Speaking English is fine if traveling in Greece and visiting typical tourist areas, but going off the beaten path to remote islands/villages or choosing offbeat activities will require speaking and reading Greek.
Living, working and finding a job in Greece is a different story. Is learning Greek required, true or false? It’s both.
Speaking several languages, including the local one, will make you more attractive to an employer on paper and in person. It is good business sense to hire someone who can speak to everyone, rather than someone who is limited to communicating with only a few in a non-native language. Even employers offering summer jobs in tourist spots prefer people who are bilingual in Greek.
Reading, writing and speaking Greek will undoubtedly increase your chances of finding work, simply because the whole job market is open to you and make you more competitive. It will help you stay in your field and perhaps even get you a position on par with the level you attained back in your homeland, instead of settling for less.
Lastly, although being fluent or proficient in Greek does not guarantee you a higher salary, it gives you the power to negotiate a salary, rather than allowing your employer to use it as leverage to pay you less.
While learning Greek, even at a basic level, will help you in everyday activities and make your transition smoother without being dependent on others for help, I and several people I know can attest that it is not necessary in finding some jobs.
Programmers and technicians, secretaries at Greek and multinational companies, editors and proofreaders at publishing houses and ELT schools, tourist industry workers, administrators at universities, architects, some teachers of English, personal assistants to Greek professionals — none of them speak Greek at a fluent or even basic level because their company has a UK, German, Spanish, American or otherwise non-Greek speaking clientele or industry focus. Unfortunately, many multinationals have withdrawn and moved elsewhere since the crisis began.
Not speaking Greek also means that you won’t be able to read 99.5 percent of newspaper ads/classifieds or communicate beyond pleasantries with the majority of the population.
The good jobs for native speakers of another language without fluency in Greek have almost no turnover and come available rarely, only to be filled through connections or recommendations by relatives or friends without ever being advertised. See, “Greece favors the connected, not the talented.”
Vacancies that open up more often or continuously advertised in “foreigner” newspapers are usually less than desirable jobs with high turnover. There’s a reason. These companies count on a continuous supply of non-EU citizens who will work illegally out of desperation, accept a lower salary, not get IKA (insurance) and bonuses (Easter, summer and Christmas), but work unpaid overtime and settle for being treated poorly or exploited in other ways out of fear of being fired or otherwise unemployed with no severance pay or pension contributions.
You may be fine with that as a means to stay here and support yourself, but your life and career will never advance beyond these recycled jobs into a professional realm. Those who aren’t picky and enjoy instability may find this satisfactory; others seeking growth and opportunity should know that your career will top out quickly without connections. This is especially true for women over 30 who must leave Greece to continue their careers. See “Who is jobless in Greece?”
And if you one day intend to return to your homeland or migrate to another country, a prospective employer may not be sympathetic to your past job situation because no one cares how Greece works, and it will be difficult for you to regain the position you once held.
Contrary to popular belief that international experience is looked upon favorably, I found that many multinational companies see you as flaky, unfocused or a flight risk (aka, you’ll leave again), unless the move abroad was for good reason — i.e., Company transfer, related directly to an established profession, family reasons or accepting a golden job opportunity with a recognized brand, institution or NGO. Many well-known job agencies I consulted in New York, Stockholm, California, Madrid and Miami say that it’s often better to leave this period off a CV because expatriates frequently claim a profession abroad without having real credentials or qualifications. The only time global experience is routinely looked upon favorably is when you’re a CEO. See, “What the résumés of top CEOs have in common.”
It is a widely held belief that most Greeks speak English, and Greece caters to an English-speaking population. That’s both true and false.
In affluent areas, larger towns and areas frequented by tourists, many know some English, especially younger people. However, the statement, “All Greeks speak English” is greatly exaggerated.” A majority of ATM/cash machines do not offer the option for English even in big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, 95 percent of bureaucratic forms are in Greek, and government websites offer slimmed down or outdated English versions of their Greek counterparts. Further, public sector offices (dimos, eforia, nomarxeia, IKA, OAED, etc.) are staffed by people who will insist on speaking Greek, except in rare instances.
There are people who live here for years without bothering to learn Greek even at a basic level and survive. They congregate with people speaking the same language or multilingual Greeks, manage at the grocery store and are dependent on a friend, girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, child or lawyer to do the translating and bureaucratic legwork for them. They read only a fraction of Greek news that gets translated to English. Greece remains a mysterious stranger to them.*
That’s fine, I suppose, but I found that having even a basic command of Greek does wonders. With some grasp of the language, independence and confidence replace isolation and fear, knowledge chips away at ignorance, and closed doors inch open. You feel like a functioning adult with a full life instead of a helpless and dependent child, and Greece feels more like home than a foreign country.
Learning Greek isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not the most difficult either.
* Getting familiar with Greece using wisdom from this website, reading my Twitter news feed or hearing what it’s like from a friend does not count as knowing something or having first-hand experience.
Jump start your job search
If you’re an EU citizen or a non-EU citizen with a work permit for Greece, you can start your job search with the links I’ve provided in the right column by scrolling down to the heading “Jobs, Homes and Auto Ads in Greece” and clicking anything that interests you. Some websites are bilingual with the best jobs listed in Greek.
If you’re a non-EU citizen without a work permit, it’s best to read, “How non-EU citizens can get a permit to live and work in Greece.” Why? Because there is little point looking for a job if you cannot get a permit, unless you plan to work illegally and eventually be blacklisted or deported.