It’s all Greek to me

Sharing the Greek language, traditions and culture with the generations of Greek Australians born here is not as difficult as might think, writes Despina Meris

Do your memories of Greek school involve memorising poems that sounded like gibberish, and being rapped across the knuckles with a ruler when you didn’t remember them?

Or feeling the onset of a sore stomach just minutes before the start of every lesson? Mine certainly do. By now, it’s likely that you have moved past the trauma, somewhat happy that your parents forced you to attend. But what about the next generation?

A widespread challenge that faces today’s Greek Australian parents is how to pass on the Greek language, culture, and traditions to their children – while making it fun and engaging.

Walt Disney once said, “Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.”

We have an obligation to teach our children about their Greek heritage. But how do we do that, when we ourselves weren’t born in Greece, have never lived there and barely use the language in our daily communication? As a Greek prep school teacher, Flora Socratou knows the challenges of teaching a child the Greek language.

She creates a colourful program to capture the imaginations of young children. “Rather than having the children memorize and recite, we make up games, songs, hands on activities, creative projects. These are all activities that introduce children to the language in a fun and conversational way, and they don’t even realize that they’re learning.”

Making the Greek language part of everyday life, rather than something removed and foreign, is important. “An entire language can’t be taught in three hours per week, no matter how much we teachers try. Without practice outside of the lesson, children come to class having forgotten what they learned in the previous week’s lesson.” Ms Socratou knows how busy parents can be, so she encourages even 10 minutes of conversational Greek per day.

She suggests that parents designate a time to speaking Greek, such as in the car or before dinner – and to be disciplined. “When children are corrected by their parents privately, they build a stronger foundation of language skills and are more confident to speak it in public.”

Maria Pirpiris, mother of four young children who are fluent in Greek, makes a concerted effort to make the language part of their lives.

“The key is starting early. I read them the ‘Alphavitario’ when they were two, and by three or four they knew the sounds, and how to read it on their own.” By the time they started Greek school, they knew their Greek alphabet.

“It’s up to the parents to make the effort. Instead of reading an English language storybook before bed, we read them a Greek one. Instead of playing a DVD in English, we play Finding Nemo or Toy Story in Greek.”

Greek Fisher Price laptop toys have also proved very effective for Ms. Pirpiris’ children. “The children play with the Greek laptop on their own, learning colours, numbers, the alphabet.” Storybooks, DVDs and laptops can be found at various outlets like Carras Greek Music, The Greek Book Shop in Brunswick or websites like Greek books are also available at selected Greek schools and local libraries.

For older children, debates on current topics, as well as plays with modern story lines, have been met with great success at Greek schools. These activities allow them to use the language in a way that inspires them.

One parent tells me of their surprise at how well their child performed in a Greek school play. “All the family looked at each other, shocked at how fluent her Greek was. I think it was partly to do with the plot – parents not letting their children go out late with their friends. It was something that she could relate to!”

It seems that the days of memorising verb conjugations at Greek school – or reciting poems that are completely foreign – are numbered. And I can’t say that I’m sorry to see them go. When I graduated Greek school in Year 6, I snatched my diploma and ran. My school had turned being Greek into this dull, torturous, foreign concept, something from a bygone era.

I distanced myself for years, and came very close to losing something that today makes me who I am. So what brought me back? At 15, I joined a Greek dance troupe of 20 fun-loving kids who became my best friends – and still are today.

We worked as a team, bonded and laughed our way through practices and performances. I never knew that there was this lighter, more enjoyable side to celebrating my culture.

And through my newfound friends, I participated in a government-funded trip to Greece where I saw a more cosmopolitan side of the country, met my peers from Greece and abroad, and spoke on a panel about issues that affected my age group. These experiences cemented my connection with Greece, which continues today.

The Greek government offers fully and partly subsidized trips for primary, high school and university students. They incorporate activities of Greek cultural significance, public speaking, and classes with other students. Contact the Education Office of the Greek Consulate on (03)98664660 from February, to find out about this year’s programs.

If there is a particular area of Greece that you would like your children to travel to, contact that municipality directly. There is no doubt that it is a challenging task to foster a Greek identity in our children. It takes time that we don’t have to give, and energy we don’t seem to have.

But, if our heritage and ideals are the rules that we live by, wouldn’t it be a shame to deprive our children of that knowledge? Our culture is an integral part of us, colouring everything that we do, and by not sharing that with our children, we hold back a piece of our history – and ourselves.