The future of Modern Greek in the Antipodes is on shaky ground.

After months of Zoom classes in English school, many parents – especially those with young students – are giving up. And as more pupils drop out of Greek at young ages, this will affect the future crop of VCE students and even less trickling into the only Greek tertiary programme at La Trobe University.

Two years ago, problems were different. The migration wave from Greece to Australia during the debt crisis caused concern that native Greek speakers were outperforming their Australian-born peers in VCE-level Modern Greek exams. As a result, locally-born students were shying away from the study of the language in Year 12.

To create a level playing field and incentivise VCE students, a two-tier system kicked off this year. Pathways are being split between beginners and native speakers. Unfortunately, however, after 20 months of border closures, the new system’s bid to encourage beginners to tackle the new language has been underwhelming. The main enemy these days is not the newly-arrived, but fatigue caused by Zoom classes.

John Vayenas from Salesian College in Chadstone studied for his year 12 Modern Greek exams with the Greek Language School of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria and found it was more difficult online despite the Zoom sessions. “I didn’t have the opportunity to ask more questions and send practice exams as it is more difficult to do this online, however I was happy with how it went and it gives me comfort that, unlike Business Management, which I am also sitting for, Greek does scale up,” he told Neos Kosmos.

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John Vayenas is chuffed that he won’t be competing with native Greek speakers in his Greek VCE exam. Photo: Supplied

Zoom sessions have required perseverance. Zacharias Kapellakis, a Year 12 IB student at Albert Park College, originally from Crete, said that many of the problems are caused when students don’t have the opportunity to practice at home with their families. “Verbally, I am better at speaking the language and have a flow in my conversation because I speak Greek with my family,” he told Neos Kosmos. “We even use the Cretan dialect, and this is rare even for Greece.”

A huge incentive for Zacharias was his dream of living in Greece some day, and it is the desire to return to Crete that has helped drive his language. “Many people of Greek heritage are persuaded to conform to the mainstream culture. They lose their traditions over time, but they also lose their identity,” he said. “I’m not just doing Greek for the marks, I want to go and live in Crete after I finish my studies. I was born there as was my middle brother. My youngest brother was born here, and as a result, he didn’t have the same contact we had and it was easier for him to adopt the Australian way of life. People who haven’t experienced Greece have less incentive to learn.”

His advice to his peers is to talk to their grandparents in order to keep the language alive, something which was hard to do during lockdowns. “The mood was negative as people felt depressed and students felt isolated,” he said.

Zacharias Kapellakis says speaking Greek at home has helped him maintain his culture, language and identity. Photo: Supplied

Teacher Maryanne Theodosis at Saint Monica’s College in Epping has seen first-hand the problems which lockdown has caused. “Students need a 1:1 immersive experience, and when they are at school, I can better organise times to meet with them and practice oral components,” she said. “Doing things online, aside from technology issues, becomes impersonal.”

She said this year’s crop of VCE students were in a more difficult position because lockdown was longer and also more intermittent. “Last year, we already had been in that frame of mind, and we knew that we would be in lockdown for 10 weeks, but this year’s was more unpredictable and harder as the Year 12 students had not experienced Year 11,” she said. “They were very fatigued. They didn’t sit for SACs properly or do writing tasks properly to practice handwriting – and the VCE tests need to be handwritten. But even typing was an issue because the letters are different on a Greek keyboard.”

She said that there have been fluctuations in interest over her ten years of teaching. “I haven’t taught any fluent Greek speakers, but I don’t think that the marks will go up for my students with the new system because fluent Greek speakers are a small percentage and not enough to counteract any weaknesses,” she said. “For instance, if you have got a cohort of 200, then two or three speakers would not really affect the result.”

Every year, Ms Theodosis conducted a survey with her students. “Its not about the marks. They said their top reason to learn Greek was because of their heritage and culture. They felt an obligation to keep the language alive, and secondly, they were doing it to see an increase in tehir VCE marks to get into university,” she said.

She said she loves teaching Greek, but the challenges are many. “On the junior side, we have students who have never learnt Greek before with those who have in the same class,” she said. “The books are also lacking so I don’t use them and modify my own material. We teach STEM aviation in Greek, and built an aeroplane, we go on camps, learn about the Greek gods. I try to keep it relevant and modern.”

Her own experience has affected her teaching. “I remember Greek school. I was bored out of my brains. My mum is also a Greek teacher and I did Greek in high school,” she said, reflecting on her own past as a learner which she uses to empathise with her own students.

Teaching Greek in the Antipodes changes as teaching technologies change, as the Greek community changes, as reasons and needs for learning the language change.