Saturday, March 07, 2015
Not a few things made a profound impression upon me at the launch of the Speak Greek in March campaign, which took place last Sunday at the new improved Greek Orthodox Community HQ. The first was the blessing of the whole endeavor by the articulate and functionally grecophonic second generation priest, Father Eumenios. In perfect Greek, tinged with the lilting tones of the ecclesiastic, Father Eumenios made, what I believe to be, a profound point: that language retention is linked to «αξίες,» that is, values, or an ideology, just as these same values depend upon the language that underpins these and the erosion of these values results in a corresponding erosion on language use and retention. Father Eumenios was most likely pointing to religious observance as a key component of these values and historically he would be right in doing so, but obviously if one accepts that the Greek language is the medium through which a unique way of thinking has evolved, it follows axiomatically that abandoning the aspirations or perspective of that way of thinking, will most likely result in an ancillary loss of the medium that conveys these.
Saint Kosmas the Aetolian knew this while facing a Greek language crisis three hundred years ago, when he scoured the villages of north-western Greece cajoling his compatriots to speak Greek, instead of Albanian or Vlach. In his view, the key values underpinning the necessity of Greek language use were religion and culture - that is - it was necessary to speak Greek because the Bible and the liturgy was in Greek and because through Greek, a proper education could be obtained, one which would permit the downtrodden Greek people to achieve not only physical but also spiritual independence. Today of course, we enjoy, at least apparently, both, and therefore Father Eumenios perspicacious observation invites us as a community, to consider and articulate those core values that are deemed necessary for the maintenance of our identity in a post-modern, globalized society that pay lip-service to gastronomic, if not linguistic multiculturalism.
The second impression was that made by former Victorian Multicultural Commissioner and current head of Community Languages Australia, Stefan Romaniw OAM. He spoke of language retention, not as a duty or an aspiration but rather as a commitment, something akin to football training or jazz ballet classes. In this way, and coupled with Father Eumenios' pertinent allusion to values, one can approach language retention as a value that requires, discipline, commitment and dedication in order to attain. It is that sacred cow of Anglo-Australian aspiration - a challenge. Stefan Romaniw also provided a broader perspective on the issue of language retention, pertinently pointing out that this is a problem that is faced by all the non-English speaking communities of Australia and that we have much to learn from each other, if only we communicate. Stefan Romaniw is absolutely right. It is instructive for example, to parallel the linguistic fortunes of a young member of the Greek minority in Albania, whose parents have steadfastly taught him Greek despite the fear of Albanian persecution, only to come to migrate to Australia and within two years, promptly refusing and then forgetting to speak Greek altogether, with a young Assyrian-Australian, whose family has faithfully retained its ancestral language despite a millennium of Islamic persecution, who, after attaining school age, embraces English and becomes less and less fluent in his mother tongue, to the point where he does not want to speak it at all. If we accept that each community has its own set of values underpinning language retention, would we, after consultation and collaboration with other ethnic communities as Stefan Romaniw suggests, be able to identify a common threat to these diverse values and trace how it impacts upon each community differently? Can we identify any differences in values or identities among communities that have already lost their ancestral languages prior to arriving in Australia, such as the Copts, in assessing the manner in which language underpins ethnic identity? The possibilities are fascinating.
Quite apart from trying to make unwilling second and third generations feel "proud" of the Greek language by telling them how many Greek words exist in the English language (an endeavour that is futile, for in my opinion, though it serves to boost the self-esteem of the first generation, it merely serves to prove the flexibility of the English language in being able to absorb so many terms), or trying to entice them to embrace Greek by hinting at future glorious career prospects once proficiency is attained (these are miniscule, for modern Greek is a language esteemed by a specialized few), or even the health benefits, with clinical studies suggesting that polylingualism staves off dementia and at least in one instance, causes weight loss and stops premature balding as well, it is hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will act as a focal point among the grass roots of our community, for educators, but most of all, concerned parents who have a vested interest in their children retaining the language.
Given the increasing complexity of Greek-Australian family units, which now tend to reflect those of the broader mainstream, it would be instructive, to have a debate on how this diversity has impacted upon those values that mitigate against language loss. Furthermore, highlighting the experiences of parents on the ground, and finding practical ways in which to enforce language acquisition values would also be valuable. This is because there exist within our community the most remarkable stories of people attaining fluency in Greek. One teacher present at the launch of the speak Greek campaign highlighted the many cases she has experienced whether the child's father is Greek, the child's mother is of another culture and yet the child excels in learning Greek, something which exhausts the stereotypes of mother's being the arks of the "mother" culture and "tongue." The same teacher also highlighted cases of both parents being Greek but steadfastly refusing to speak Greek to their children or taking an interest in their Greek language education, rather treating Greek school as a child minding facility, whose sole purpose was to provide them with free time. It is therefore hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will cause our communities and especially our academics to undertake the necessary research required to collate the diverse and largely unknown experiences of parents and students, so that we can have a properly informed debate about the values, aspirations, concerns and practices that lead to successful language acquisition, or its loss. We want to know why and how some of us out there, such as the brilliant Vasso Zangalis, whose mother is not Greek, possesses linguistic skills in Greek that permit her to conduct a radio program on 3ZZZ, while others do not. We want to know why Meron, an Ethiopian girl I had the honour of teaching Greek at St Dimitrios Parish Greek school can, at the age of 10 speak 5 languages and learn for pleasure, while most of us cannot. The fact that we have not undertaken this task is an indictment upon all of us.
The final impression made upon me at the launch was by a grandfather whose daughter has married into an Italian family. That family is at odds with this particular grandfather because he speaks Greek to his grandson, even though he has been told that his son-in-law does not want his child learning either Greek or Italian. "I don't understand it," he lamented to me at the conclusion of the launch. "I told him that Italian is a beautiful language and the more languages the child knows the better. They can teach it Italian and I will teach it Greek. Yet he refuses. Can you imagine not wanting to teach your child your own language? And my daughter complains and tells me that I am putting her marriage in jeopardy. Can you imagine? The whole world has turned upside down." It appears therefore that Father Eumenios is right. As we speak Greek in March, let us remember that the conversation upon our underpinning values, is long overdue.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 March 2015