The enthusiasm shown by early migrants to keep the Greek language alive has given way to lethargy, with less people speaking Greek in Australia than ever before.
The Modern Greek Strategic Plan discussion paper, commissioned by the Modern Greek Teachers’ Association of Victoria (MGTAV), points to census results which “confirm a noticeable decline in the number of homes where Greek is the main language of communication, meaning that every year fewer children are raised speaking Greek”. But following the presentation of a five-year research project documenting the Greek language on 23 February 2020, the MGTAV is determined to turn the situation around with various initiatives.
The 2021 Pharos Working Party was formed on 13 April 2021, and is made up of key Greek language stakeholders in Victoria. The working group has been collaborating with Professor Joseph Lo Bianco on its Strategic Plan for widespread discussion before a final strategy is launched on 5 December.
Initial data presented last year showed a steady decline, but MGTAV President Anita Ladas told Neos Kosmos that the “effects of the pandemic [on language] are as yet unknown”.
Asked what is to blame for Greek language loss, Ms Lada points to general problems when it comes to preserving language diversity in Australia.
“As Professor Lo Bianco outlines in his research ‘Pharos’, Australia generally faces serious language problems, which are also the overarching problems that Modern Greek faces. It is important to note that these problems are not unique to Greek alone, but affect all languages in Australia,” she said.
“The first of these issues being generational language loss, or as Professor Lo Bianco coins it, the ‘3-G problem’, where languages other than English are used less and less each generation in Australia. Professor Lo Bianco has also worked extensively in ‘reversing language shift’, and ‘language revitalisation’, and believes it is possible to reverse the current trend with Modern Greek.”
Professor Lo Bianco’s research identifies that while school language programmes and university teaching are “fundamental to the revitalisation process, they alone cannot reverse underlying trends of generational language loss”.
The strategy is three-pronged. 1) To build capacity in knowledge of Greek, so that more young people learn the language to a level that gives them confidence to use it; 2) To seek opportunities to deepen and enrich their
knowledge of the language; and 3) To connect with the language on a personal level.
Language loss is not inevitable. In the last three years, La Trobe’s Greek programme has seen a doubling of enrolment numbers, however this did not stop the university from announcing that Modern Greek would be cut as a study option. Following a campaign to keep the programme alive, an accord was signed by the university, the Greek Community of Melbourne and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia to secure the continuation of Modern Greek at the university.
Dr Stephie Nikoloudis, co-ordinator of La Trobe’s Modern Greek Studies program, said “we still need more people to take Greek at university and if we “get the word out, the trend in numbers will continue to rise”.
“We have noticed that there are more people from diverse backgrounds taking our course,” she told Neos Kosmos, while adding that teaching via Zoom has met with “mixed reactions”.
Regarding the Strategic Plan, Dr Nikoloudis said “the idea is to provide a united coordinated response to revitalise the Greek language”.
“Some of the proposals may be happening to bring everybody together and learn from one another and develop new strategies and make sure we don’t lose the language,” she said, adding that the only way forward is via a coordinated response.
Ms Lada said that just as Modern Greek was saved at La Trobe, “a similarly united approach, but on a much larger scale, is required to revitalise the Modern Greek language in Australia. If we are able to action the items outlined in our Strategic Plan as a community, then it will be possible to reverse the language shift.”
Ms Lada said it is possible, but not easy, as bilingualism in general is not a common undertaking in Australia. “As Professor Lo Bianco also explains in the research, the widespread use of English across the world has had an effect on English-speakers in English-speaking countries,” she said.
In a recent interview, Alex Hawke, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, was asked by Neos Kosmos about foreign language opportunities for monolingual people in multicultural Australian, he said English is a “good unifying language and it brings all multicultural threads together,” while adding “we respect and absolutely encourage people to use their national languages”.
Unlike Europe, consisting of “dozens and dozens of countries together for thousands of years”, Mr Hawke said British-settled Australia had “one language for the country from day one” while he also acknowledges the aboriginal languages which were in place at the time. That is why unlike Europe, Australia is investing in English learning for migrants more than foreign-language learning for Australians.
So it is up to the MGTAV, Greek education providers and community groups along with determined Greek Australian families to ensure the survival of Greek language. For starters, people are urged to review the Discussion Paper and provide feedback in the questionnaire by Sunday the 28 November.