sounds, smells, stories, rhymes and so on. Sometimes, simply doing something with a word can help you remember it better. This can be something as banal as writing the word down in your notebook. After having done this, chances are that you’ll remember it better simply from the memory of writing it down by hand.
But the more you can come up with, the more effective it’ll be. For instance, if you look up a picture of the word you’re learning, if you think of a synonym or if you think of a word that sounds like the word (even if it’s unrelated) you’ll be much more likely to remember the word.
While all of these techniques are easy to use, they do take time. The more unfamiliar as foreign language sounds, the more often you’ll need to think of associations to remember words. This means that a language like Greek will take longer to learn than, say, Dutch because the Dutch word “huis” has a much clearer parallel to the English word “house” than the Greek word “σπίτι” or “spíti”.
Is Greek Difficult To Learn According To Linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats going overseas. They’ve sorted the languages that they teach into different categories based on the number of classroom hours they estimate that each language will take to learn.
FSI’s estimates are based on FSI’s own teaching program and obviously doesn’t apply to a self-student’s approach and end-goals. But it can be a good indicator as to the perceived difficulty of different languages for the average English speaker.
FSI divides the languages that they teach into four groups.
The first one, group one, is for languages such as French, Dutch, Danish and Spanish. These languages are among the easiest for an English speaker and are estimated to take around 5-600 classroom hours to learn to a high degree of professional working fluency.
Group two includes languages such as German, Malay and Swahili. These represent more grammatically complex languages and more exotic languages than group one. These are supposed to take around 900 classroom hours to learn.
In group three which is where we find Greek, we also see such languages as Russian, Hindi and Thai. I would argue that Greek is one of the easier languages in this category, though. These languages take around 1100 classroom hours of study in order to reach FSI’s professional working proficiency.
And then finally, there’s group four, which includes very time-consuming languages such as Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. These are supposed to take an impressive 2200 classroom hours to learn to a high degree of fluency.
But to get back to Greek: 1100 hours is around 3 years of studying an hour per day. I think that you can actually learn Greek a little faster than that, and if your goals aren’t necessarily to reach a high degree of professional working proficiency (at least to begin with) you could at least get to the upper intermediary level and be conversational within a year.
So Is The Greek Language Hard To Learn?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this kind of question is hard to answer. It’s a little like asking “how long is a piece of string”. It depends.
Learning Greek can be both hard and easy depending on who you are and how you approach language learning. Generally, however, I’d say that it’s a language that’s accessible to everyone.
One of the most important factors to consider however, is one that hasn’t got a lot to do with the language. It’s all about you:
Are you motivated enough to stick with studying Greek every day for one, two or three years? Will you put in the work and stay consistent?
The single most important aspect in language learning is putting in the work. You’d be better off working at Greek daily with the worst possible learning technique, than neglecting your studies altogether.
Learning Greek is not that hard, but sticking with it might be.
If you want to read my suggestions as to how you should go about learning the Greek language, go read my article called “How to learn Greek by yourself“.