Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Postcard from Athens



Dear All (Whoever you all are)

Well, I haven't been here twenty four hours yet, nor have I been out of the flat where I am staying, but it feels as if I have been here a long time. (Athens airport v nice, btw; spotless toilets.)

Now then. Most oral tests for students of foreign languages assess the student's ability to produce a monologue (describing a favourite place, for example) and then their ability to engage in a conversation with the examiner. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the monologue is by far the easier part. The examiner does not interrupt, change the topic, or raise objections; you can just maunder on as you like. In conversation, on the other hand, you have to formulate your utterances and modify them even as you do so, in response to the fact that your interlocutor is responding to what you are saying with disagreement, interruptions, changes of topic, requests for clarification, and so on. This need for constant negotiation is known in the jargon as 'reciprocity conditions'. In your native language you accomplish this constant shifting of gears as easily as you breathe. In a foreign language, though, you can become painfully aware that reciprocity conditions impose quite a burden, especially if you have been away from the language for four years and only read or talked to yourself for practice in that time. You become aware of every clanking gear and rusty cog in your battered head, as I am becoming aware of them now.

An examiner won't interrupt you. Still less will he ply you with coffee, fruit, bread, cheese, honey and tahini as you are organising your thoughts, or cut you short to have you smell the basil growing on the balcony, or interrupt your cerebration with thunderous denunciations of Kostas Karamanlis whenever he appears on the telly, which is often. Here in Greece, you must be prepared for this. I was, sort of, but staying with my generous, hospitable and intensely verbal friend and her daughter, bang in the centre of Athens, it's still quite an assault to the old language centres of the brain after my monkish life in tiny little Stamford. It's like being asked to play basketball after you have spent a long time simply being a blob on the couch.

Possibly because of this, I slept like a baby last night for the first time in years, despite the cars, buses, trucks and kami-kaze motorcyclists that hurtle round us. Also for the first time in years, I woke up feeling refreshed instead of feeling like crawling right back into bed after my first coffee. I don't have to get a train today, I don't have to do my thing in front of a class, or indeed do anything I have not myself chosen to do, and it is not often I feel like this. I could get used to it.

Weather v nice, not 2 hot. Going to Kalamata on Friday.

S.
xxx

4 comments:

Bo said...

Marvellous! Have fun. I have identical language issues when I stay with friends in Wales, when my Welsh has to shift from *reading* sentences like: 'It will be apparent that the pronomial system had been considerably altered by the end of the 14th century' to *saying* ones like: 'Have your hair-straighteners heated up yet?'

vilges suola said...

:)Hmmm - couldn't off-hand say that in Greek either. Living here of course you learn things no text book would ever present: 'my radiators need bleeding' / 'the glands in my neck are swollen', that sort of thing. No idea about hair straighteners... zestathikan oi ??? sou?

Mediterranean kiwi said...

athens never ever fails to fascinate me - i was there a week ago

vilges suola said...

Going back tomorrow. Right now sweltering in Kalamata, hiding in an internet cafe to keep out of the heat. I'm pretty fed up and want to get back home!

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