Monday, January 17, 2005


Recently, the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini published new statistical information according to which 90% of all Greek students are proficient in the English language by the time they finish school. Further, 80% of the population under the age of 50 has a working knowledge of the language. This may seem surprising to us, given that we are a community of which a large proportion of its first generation struggles with the English language. Further, we live in a country that is strictly monolingual in outlook and whose culture has always been so, even prior its arrival here on the First Fleet.
Greece on the other hand has always been multilingual, with a variety of languages being spoken by members of various ethnic groups. Within Asia Minor until 1922, it was not uncommon for example, to find a Greek proficient in Armenian, Turkish and the then languages of trade and commerce, Italian and French. Many villages in mainland Greece mixed Greek with Slavonic, Vlach or Arvanite idioms with ease. While nationalism and the creation of the nation state caused this free use of language and mixing of peoples to stall in the last century, the flood of migrants to Greece is once more adding strands of linguistic angel hair to the nourishing soup of ethnic diversity.
Unlike Australia, however, where lip-service has traditionally been paid to "community languages" it is the considered policy of Greece to favour the learning of European languages, especially those that are considered to be of some use, such as English or French. As a result, Greek students tend to be more outward looking, more able to relate to various global trends and events than Australian students or even their Greek-Australian cousins, and, are generally better informed. The all-pervasive culture in Greece is one where it is considered necessary to one's education to learn foreign languages well and structures are put in place to ensure that such languages are learnt well.
Multilingualism, or even bilingualism in Australia is relatively rare among those whose ancestors are not recent migrants from overseas. This seems somehow to be linked to facets of the wider Anglo-Saxon culture as both Britain, and the USA share a similar slight regard for language learning. Canada, another 'Anglo' country, seems to be the exception that proves the rule given that it is only by deliberate government policy, instigated by the large French community that students are encouraged to be bilingual in English and French. The prevailing attitude seems to be one of faith in the Anglo-Saxon culture and language as a superior one, therefore negating the need to have to communicate with others in their own tongue. This general attitude has not left the Greek community unscathed. The standard of Greek spoken by Australian-born Greeks is generally so poor as to be, apart from when communicating basic concepts, almost unintelligible to a native speaker. This is in inverse proportion to the standard of English spoken by our Greek cousins, which is generally quite good.
A diminishing capability in language use results in an estrangement from the cultural context in which that language exists and we should all be extremely concerned at this. The recent screening of the Sydney Fame Story auditions on ANT1 is a case in point. Most of the contestants had such poor Greek that they were not even able to understand the cultural norms and modes of behaviour necessary to permit them to relate to their 'examiner.' As a result, they did themselves a disservice, coming across as clumsy, immature and of less than average intelligence. It is a savage indictment upon us and our supposed "proud Hellenism" that a Greek from Greece visits us here and speaks to us in English on par with our own, because we cannot make ourselves understood in Greek.
In part, fault lies with our governments. In their stated quest to educate us and our children as to "diversity" and "tolerance" they are steamrolling those traits that distinguish us from each other and dissolving all our cultural particularities in a bubbling hybrid cultural broth that is yet to emerge as something recognisable, let alone palatable. Decreases in language funding in this State are a case in point. Even where languages are taught, can it seriously be expected that a student will obtain a good working knowledge of a language with classes of only two to four hours per week? Evidently, in this country, the need to communicate with others in their tongue, thus understanding concepts and ideas specific to their culture, is of low priority. As a result, all Australian children, regardless of their cultural identity, are shortchanged. There is no organic use for a dreaded" Language Other than English" in our society except as a sop and gag for those who would request further privileges, for migrant cultures. That second and third generation Greek-Australians converse with each other in English even when they are quite capable of doing so in Greek proves this.
In the case of Greek language learning, fault also lies with us. We cannot depend upon the whims of government policy to safeguard what in effect is, our own inheritance and responsibility. There is no justification for the continuous "dumbing down," of Greek language classes in order to make Greek learning "fun and easy." Learning a language requires effort and dedication and it is not enough to assuage one's conscience by paying fees and sending their children to weekly language classes, taught in some cases by underqualified teachers who barely speak the language themselves and are not teaching out of love, but in order to obtain some decent pocket money. The general apathy and negativity surrounding Greek language learning is so great that even teachers and principals of Greek schools have been known to remark to parents concerned at the low standard of Greek being taught that: "it doesn't matter, we have to accept that the Greek language is going to die here anyway." As a community, we need to ask more of our 'educators' and our children. And the only way we can do that is by re-inculcating in them a sense of why it is so vitally important that the Greek language survives, that is, if we ourselves remember.
That the Greek language does not have to die here given a fresh approach that will re-instill a sense of purpose within students and teachers alike can be evidenced in many ways. Firstly, one must finally explode the myth that Greek is a "hard" language to learn. It is no harder than any other language. We must also explode myths relating to finding enough time in one's schedule to learn the language and its general utility. It should be enough to a Greek-Australian that the first word before the hyphen of his composite identity is dependant largely upon how he is able to communicate and move within the context of that first component. If he neglects and/or refuses to do so, then that component is relegated to meaningless garbage. What meaning is given to it therefore depends on us and our determination to keep our language alive.
Following Patriarch Bartholomaios' visit to Cuba last year, 200 or so Cubans have converted to Orthodoxy. One of these, Arturo a 40-year-old high school teacher from Havana, taught himself Greek out of a 30-year old manual that he found in the Havana public library. Speaking remarkably good Greek, he now conducts weekly language classes for friends and parishioners. During a recent visit to Cuba, Archbishop Athenagoras of Panama was delighted at being approached by a 75 year old Cuban lady who told him: "Με λένε Μαρία και μαθαίνω ελληνικά." In such remote and far-flung places as Haiti and Tanzania, admirers of Greek culture and adherents of the Orthodox faith are slowly and painfully learning Greek. These dedicated people prove that age, distance or social conditions are no boundary to firmness of will. Their stated reason for learning Greek is to get closer to the culture that brought forth such great giants of learning and faith as St John Chrysostom. We on the other hand, seem, like spoiled and bankrupt lordlings of yesteryear, only to boast about empty titles and long-gone estates belonging to our forefathers, which we have squandered through our negligence, or arrogance.
It was rumoured last week, that Finger Wharf on Station Pier was in danger of collapse owing to the unaccustomed weight of so many Greeks on it, present for the Theofaneia celebrations. Our identity is also so collapsing, from the weight of an illustrious past, mixed with apathy and indolence about the future. It is incumbent upon us not to let it be so. As one grandmother explained to her five year old granddaughter at Theofaneia: "We cuming here to watch the stavro kanei bloum!" One can only speculate in what language the noise of our particular descent will be transcribed, if our cathodic progress towards monolingualism, with all of its bland and mind-numbing repercussions, is not soon arrested.

First published in NKEE on 17 January 2005