Saturday, March 12, 2016
"Don't speak to your baby in Greek," the mothercraft nurse told us. "She will only get confused and this will slow her down at school."
In the usual course of events, I am mild mannered and self-effacing, only because for some obscure biological reason, there is a time lag of several minutes between the delivery of speech and the commencement of my cognitive processes in response. On this occasion however, I was quick at the repartee: "Really? Are you a linguist as well as a nurse? Point me to the scientific evidence upon which you base your claim." The nurse fixed me with a steely gaze momentarily and then proceeded to chat with my wife, erasing all aspects of my existence from her consciousness. This was of great relief.
It so happens that we didn't follow the multi-talented nurse's advice. I have continued to speak to my daughter in Greek and my wife, in her own language. As a result, she is currently competent in both of her ancestral languages. With the invaluable support of our families, we are at the stage now where, upon my return home from work, I am greeted by my three year old daughter with salutations of the following nature: «Ώστε ήρθες, απαίσιο τέρας.» which I suspect are only partly a result of her propensity to watch Greek cartoons and probably more have to do with my own maternal progenitor's sense of humour. We eagerly await the challenge of our daughter's imminent immersion into the Anglosphere, when she commences school, anticipating the manner in which she will reconcile, reject, or transcend her various identities, linguistic and otherwise. As she informs, me, at school, she will not speak Αγγλικά, but Εγγλέζικα, an idiom she is yet to master.
Greek teachers throughout Victoria are generally stressing the vital importance of "getting them while they are young," because it makes sense that if children commence Greek school without having had a protracted and prolonged exposure to the language, their experience can often be an alienating and traumatic one, especially considering that learning Greek is not just about learning a language for our community, but a process of socialization, and absorbing a multitude of cultural memories and presuppositions, many of which are angst laden. As a corollary, children who have been exposed to the language from the cradle, will not only feel comfortable with it, but also will have the background and the skills to be extended so as to truly make the language a useful one. Chances are, if children are possessed of a vocabulary sufficient to make themselves understood and express their thoughts, they will find a place for that language within their lives. If not, they will often struggle with the language, develop a negative attitude towards it and reject it as irrelevant.
Cradle immersion, something considered axiomatic a generation ago, is now a challenge. Many parents, though possessed of adequate fluency in Greek, choose not to speak that language to their children allowing that role to be assumed, if at all, by grandparents. Other parents, especially those in, or products of mixed marriages, do not have such linguistic skills, and others still, even if they do have the appropriate linguistic knowledge to impart, have limited contact with their children as they both work and are compelled to relegate their offspring to child care. Even newly arrived members of the community are experiencing problems in this regard. Many migrants lack a support network of an extended family that can speak Greek to their infants. The pressures of work cause them to leave their children in child care, where during the day, they are spoken to in English. As a result they being reared in a linguistic discontinuity that sees them adopt English as their language of discourse at an early age, causing their parents not a insignificant amount of anguish.
Considering the above, and considering as well, that we still as a community still pay lip service to the importance of preserving the Greek language, it is astounding that we have a relative dearth of Greek language early learning centres in Melbourne. While the Italian community, through such centres as Bravissimi, (in Airport West and Carlton), seem to appreciate the need of language immersion institutions, we, despite our track record of a commitment to Greek language schooling, appear not to be addressing the profound demographic changes that have affected our own community in the past generation, especially, the fact that by now, in the majority of cases, both parents work and have dire need of child care facilities for their young.
Such Greek early learning or playgroup style facilities as exist, though they are nowhere near as many as are required by our community, perform an invaluable function. For many children, they are the first and possibly only point of contact with the Greek world. Most importantly, rather than being confronted with the raw mechanics of the language, they are exposed to songs, games, rhymes and words in the Greek language, in which are encoded centuries of traditions, beliefs and social practices that need to be lived, rather than simply learnt. Significantly, they are also learning how to relate to each other as a distinct group of people, having in common a unique cultural heritage that is not just a burdensome bequest but instead (assuming that the propensity to identify in any way as Greek continues) of immediate relevance to their lives. After all, there is no point committing a child to learning a language if there is no forum or community where that language can be spoken. Though studies at the appropriate academic level have not been made, anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that the attendees of such facilities, go on to attack Greek school with gusto, are more able to avail themselves of the opportunities that it offers and are more likely to retain the Greek language in their later years and immerse themselves within the activities of the Greek community, than those who do not and lack the appropriate support at home, with which to learn the language.
Consequently, it is vital that at this stage in our community's development, a concerted and integrated approach to early learning and child care is developed, involving all interested parties and institutions. Sadly, while individual entities have and are continuing to make some efforts in this regard, the necessary 'conversation' appears not even to be in its gestation period and this is unfortunate as we tend not to anticipate our communal needs but to identify them long after the original need is made manifest, rendering us unable to arrest the steady decline in Greek language proficiency in the emerging generations. Here, our lack of foresight and inability to articulate and co-ordinate an appropriate early learning policy for our community is failing our future generations.
Ideally, one would love to see Greek language early learning centres in all municipalities where Greeks reside. Meeting this need, would supply a much needed tessera in the complex mosaic that is Greek language acquisition and retention in multicultural but increasingly monolingual Australia. If anything, it will ensure the longevity of existing Greek language schools whose standards of teaching and enrollment numbers are inexorably and alarmingly diminishing, and the integration of the future generations within a worldwide community of Greek speakers. This March, let us not only speak Greek, but also, ignoring the injunctions of the ill-informed and unqualified, speak on the best ways to teach our children how to do so.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 March 2016