Learning English in Greece
by Theodora Papapanagitou
In my previous post, I wrote about what teaching English is like in Greece. I emphasized that we are a very exam-oriented society, so teaching almost always revolves around exam preparation. In this post I am going to be a little more specific on the structure of classes and what is actually learned.
What better example could I possibly use than myself? Just like everybody else in my country, I had to learn English as a foreign language. I loved English. My first introduction to English came from my cousin, who had just come back from the States where she lived with her parents, and she didn’t speak any Greek. So she became was my first teacher, a ten-year-old girl trying to communicate with a four-year-old! I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with her and, although I did not understand the language, I still loved the way it sounded to my ears.
At the time when I was a schoolgirl, English was not part of the elementary school curriculum, so we started learning it at junior high school. This has changed over the years and nowadays Greek children begin learning their first foreign language, English, in the third grade of elementary school (8-9 years old) and their second foreign language, usually German or French, in the fifth grade (10-11 years old).
Back then, I skipped the first two years of English classes and started learning English at the age of 10, since I had learnt the basics from my cousin. At that time, everyone in Greece studied using the same textbook series called “Starting out,” published by Oxford University press. The book’s idea was learning through the story of Arthur, an English clerk, and Mary, the love of his life. I still remember how Arthur left his job, started studying at a university, and later got together with Mary – and I believe that students still love textbooks that have a story and they are eager to find out what happens next. Other than that, the book was full of pattern drills and repetitive grammar exercises. The teaching methodology in its variety as we know it now had not gone that far yet. Looking at textbooks now we can see projects, games, interactive exercises, integration of technology – everything to keep the student interested.
These days students of all grades use locally published textbooks approved by the Greek Ministry of Education. A lot of teachers also choose to take part in big educational projects like Comenius, collaborating with other schools in Europe, learning with art, movement, music, and even participating in Model United Nations conferences at the senior high school level. Of course, whether a school and a class take part depends on the teachers and the directors of the school, since it means a lot of extra work for the teachers involved.
As I mentioned before, Greek students and parents are keen on taking language exams and receiving certificates proving the achieved level. There are over 30 different institutions that offer exams of all levels and, depending on the difficulty or exam format, students are eager to pass them and get a language certificate as early as possible. Most of the schools prepare students for language level exams to receive a certificate from the Greek Ministry of Education, and students can take this exam, if they wish. This particular exam is similar to the British and American ones, testing students on their reading and listening comprehension, use of English (Grammar, Vocabulary), writing and speaking.
However, many Greek students are not satisfied with taking only this exam. They also attend private language schools in the afternoon, usually from the age of nine or even younger, so that they learn better English and get a “foreign” English certificate. It is believed that students can’t learn proper English at school (although, of course, there are a lot of school teachers who do a wonderful job).
Since there are a lot of students now who are interested in studying or working abroad, a relatively new trend in Greece is studying for IELTS or TOEFL, which usually happens over the course of 2-3 months. A popular option is taking private lessons at home with a tutor, who can adapt to the student’s needs (or not), and maybe prepare for these exams a bit earlier with their intensive courses, compared to the time students would spend studying for the same exam at a language school.
When I was a student, there was no certificate available from the Greek Ministry of Education, nor from any other institution, so I had to take the Cambridge FCE. My preparation included a lot of tests, grammar, and lots of practice. As a university student majoring in German literature I took the ECPE from University of Michigan, having my best friend, who was studying English literature at the time, as a tutor and then later I continued with a British tutor preparing for the CPE exam. It was not much later that I decided to teach both English and German and furthered my education in that direction.
As a non-native speaker and a teacher, I have to say that you never stop learning. And whether it is with the help of endless exams and certificates or not, many Greeks do learn English. Most of them can more or less speak, understand, and communicate in the language, because they know that English is their window to the world.