Yianni is five years old. He was born in Greece and has been living in Australia for three years. His parents, who left Australia at a young age, have no support network in this country and during the day, he has been left at a crèche. As a result, to his parents’ regret, though he understands the Greek language, he no longer speaks it.
Both Ross’ parents are Greek Australians who define themselves as ‘educated professionals’. They are proficient in the Greek language. They choose not to speak Greek to their son at home and have asked his grandparents not to speak Greek to him, for fear that his learning the Greek language will inhibit his socialisation and progress at school. He attended Greek school last year but understood nothing and was a constant source of disruption in class. This year, his parents have decided not to send him back. When Ross hears extended family members speak Greek, he becomes agitated and demands that they speak in English.
Three-year-old Angelica’s mother is Serbian and her father is Greek. Angelica’s mother, who looks after her during the day, speaks Serbian to her and her father speaks Greek to her. Currently, she is fluent in both languages and understands, from the context of the environment she is in, which language to use. Currently, her Greek vocabulary is broader than her Serbian and her mother attributes this to the plethora of Greek cartoons she plays for Angelica from the internet. Angelica has not yet learned English and as a result, she finds it difficult to communicate with her cousins, most of whom no longer speak Greek or Serbian. While her mother is committed to her retaining the two languages of her heritage, she wonders whether there will be anyone left of Angelica’s age to be able to speak to her in those languages in the next few years.
Melissa just turned four. Her father is Anglo Australian and her mother is a Greek Australian, born in Melbourne. Both parents speak to her in Greek as her father attended Greek classes for a number of years prior to being married. Melissa spends the summer with her relatives in Greece every year and is cared for during the day by her maternal grandmother who communicates with her in Greek. Melissa also sees members of her primarily Greek- speaking extended family on a regular basis. She also attends one of the few Greek kindergartens in Melbourne. As a result, she speaks Greek fluently.
Cristobelle’s parents are both Greek. Though they are functional Greek speakers, they do not speak Greek at home. She attends Greek school but has not learned much. Christobelle’s mother has told her many stories about how she was hit with a ruler by her teacher when she was at Greek school.
Christobelle’s mother also gets very angry when her Greek school teacher gives her homework to do. When Christobelle does go to Greek school, her homework is invariably incomplete and when questioned about this, she tells the teacher “my mum said I didn’t have to do it.” Christobelle’s grandfather is very proud of the fact that she has learned to dance the kalamatiano. Christobelle’s father opines that Greek school is just an expensive child minding facility while they can enjoy time out at their favourite café on Saturdays. Next year Christobelle will cease attending Greek school in order to take up jazz ballet.
Georgia’s parents are divorced. She lives with her mother, who is an Anglo Australian and a victim of domestic abuse. Georgia has limited contact with her father, who, while fluent in Greek, speaks to his daughter in English. Georgia’s only contact with the Greek language is via her Cypriot grandmother, who speaks to her in a mixture of English and Cypriot-inflected Greek, and at Greek school. Georgia’s mother is most anxious that her daughter learns the Greek language as she believes that it is important for her daughter to be able to be part of the Greek community and to be able to access that part of her heritage. However, she is surprised that at the school in which she has enrolled Georgia, there appears to be little language instruction, homework is not supervised by parents and neither parents or students take Greek school seriously. She is also surprised at what she perceives to be the negative attitudes expressed to her by Greek Australian parents about Greek school, including such questions as why she bothers (most of them seem to be obliged by their parents to send their children to Greek school, rather than doing so willingly) and she wonders why such parents send their offspring to Greek school in the first place. Georgia’s Greek is poor.
Domenic’s father is Italian and his mother is Greek. While Domenic’s mother and maternal grandparents want him to learn Greek and to go to Greek school, Domenic’s paternal grandmother and his father oppose this. According to them, ethnic languages are of no use. They have chosen not to teach Domenic Italian and expect that it is just that his mother’s family should not teach him Greek. Whenever Domenic spends time with his maternal grandparents, he comes home using some Greek words. This enrages his father, who then yells at his mother. Consequently, Domenic’s father is now exploring ways in which he can limit his son’s contact with his mother’s family. Domenic does not and likely will not ever go to Greek school, or speak Greek.
Trent’s parents are both Greek. They live in an exclusive Melburnian suburb and have enrolled him in one of the best private schools in Melbourne. They do not speak to Trent in Greek or send him to Greek school because they would like him to develop a network of friends whose family background includes politicians, doctors, judges and not migrants. Trent’s mother is proud to relate that Trent no longer enjoys visiting his grandparents and cousins in the western suburbs because he doesn’t fit in with such people. Trent’s father’s eyebrows twitch whenever he is spoken to in formal Greek.
Sophia and Giorgos’ father is an immigrant from Greece. Their mother is Italian. Both children enjoyed going to Greek school, though Giorgos was a much more committed student. Their father transported them to and from Greek school and supervised their homework. Unfortunately, said father is required to spend many weekends away as part of his job. During those weekends, Sophia and Giorgos’ mother did not take them to Greek school. Eventually, they dropped out. Where they were approaching fluency, now they can barely make themselves understood in Greek.
Katerina’s mother is battling a drug addiction. Her grandfather eventually was able to send her to Greek school when she was in year three. She spoke not a word of Greek and could barely read and write. Within two years, with the help of her teachers and grandfather, she became a fluent Greek speaker. Further than that, her mother now takes an active role in assisting Katerina’s Greek school organise its activities. Katerina’s Greek far surpasses that of her mother.
Case studies such as those listed above not only reveal the diversity of our community but also the breadth of the challenge faced by the Greek community in developing a cohesive approach to language acquisition and preservation. Such a challenge transcends the Herculean and becomes almost Sisiphean as attitudes to the Greek language, once homogenous, have become as complex and stereotype-defying as Greek families and the Greek identity itself. Broad and far reaching statements about “making Greek fun and easy,” touting technology or gimmicky slogans as ‘quick fixes’ or compelling Greek language learning simply because of its historical and political importance, as well as its potential as a language of trade [insert cynical snort here], do nothing to address the sociological or even psychological aspects of young Greek Australians’ lives that affect attitudes towards language acquisition. Without understanding these, and by inference the background of those who we seek to educate, we are already setting them up for failure.
It is high time that such correlations are studied at the appropriate multi-disciplinary level for it appears that as a community, when addressing the decline of the Greek language, we tend to focus solely on teaching techniques and ephemeral stop-gaps rather than taking the time to undertake a much needed study of the grass-roots of the community that we would all like to see speaking some form of Greek into the future. Proper knowledge of the demographic and a thorough sketch of the ambivalence of its thought processes (especially those of parents) with regard to the language are the first step in formulating that which is long overdue: a pan-communal approach to Greek language learning that can not address the diverse needs of our multi-faceted community but also articulate some type of coherent aspirations that will ensure the continued survival and relevance of functional Greek within the broader multicultural framework of Australia.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.