Young girl who spoke Indonesian rather than Greek growing up wins Greek language bursary at La Trobe

When Penelope Vakalopoulos, who is studying for her Diploma of Greek Language at La Trobe University, was offered a $4,000 bursary to support Greek language learning opportunities she was taken a little by surprise.

The 10 Greek language scholarships being offered by the university have been made available by the Victorian Government through the Community Support Fund. For Penelope, it means a lot.

“As a language student, you don’t expect a lot of funding to be going your way because language students and departments aren’t prioritised – particularly in the current climate,” she said.

“You feel the pinch with COVID budget cuts as subjects are being culled left, right and centre.”

Despite this, Ms Vakalopoulos soldiered on in her study of languages mainly because of an intrinsic drive.

When money comes, such as in this case, she told Neos Kosmos it is “not fundamental to the motivation, but it is reinforcement”.

“It isn’t just about the money, but that people are thinking about us,” she said.

READ MORE: Scholarships to support Greek language students at La Trobe

The bursary is based on academic merit, and Ms Vakalopoulos managed to achieve great results despite having grown up as a 4th generation Greek who did not speak the language at home. In fact, she realised she had a knack for languages not by speaking the language of her heritage but by learning Indonesian at school.

“The first foreign language I learnt was Indonesian and I had a few exchanges in Indonesian, learnt the language and used it in a living context,” she said, adding that Greek was not offered at her high school nor spoken at home, hence she learnt to speak Indonesian better than the language of her heritage.

Ms Vakalopoulos went on to study for her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, with a major in Arabic and a minor in Indonesian.

Unable to find a Modern Greek course, she picked up a year of Ancient Greek as well as a few elective subjects, such as Ancient Greek History.

It was only at the start of 2020, while walking around the Lonsdale St Greek Festival that she met Dr Stephie Nikoloudis, Lecturer and Coordinator of the Greek Studies Program of the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe and found out that she could enrol in a separate diploma.

“It’s part of my identity which I have been trying to reconnect with and cultivate. I started informally kind of teaching myself and had a tutor for a year concurrent to my Year 12 studies. I wanted to enrol directly in Greek as part of my Bachelor of Arts but the University of Melbourne did not offer it so I studied Ancient Greek and was stoked when I found out I could do it at La Trobe,” she said.

READ MORE: It’s official! Greek language program to continue at La Trobe University

The online learning environment made it a little easier to juggle her programme where most of her subjects were at the University of Melbourne with Modern Greek at La Trobe and Persian at ANU, and altogether, she says “it was a bit of a headache” but well worth the effort.

She never went to Greek school as a child, though she did manage to smuggle a few Greek text books from her grandmother’s house.

“I took a gap year and spent two months in Greece,” she said.

“The first two weeks were in Aigio, in the Peloponnese, with my aunt, who doesn’t speak any English and that was a confronting immersive experience,” she said, adding that her language has taken a more structured form at La Trobe.

“I often feel subconscious that I don’t speak colloquial Greek as it is spoken in the streets as I wasn’t immersed in the language, but I have mastered grammar quite well and reading and writing, and that comes out in the result – and that’s where I excel in literacy and grammar. The oral component was not assessed in a casual way,” she said.

She says that the bursary is “heartening and encouraging, and will help me keep studying for the next few years”.

“I have thought many times that I should clear out a vocational pathway,” she said, adding that her learning has simply been guided by her own desire.

“I never had a clear vision about what type of vocational utility I wanted to put my languages to use in.”

Recently, she started teaching Arabic to first year students as well as elementary Greek to adults and is glad to be doing her bit to “prevent the loss of the Greek language”.

Next year she plans to do a combined Honours year in Arabic and Greek and from there she’ll keep doing what she loves.