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'Many benefits' to bilingualism, experts say

The decline in language maintenance is depriving those with greater opportunities and a higher capacity for bilingualism from numerous cognitive and linguistic benefits

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09 November 2017

The number of Australians who are speaking Greek at home has been declining since 2011, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate.

Linguistic and language experts suggest that the decline in language maintenance is depriving those with greater opportunities and a higher capacity for bilingualism from numerous cognitive and linguistic benefits.

Professor Panos Athanasopoulos of the Linguistics and English Language department at the UK's Lancaster University says the main benefit of maintaining one's Greek is that knowing the language gives you unparalleled access to the culture in a way that wouldn't be possible through English alone.

"Imagine reading Kazantzakis or Kavafis in English. You get the main gist, but there are important subtleties that are missing," he said.

"Try reading the same authors in the original Greek, and suddenly the characters come alive and immerse you in the environment they are operating in."
Professor Athanasopoulos said there are many benefits that have to do with being bilingual.
"Many studies show that bilinguals are more flexible thinkers with multiple points of view depending on which language they are using, and develop neural pathways that preserve cognitive function in the brain better than in monolinguals," he said.

One 2015 study by memory researcher Dr Rosanna Olsen found that there is a strong association between bilingualism and its maintenance for healthy brain ageing and assisting with delaying dementia.

Her study compared older bilinguals and monolinguals and how the use of another language benefitted various structures of the brain, particularly the frontal and temporal lobes, which are used for executive and language functions.

Other research into the area has demonstrated that bilingualism may delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The Modern Greek Teachers' Association of Victoria, which represents teachers of Greek at all levels of education has promoted and supported teaching Greek language and culture for over 40 years.

They said learning languages enriches learners in many ways, and learning Greek develops the linguistic and cultural resources in our community.

Athena Papakonstantinou, a second-generation Greek Australian and family owner of Scent of a Flower florist in Fitzroy, says maintaining her Greek has been beneficial for her in numerous ways.

"Going to Greece it's always easier to converse with the family," Ms Papakonstantinou said.

"The older generation doesn't speak English very well or at all, so knowing Greek makes it easier to talk to them."

Ms Papakonstantinou said that knowing the heritage of certain English words that have Greek origin makes her proud to be Greek.

"It makes me happier. I wish when I was in high school I paid more attention in Greek, but now I am able to read, write and communicate in Greek and it does make me happy," she said.

But for Greek Australian, Euegenie Pepper (nee Vrisakis), a former business owner, letting go of her Greek language is something she regrets, and says that her parents did not speak to her in Greek when she was growing up.

"Growing up in 1970s Sydney it did not seem important. My parents did not speak to us kids in Greek; they would use the language as a secret code. My parents only spoke to each other in Greek when they did not want us to know what they were talking about," Ms Pepper said.

The mother of two said that she is "embarrassed" when she meets with older relatives or friends who assume she speaks the language.

"I hate not being able to converse freely in Greek," she said.

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