From the early settlement of Greeks in Australia, more than 100 years ago, to this day, a significant number of families with a Greek heritage expect their Australia-born children to speak Greek, interact with their grandparents in Greek, celebrate their cultural identity and keep their ethnicity alive through little acts of ‘Greekness’, which include minimal church attendance, reciting simple Greek poems and dancing the Zorba on special occasions as well as parading and waving a small Greek flag on Greece’s National Day.
But as children grow up and find themselves studying, working and living in a multicultural society like Australia, they often struggle to identify and embrace their cultural identity – something particularly relevant to the experience of the latest generations of Greeks down under – and one can’t help but wonder: are we, parents and grandparents, really raising Greek kids in Australia and if the answer to this question is in the negative, then what is it that we are doing wrong?
According to numerous studies, knowing another language, culture and customs widens a person’s horizon and provides them with the capability to view things from another perspective. Irrespective of whether one might agree or not with some aspects of another culture, if there is at least understanding and respect, then there lies an opportunity to build bridges and raise children that can balance and embrace their two identities.
Despite the two waves of immigration, before and after WW2, which saw Greeks coming en masse to Australia in the 20th century, seeking a better future for themselves and their families, and establishing strong communities, it is rare to day to find young people who speak advanced Greek in Australia; and although it is no simple feat to learn to speak another language fluently, when it comes to immigrants, their children and grandchildren, polyglottery not only appears to be unappreciated but on occasions natives are often quick to criticize a less than perfect command of their country’s language. More often than not, the use of a foreign language like Greek is, if not discouraged or criticized, then at least ignored or treated as an irrelevant left-over skill from the migrant’s former life.
Furthermore, there is also the extreme view that even new-arrivals today should learn how to speak English as fast as possible and cease using their mother tongues. Fast forward to the current generation, and one finds that children have a very strong desire to ‘fit in’, and generally resist anything that would set them apart from their peers. Thus, being forced to use a non-English language like Greek, is a stay-clear area for many and that’s where the problem starts to propagate.
“These are issues that we will continue to face until we as parents and grandparents realise, that in order to have a much desired outcome, we must lead by example and showcase to the new generations of Greek Australians what it really means to be Greek,” says former Greek Teacher and President of Pavlos Melas Brotherhood of Western Macedonia, Mr Ioannis Mitrousidis, himself a migrant from Northern Greece and former President of the Pan Macedonian Federation of South Australia.
“We, as parents and grandparents, must remain connected with our own culture and keep our traditions alive, but we also need to delve deeper into our ‘Greekness’ and expand our knowledge in areas such as history, religion and geography.” According to Mr Mitrousidis, the solution to bringing up Greek children in Australia lays within the home and the parents, but given social environment is invariably more important to any child than some obscure and incomprehensible parental decision of maintaining one’s culture – which seems totally irrelevant and meaningless to most children- it appears that the only way to get the children to learn is to encourage them to spend more time in an environment where the mother tongue is the most efficient means of communication, whether it’s via Greek school, relatives, friends and not least the grandparents’ house.
Educators agree that children learn a foreign language by taking the shortest path to communication that starts with their family members, their educators and then their friends.
As it is not easy for anyone to switch between languages, parents can only aspire towards a smooth transition which can be achieved through fun activities that attract children’s attention whether it’s listening to Greek radio and music, watching Greek television programs, reading books and newspapers from a young age and progressively attending Greek events, cooking traditional Greek recipes with the grandparents and continually being encouraged to speak the Greek language and embrace, accept and honour their own roots and cultural identity.
On the other hand, simply being born into a family that provides a child with the absolute cultural and linguistic basics for mastering another language isn’t sufficient. In order to establish a literal, professional and academic foundation in any language, children need schooling, not just family. “A child learns primarily from parents followed closely by the teachers. Therefore, the cooperation between the two is paramount for those who wish to raise a child that feels safe in exploring and achieving a deeper understanding and connection with its cultural identity,” adds Mr Mitrousidis.
“Children learn by watching, by listening and especially by doing and they tend to reject what they can’t comprehend, therefore, the responsibility lays with the family to guide them along the way. If we as adults refrain from using the language of our ancestors and have limited knowledge of Greece on a holistic level, then we cannot possibly expect otherwise from our children.”
At the end of the day, we can certainly muster up many reasons as to why our Australia-born children don’t have a good command of the Greek language, and we can also put forward plenty of excuses as to why our children have no time to learn how to speak Greek, but it is only fair to then accept the fact that simply obtaining a Greek passport, reciting an old school poem or nursery rhyme, knowing how to write one’s name in Greek, or mastering a ‘Καλημέρα’, doesn’t automatically ‘make’ a child Greek. Is losing our cultural identity the price we must pay for choosing to live in ‘ξενιτιά’ or is it time to dig a little deeper and ask ourselves the one question we all seem too afraid to ask: When it comes to our children being Greek, how much do we really want it?