SPEAKING ENGLISH TO GREEKS IN MARCH
Listening to my daughter expound in Greek, why we must only eat yellow bananas and reject, at least for the purposes of consumption, the green, άγουρες of their kind, a moustachioed elderly gentleman, approached us, beaming. Patting her on the head, he enquired: Χάλο ντάλι μου. Χαβαγιού;
My daughter looked up at him, and then at me, having no idea what he was saying. Having explained to him that she does not yet know English, the old man continued: Γιου γκούτ;
At this point, my daughter furrowed her brows and answered: Δεν καταλαβαίνω τι λες παππού.
Try as I might, I could not get the old man to speak to my daughter in what manifestly was, his main language of discourse.
A similar scene was repeated a quarter of an hour later at the Greek deli, a few shops away, when the store owner overheard my daughter request that I acquire for her a quantity of tarama, in the following terms: Θέλω ροζ σκορδαλιά μπαμπά. Laughing loudly, he addressed my daughter: Χάλο μπιούτιφουλ κούκλα. Γιου ουάντ σαμ ταραμά;
By this stage, my thoroughly confused daughter merely shrugged him off stating: Αχ ρε χαζούλη παππού. Δεν ξέρω τι λες.
This far into our sojourn in this country, it is understandable though not excusable, that the Greek language is not used in daily discourse within the second and third generations. Indeed, (unless your interlocutor happens to be a recent arrival), to speak Greek to one of your peers is either considered an affectation, or a sign as a side of rudeness, given that you are placing said peer in an uncomfortable position of having to respond, in a language around which there exists some unease.
Thus, up until recently, Greek was relegated to the status of an intergenerational language, that is, a medium of communication to be employed almost solely when addressing the first generation, especially the elderly within in it. However, it appears that increasingly, the elderly, largely monolingual generation is no longer speaking to the latter generations in Greek, preferring to speak to them in broken, almost incomprehensible English. As a result, the limited role Greek played as a method of discourse seems to have been made totally redundant, causing me distress, in considering that since not even elderly Greeks speak to my daughter in Greek, my family's decision to bring her up as a Hellenoglot is actually effecting her social exclusion from the Greek-Australian community. Histrionics aside, it is logical that any encouragement or insistence on our part that she speak Greek once she learns English, will be severely compromised by her realization that there is absolutely no need to do so, given that English is now the culturally accepted mode of communication to one's elders.
There appear to be two main reasons why the elderly are choosing to speak to the latter generations in English and both are equally disturbing. The first has to do with the innate tendency of Hellenes to draw out differences and marginalize people in order to secure or preserve their own sense of power and/or privilege. Thus not a few second generation Greek-Australians who have made ill-fated attempts to participate in the management of Greek community organisations have observed that members of the previous generation deliberately exploited their lack of proficiency in Greek in order to keep them away from the decision-making process.
To first generation Greek brotherhood power-brokers, the existence of younger Greek-Australians who are articulate in Greek is an anathema, because this means that they can approach them, question them, argue with them and seek to be included in decision making on an equal basis. Non-proficient members of the second generation can be excluded and spoken to condescendingly in broken English, and the resentment first generation Greek-Australians feel when coming across Grecophone members of the second generation is palpable. I have in my archives two letters addressed to me by first generation Greeks. One is by a community author and intellectual, advising me that since I was born here, I have "no right," to pursue my literary pretensions in the Greek language and "must" confine myself to English. The second is my the secretary of a brotherhood fraternal to the one I represent, complaining that the Greek I employ in my correspondence is too formal and thus boring and requesting that I write in English (a language not understood by the author of the letter) instead.
Truly, there is nothing more Dali-esque, than being engaged in a conversation with a largely monolingual elderly Greek-Australian where he is speaking in broken English and you are responding in Greek, with each of us persevering in our idioms. The former, in speaking English is attempting to relegate you to the status of an outsider, disenfranchising you from speaking his tongue in order to convey to you the message that you are not equals. Your own insistence on speaking the ancestral tongue is those not seen as praiseworthy or as a password for inclusion. Instead it is mere effrontery.
The second reason for the exclusion of younger Greek Australians from the Grecophone community by the first generation is a logical and infinitely sad outcome of the first. Quite simply, the first generation, while emotionally attached to the generation of their grandchildren, are no longer able to identify them as belonging to the same social/ethnic group, except in principle. Whether this has come about because of the prevalence former exclusionary stance, or (in most cases) because their progeny have made a conscious effort not to speak to their offspring in Greek and have forcibly enjoined their parents to also not "stress" their grandchildren by speaking to them in that language, a social convention has been created whereby the first generation has internalised a belief that younger Greek-Australians must be spoken to in English. The matter is complicated further for grandparents who have grand-children of various ethnic backgrounds and who are compelled to switch between Greek to their grandchildren who are learning the language and English to their non Greek-speaking grandchildren.
As a result, the first generation which is still the (diminishing) bastion of Grecophony in our community, in either pandering to the insecurities of a generation that seeks to reject or marginalize the continued importance of the Greek language in their and their children's lives, believing that English is the proper language of the latter generations, or in fearing rejection themselves by their interlocutors should they employ Greek in their discourse with them (I have seen monolingual Greek-Australian children display disturbing hysterical reactions when spoken to in Greek by their elders), are doing themselves, the latter generations and the community at large a great disservice, for they are actively bringing about the end of the functionally bilingual Greek community as we know it, inexplicably, given the large amount of Greek speakers within that community.
It is for this reason that campaigns such as "Speak Greek in March" are so important. Derided by some for being tokenistic, sensationalist, heavy on buzz words and light on substantive ways in which language retention can be effected, this campaign is the stepping stone to restoring the speaking of Greek language among the generation to social respectability and broader acceptance. A specialised campaign, targeted towards the first generation, where they are enjoined not to fear rejection via the monolingual insecurities of the latter generations, or resign themselves to the failure of the Greek language in Australia but to assert their language skills proudly will ensure that not only language but also a multitude and centuries old agglomeration of unique culture encoded within it will have, at least a sporting chance of survival.