“Go to Greek school and make Yiayia happy!” proudly proclaims a recent advertisement for an independent Melbourne Greek school. It is an advertisement that surely wins the coveted “Most Candid Advertisement” trophy for the year of our Lord 2013. Not for these marketers the empty platitudes about Greek being the language of Kazantzakis, Seferis and innumerable other Greek scribblers that the parents of prospective pupils would have no idea as to their existence. Not for these wily purveyors of polyglotism, the lengthy quotations of philosophers of ancient provenance, or indeed any vain attempt to link twenty-first century hyperhylistic commercial culture with the toga-clad musings of the impoverished sages of old. Not for these floggers of fluency, any appeal to the so-called universality of Greek culture and its proximity to its western counterpart through various Melbournian public buildings (by the way, the Shrine of Remembrance’s prototype, the Mausoleum, was not built for Greeks. It was constructed for the satrap of the Carians, a non-Greek race that gradually forgot their language and adopted Greek, in an attempt, most likely, to please their grandmothers), and most perniciously of all, via the spurious claim that since the majority of words in the English lexicon are supposedly derived from the Greek, this somehow, in an ingeniously dextrous backwards working, formulates a logical conclusion that compels the particular study of modern Greek, as opposed to other languages that have been instrumental in the formation of modern English, such as French or German. Far beyond indeed, these merchants of morphology to maintain the necessity of learning Greek on the fallacious and yet oft-repeated claim that Melbourne is home to the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world. Finally, far beyond these proctors of proficiency to postulate that acquiring the Greek tongue alongside the English will knot one’s brain cells in combinations so unique as to ensure increased job prospects, clarity of thought, a different life perspective and why not, popularity among members of the [insert desired sex here].
Nay, these honest wholesalers of eloquency have hit the proverbial nail upon its cephalic extremity when they posit a truism: it is in a disquietingly large portion of cases, for the grandparents, belonging to the first generation, that Greek language education for their grandchildren, is an important priority. During my brief two year stint as a Saturday Greek school teacher, this was glaringly apparent. It was the students whose grandparents faithfully delivered and collected them every week who were the regular attendees. Those whose parents were charged with this weighty task were often erratic in their attendance, other priorities mitigating against a constant presence each Saturday and more often than not, their attendance would tail off towards the end of the year as the novelty wore off. Similarly, it was those students whose grandparents took an interest in their schoolwork that would come to school with their homework completed and who, as a result, benefitted most out of Greek language tuition. I turned a blind eye to those students whose homework sported an orthography in fashion during the days of katharevousa, or who would use accents long ago discarded. If anything, these tell tale signs of grandparental intervention and over assistance were welcome, as they evidenced a guided engagement and interaction with the homework. Where there were no grandparents actively involved in supervising homework, the majority of pupils would come to school with their homework incomplete or not completed at all, sporting various excuses among which the most common were: “Mum was too busy to help me,” or “Mum said that I didn’t have to do the homework as it is not important.” As a result, these students learned little.
Try as I might, in most cases, I was unable to convince parents to take an active role in supervising homework – a condition precedent to learning a language for it is futile to expect a child to learn a language to any level of competency with just a few hours of oral teaching a week and no home study or revision. Nor could I get them to understand that supervision did not mean that their often own meagre understanding of the Greek language would be called into question but rather sitting by their children and making sure that they at least attempted the various tasks set for them, thus reinforcing language acquisition as a discipline. Nor still could I convince them to try to speak Greek around their children, for a language that is not heard, is a language not learned. For these , the majority of parents, the actual learning of the language did not seem to be of any importance, with self-defeating sentiments such as “I don’t really care,” or “I don’t expect,” or “it doesn’t matter if s/he doesn’t learn much,” commonly being expressed. Instead, it was made apparent on numerous occasions that the reason for the presence of their progeny in the school was in decreasing order of importance: to give them a breather on Saturdays so that they could do the shopping, to give their kids something to do when the Saturday sport season was off and of course, to get their own parents off their backs – in short, to make yiayia and pappou happy in the knowledge that the parent was going through the motions of sending them to learn a subject that they didn’t really care about.
Furthermore, in many cases, my students would enter my class in the new year, replete with negative stories about their own parents’ supposedly harrowing experience of Greek school. Horror and exaggerated stories of beatings, not understanding the homework or complete boredom would negatively predispose children to Greek school even before they were exposed to it. As a result, instead of being partners and collaborators in the, let us face it, holy task of propagating and maintaining our language, Greek school teachers were treated with apprehension by parents reverting to their teenage roles. Even when, slowly and painfully and through the employment of diverse and desperate means the committed teachers of our school managed to divest their pupils of their inherited inhibitions, this was met with derision by their parents. For them, Greek school had to be a negative, unpleasant experience and nothing that their children would be exposed to should serve to challenge this inexplicable prejudice.
My own cherished yiayia was not happy because I attended Greek school. She was happy because via a combination of committed teachers, exposure to the Greek language through family and social networks as well as the regular attendance of Greek community events and church and most importantly, a home environment where Greek language learning was given equal emphasis as the English curriculum, my cousins and I were able to attain a level of fluency that facilitated her sharing her thoughts, relating our history and ultimately creating a deep personal relationship with each one of us that can only come about through the baring of one’s soul. On the way, and because the Greek school curriculum of that time involved not only the study of Greek literature, but also a heavy emphasis on poetry, and translations of world literature, I was exposed at an early age, to authors and other cultures that I would never have had the chance to explore at the private school I attended. Paradoxically, the Greek school curriculum (before its watering down) was far richer and broader than anything I ever experienced in the Victorian school system and its enduring benefits are manifold.
It is time we formulated an integrated and mature approach to Greek language learning with one unified curriculum. It is also high time we determine what we aim to achieve for our students. If our sole aim is one of defeatism – expecting that our students will never achieve fluency than there is not much point in participating in an agonising mediocratic teaching malaise. If again, our other sole aim is to get yiayia off our backs, then maybe it is worthwhile for parents to consider just why it is that yiayia is on their backs and reassess just how important Greek language learning is for our identity and our future. And most of all, it is high time all of us, but especially parents realise that there is no midway in language learning – you either learn it or you do not, and that the responsibility of creating an encouraging, supportive and structured environment in which their children can not only learn but revere Greek, is almost entirely their own.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 February 2013