Once a lingua franca, the Greek language is the historical and linguistic foundation of various other languages, including English.
However, a recently released study on the teaching of Modern Greek in Australia from 1997 to 2014 reveals that this fact alone, though significant, is not enough of a motivation to pique people’s interest in studying the language.
Flinders University’s Professor of Modern Greek, Michael Tsianikas, along with Professor Anastasios Tamis of Notre Dame University were requested by the University of Crete to conduct the seven year study as part of a project to gather information regarding all aspects of Greek language education outside of Greece.
Although it is evident that Greek continues to be resilient in Australia, with a strong base and network of speakers, the reality remains that enrolments in the language as an area of study are declining across all levels of education.
“Ten or 15 years ago we were 20 to 30 lecturers [of Modern Greek] in Australia. Now we are only four or five,” Professor Tsianikas tells Neos Kosmos, reflecting on the state of Modern Greek at universities.
Modern Greek remains on the list of 12 protected languages under the Australian Commonwealth and has also been recognised as part of the National Curriculum; however, according to Professor Tsianikas, this is more of a strategic decision, and not something the Greek community should necessarily rely on.
“Everybody is celebrating that Greek is on the list, but what I’m telling everybody is that this is a political decision. In reality things are different; that decision [to include Greek] alone is not enough,” he says.
As is the case in many fields of study, amongst languages there are emerging trends, which develop out of various social and economic factors.
Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region, along with its growing ties with Asian nations and China currently the most important trading partner, is no doubt reflected in the 20 per cent increase of students studying an Asian language last year.
“Australia is changing a lot and other communities are becoming more important for Australia and those languages are more supported than in the past,” tells Professor Tsianikas.
Although both academics recognise the influx of Greeks to Australia since the 2009 economic crisis as a positive for the state of the Greek language in Australia, it is not enough to rely on this one factor alone.
The study revealed fewer students were enrolled in Modern Greek studies in 2014, with just 4,355 students taught Greek at primary and secondary level compared to 5,454 the previous year.
The current concern is that Australia is now seeing third and fourth generation Greek Australians entering primary and high school age.
At this stage of the diaspora it is considered less likely for parents to send their children to Greek schools. Although children may carry Greek surnames, according to Professor Tamis it doesn’t necessarily mean they are actively using the Greek language at home and participating in the culture.
“This research has demonstrated beyond any doubt that almost 40 per cent of school age students, when they arrive [at school] have no knowledge or any experience of the Greek language,” Professor Tamis explains.
“That is to say that in approximately 40 per cent of Greek households, Greek is not spoken.”
Therefore, if Greek is not being supported by the diaspora, then what does this mean for the future of the language in Australia?
According to Professor Tamis, the greatest fallacy regarding the perception of Modern Greek in the Australian community is that it is a community language, which is spoken only by Greeks.
“In this study we are correcting this perception,” Professor Tamis reveals.
“Not only is Greek the oldest surviving European language, it is also the source for all European languages. That’s why we say 23 per cent of English is Greek, 19 per cent of Slavic language is Greek and 27 per cent of the Latin languages are Greek.”
The debate of what to do about the state of Modern Greek outside of Greece is one that is being had throughout the world; however, findings suggest that it is now a critical time to come up with strategies for its future direction.
“Every time I’m debating this discussion, I’m always arguing that it is a challenge for the Greek community to develop a strategy. The Greek communities are clever enough and well-organised enough to come up with a proposal. The governments and politicians will support that,” says Professor Tsianikas.
“The Greek community should be proactive and come up with solutions rather than asking for governments to solve our problems, because in Australia they are dealing with hundreds of languages.”
The study suggests actions that can be taken to increase the numbers of students enrolled, in addition to improving the overall learning experience.
Aside from holding the Greek community responsible for re-introducing Greek into the family home as the primary tongue, Professor Tsianikas also suggests that Greek schools such as St John’s College and Oakleigh Greek Orthodox College make their facilities a more attractive option for families and students of a non-Greek background to avoid falling behind in enrolments.
“These schools for so many years were doing an excellent job – it was a success story. But looking now at programs into the future, you have to think about the challenges. They could have at least three times more students and to do so I think they have to open up their programs to others in the Australian community,” he says.
One of the most significant projects on the Modern Greek educational agenda is the implementation of modern technologies, such as e-learning to increase the time students spend studying the language and accessibility to language courses.
Although traditional face-to-face learning remains a preferred method of teaching, an online component has been proven to have its merits and could be a national and international solution for schools looking to drop their Greek programs for one reason or another.
“If we have a school which is teaching Modern Greek today, but the principal chooses to eliminate the subject, if there is an online solution this school could probably continue to offer Modern Greek through another school which is able to do so online. Or we could deliver Modern Greek to remote schools in the middle of Australia,” Professor Tsianikas explains.
This was exemplified in a case when studies in Modern Greek were not being offered at The University of Western Australia and their students were able to enrol in Modern Greek courses online through Flinders University.
Although such programs exist for various other languages, the study reveals that Greek has been left behind in this area.
The University of Crete is endeavouring to correct this by developing a sophisticated program to be used worldwide in the hope that Modern Greek continue to be studied and grow in numbers.
Modern Greek in Australia ticks most of the criteria regarding the basic elements for a language’s potential to survive the test of time: there is a strong base of users, it is recognised as part of the national curriculum and is spoken in various domains.
However, the fourth principle for survival is one which is harder to control, and that is people’s attitudes towards the language and their perception of it.
The professors’ study into the state of Modern Greek has successfully furthered the discussion of what could be done for the future of the language, however Professor Tsianikas urges that more funding for further research is required.
“This is a good study, but for me it’s not enough. I feel in the future the Greek language will be even more challenged in the global societies. So we have to be very vigilant and take some concrete measures now.”