My parents took my three-year-old brother to Greek school to ask the principle when it would be a good time for him to start. The answer they got: “You’ve already lost three years”.
It was instilled in me early on that learning Greek was a necessity. When I was very young, I could understand the superficial reasons for learning it, so that I could talk with yiayia and papou and travel with ease to Greece. But it took me a while to understand the true benefits of learning my mother tongue.
For me, Greek school started out as a chore. I felt like my weekend was being hijacked. My peers at primary school looked at me confused when I said I go to school on Saturday, while they had picnics with their parents or played cricket.
I felt short changed.
But, it gave me another group of friends to play with. Ones that had similar traditions, ones that didn’t laugh at the contents of my lunch box, and ones that I could talk to without the fear of pronouncing something differently.
It took me a while to get over the Saturday school anguish. I remember one kid saying his favourite thing about Greek school was the canteen. But, as the class sizes got smaller each year we progressed, those that remained started to really appreciate learning the language.
We saw that our grammar skills were much more progressed than our Australian peers. We understood advanced words like arachnophobia and dodecagon. And we had a working knowledge of mythology, religion and world history.
When things got a bit more serious in the last years of high school, I had well and truly learnt to love Greek school. Our class, although small was still mostly filled with the same friends I made in prep so the journey never felt lonely. Being bilingual, I soon realised I was above average in my other language classes. It actually made me want to learn more languages, and given the opportunity, I even picked up Latin and Ancient Greek.
But all throughout my years learning Greek, my biggest saviour was my mother’s input. As good as my teachers were – and I have to thank my teachers at St Johns for their amazing tutelage – there wasn’t the opportunity to get one-on-one help as often as you’d like. It was my mother’s help, sitting with me every Thursday and Friday night, helping me craft interesting essays and drilling me with grammar that really propelled me to finish my Greek studies.
The fact that I was first generation meant that my parents had a much better working knowledge of Greek, a luxury many of my second and third generation Greek school peers never had.
What got me great results was the fact that I spoke Greek at home, I had help from my family and we’d travelled quite a few times to Greece.
I know now it is hard to ask the same of parents today, many of whom are second or third generation Greeks, but if we want to keep class sizes stable and not have children wanting to leave Greek school the minute they start, we need parents’ involvement.
Speaking Greek to your child at home means they will have working knowledge of two languages. If you can’t speak Greek, make sure they have contact with their grandparents.
It’s too hard to expect a couple of hours a week of Greek school will give your child all they need to learn a language. Those methods mean a child will not remember the language after they finish school.
The benefits of Greek aren’t just about the language, but about bonding with your children and your extended family.