Wearing traditional spectacles with some kind of a polo shirt, and with a bald patch clearly visible on the crown of his head, it wasn’t until my Year 6 Greek school teacher first walked us into our new classroom in 2010 that I realised what I had been missing out on for five years.
From Year 1, I had been sent to a Thursday afternoon Greek school run by the local church. The vast majority of memories I have from those years are dominated by the teaching of religion as every week there would be a different Saint’s day or religious celebration. While this can be explained by the fact that this was a church school, I couldn’t help but feel that every week there was something missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it until Year 6. It was during this year that I finally came to the realisation that, to some extent, a Greek school needed to be just that: a school for the Greek language.
In Year 6, the school hired a teacher from Greece to fill the position. He had a far heavier emphasis on vocabulary, grammar, etymology and aspects of the Greek culture than my previous teachers, which transcended the Greek Orthodox religion. He never participated in the προσευχή at the beginning and end of lessons, though he did not stand in the way of students doing so.
My final year in primary Greek school left an impression on me because it was then that I finally learned how important it was that the Greek language itself needs to be maintained by us, the diaspora, before it becomes lost. There is a responsibility for us to pass on the language from generation to generation and to keep it alive. We must not neglect the language and see traditions, such as the occasional plate smash, souvlaki or Zeibekiko, as adequate strategies for truly preserving our culture.
Now, in 2018, coming to the close of nearly fourteen years as a student of the Modern Greek language, the issue of the decline in our homeland’s mother tongue has a particular importance for me. We see every year that fewer and fewer students are studying Modern Greek and yet there is nothing being done about it. From my experience, the issue of the waning Greek language among my peers is not a phenomenon of recent years. It was evident very early on that my average classmate had considerable difficulty wielding command over the Greek language. It was, and still is a shame that this is the case, because the Greek diaspora in Sydney is by no means a small community, and passing on the language is an essential means of ensuring that our culture does not die.
A major question is “Why is speaking Greek so important to preserving our culture?”. The way I see it, the idea of “Greekness” is a very fragmented one. When examined at the core, traditions and customs can vary greatly between different islands or cities, even within Greece. The aspects of our culture that hold us together are not universally binding between all Greek people. However, the language is a base that unites all Greeks. Though dialects serve as variations, the underlying Greek language is common and has evolved over millennia, albeit remaining an ever-central component of Greek identity even from antiquity.
Given that I have been studying Greek for fourteen years, I can say that in my own experience there has been a great deal of difference across the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education in the Modern Greek language here in Sydney. Transitioning into high school, I vividly remember how much a twelve-and-half-year-old version of me moved from a Thursday afternoon church’s Greek school to a Saturday morning, government-funded language school, where there were classes for more than just Modern Greek.
It became clearer that this “new” Greek school was different. The lesson did not begin or end with a προσευχή, and there was a broadened definition of what Greek culture was. That is, the role of religion in the Greek culture was emphasised to a lesser extent than it was during my experience in primary school. However, the key aspect that was replicated from the primary level was that lessons needed to be conducted primarily in English due to our class’ somewhat limited skill set which prevented us from being able to keep up with an environment of hearing no English. One particular limitation from high school, was that no person could be expected to master a language with two hours of formal face-to-face teaching every week. As a result, the overall progress for a student could only be modest at best, especially when considered in terms of how much work it takes to reach a place even close to fluency in a language.
This problem was exacerbated in senior years due to the fact that language assessments in Years 11 and 12 are, for the most part, answered in English rather than Greek. Consequently, the HSC Modern Greek courses are not designed to develop fluency in the Greek language and an average student in such a course would not be able to reap their full potential by the end of the Preliminary and HSC years. An even further problem in these particular years, is closely linked to the stereotype surrounding scaling. That is, a student who studies Greek will be “punished” in their ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) if they fail to perform at an exceptional standard. Unfortunately, this contributes to the falling enrolments in Modern Greek at the high school level.
Having now moved on to the tertiary level of education, I made the independent decision that I would study Greek as part of my university degree, and as a major, no less. As a young adult now, it was my own conscious decision, rather than one made by my family, to continue learning Greek because it had finally dawned on me how important it was that the Greek-Australian youth step up and make the choice to study Greek and acknowledge the responsibility to preserve our language and culture.
Having achieved the required results at the HSC level, I was granted special permission to advance straight into 3rd level subjects. In my first four semesters at the University of Sydney’s Greek Department, I have taken subjects dealing with the Greek language (focusing on grammar as well as translation) and Greek culture (through subjects dealing with history, politics and literature). As of the end of Semester 2 of this year, I have finished my Greek major and I will top it off in January, when I travel to Athens to study my mother tongue in the country itself. This, I believe, will be the culmination not only of two years of study at the university level, but of fourteen years of formal education in the Greek language, and something I am sincerely looking forward to in spite of the fact it will be eight weeks away from home and comfort, because it will be a great leap of faith to prove to myself that I can, indeed, cope when immersed in a totally Greek-speaking environment.
Nevertheless, when reflecting back on fourteen years of education in Modern Greek, I can’t help but notice that formal education in a classroom environment has (and has always had) its limitations. I think back, and I can honestly say that it was never enough to spend a mere few hours a week to properly master the Greek language. There was always a key factor that helped me to top my classes in primary school, to be placed in a Year 9/10 class in the second week of Year 7 because I was able to keep up with them, to achieve top bands in HSC Continuers and Extension, and to continue to achieve good marks even at the university level. This key factor was the active participation of my family in speaking Greek to me from birth, throughout my childhood and adolescence, and even now in young adulthood. In particular, it was my father’s unending efforts to ensure that my brothers and I spoke and still speak Greek at home since the moment we were born; not merely to speak kitchen Greek or Gringlish/Greeklish, but to have actual conversations on serious issues in the Greek language. It was about making mistakes, being corrected, learning new and bigger words every day and engaging, on a deep level, with the Greek language.
As such, it is no surprise that the diaspora is detached from the Gr
eek language and that there is a decline in the Greek language, not only because lessons are conducted almost purely in English, but because parents and families are not speaking the Greek language to the next generation. Though there is a responsibility for the Greek-Australian youth to enrol in Greek classes to preserve the culture, there is an even deeper responsibility for Greek-Australian families to put this learning into practice at home.
For our community, it is not an issue of the importance of merely learning just any language for the sake of it, nor even learning the Greek language for the sake of it. Rather, it is an issue of the importance of learning our language. It is so embedded within the culture that we cannot truly call ourselves Greeks until and unless we acknowledge how important it is to ensure that the language does not die and that preserving our language is a means to preserve our culture.