Monday, March 08, 2010


"A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek."

Samuel Johnson, author of the above observation, is perhaps best qualified to make it, given that he was one of the most influential lexicographers of the English language and thus, able to appreciate the prevalence of Greek words within his weighty tome. He probably also personifies obliquely, the current prevailing attitude of the Greek community towards the study of the Greek language. With the migrant ethos centred for generations upon the acquisition of material goods sufficient to render one well comported, and that ethos having for the large part been satiated, a full-bellied Greek community is ponderous and decidedly lacking in what the first generation would term «αγωνιστικότητα.»
The past decade has seen the study of Modern Greek not only become a thing of the past in most tertiary institutions but also in a good many high schools as well. Heinrich Schleimann, excavator and pillager of Mycenae and Troy may have declared that he "did not cease to pray to God that by his grace it might one day be permitted to me to learn Greek," but his sentiments are generally reflected by relatively few students. Sure, the doyens of the disparate organisations that comprise the Greek community may histrionically lament the language loss which is a natural symptom of the inexorable process of assimilation, yet in doing so, they ignore the fact that a) they have no plan to arrest such a decline and b) even if they did, our community is so fragmented, that the implementation of such a plan would prove fractious and most likely, disrupt that fragile intercommunal harmony, which Marcus Vitruvius Pollio considered "an obscure and difficult musical science, but most difficult to those who are not acquainted with the Greek language, because it is necessary to use many Greek words to which there are none corresponding in Latin."
This is because the institutions currently responsible for the teaching of the Greek language within our community are the Education Office of the Greek Consulate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the GOCMV, the Greek Orthodox Community of Oakleigh, and of course various other private schools and colleges. Some of these institutions are rivals; all in actual fact compete with each other for students, possibly funding and certainly prestige. Within such a polarised educational environment, where other political factors mitigate against concerted action, it is well nigh impossible for these institutions to arrive at a consensus, let alone formulate a coherent, single Greek educational policy.
Meanwhile, as the study of the Greek language slides a degree further into what appears to be a terminal decline, conscientious members of Parliament John Pandazopoulos and Jenny Mikakos, laudably organised a recent forum on a new language education strategy for schools in Victoria. Further, MP's Steve Georganas, Maria Vamvakinou and Sophia Mirabella, along with other luminaries such as Professor Tamis, called upon the government to include Greek as one of the languages in its national schools curriculum.
The initiative of "our" MP's is both praiseworthy and also cause for concern. For the umpteenth time, they have proven how proud they are to be Greek-Australians and we are grateful to them, even at this eleventh hour, for flagging an opportunity to promote the study of Modern Greek on a governmental level. Of grave disquiet is the fact that without their intervention, our 'organised' community lacks the cohesion or structure that would enable it to campaign for a place within the national curriculum for the Greek language, in its own right. Instead, we are given mostly to empty platitudes of good intention. GOCMV Board member Theo Markos' insight into the recent forum, namely that although no specific proposals were outlined, but that it was a good opportunity for the community at large to air its concerns is disturbingly indicative of our general trend in malaise. We are very good at blowing hot air in public and have absolutely no idea how to address the linguistic quandary we are in.
What is ever more so deeply troubling is that such a decline in our fortunes should arrive during the tail end of the iron grip reign of the first generation over our community. A fractured, introspective and largely impotent array of clubs and associations, shadows of their former selves, is all that is left of that vibrant proletarian mass that built so many schools and churches and successfully campaigned for the teaching of Modern Greek in tertiary institutions, thinking that in doing so, they had ensured the linguistic continuity of future generations. We cannot blame then for what we are facing now. To do so would smack of ingratitude. Not only that but it would also be ridiculous to call upon the old stalwarts to pull the latter generations out of the mess we are in. Unfortunately, we do not live in Never- never Land, nor are we Peter Pans, permitted to perpetual swan around our own Greek fantasy realm when it suits us, in a state of perpetual youth and irresponsibility. We need to grow up and take the tough decisions for ourselves.
Professor Tamis' arguments for the inclusion of Modern Greek in the National Curriculum, including the Greek language's most ancient pedigree, the fact that seminal texts of Western civilization were penned in it, that it is an official language of the European Union, that 28,000 Greek words appear in the English language, that it is the language of some 600,000 (sic) Greek-Australians and that the Greek government spends some nine million dollars to promote the study of the Greek language so Australia should match such a generous gesture, all are valid and require deep consideration. They also tacitly acknowledge something heinous for us as a community - that we are no longer capable as a community of managing the teaching of our own language. Instead, it appears that we seek refuge in the bosom of government, hoping that its acknowledgment of our language as important, will confer upon it protection, jobs and a chance of survival.
It is a futile gesture if the generations that are to come perpetuate the current trend and refuse to study Greek. For despite the rhetoric and the global and historical importance of Greek in all its forms, in Australia, Greek is and will remain a ghetto language, to be spoken only by migrants and an ever-decreasing number of their descendants. As the tongue of a small, poor and lately much-derided Balkan backwater, Modern Greek lacks the prestige that compels linguistically minded Australian pupils to study other European languages. I remember the scorn poured upon us few Greeks by Anglo-Celtic students during the Ancient Greek course at university for having the temerity to read Lysias with a Modern Greek pronunciation, instead of the Erasmian. Such (wog) things are not done in the Classics, old boy. Nor will future generations do what I did and give up a useful elective (in my case French, to which may be attributed my sorry propensity to produce appalling translations of Lady Gaga lyrics in the said language on Facebook), in order to study Greek at day school AS WELL as Saturday school. Indeed, it is the height of irony that this call upon the government to include Greek in its new national schools curriculum comes at a time when more and more parents are taking their children out of Greek schools and classes, in order to favour more important activities, such as tennis or electives that may actually assist them in their careers or at least, look good on a resume.
In reality, for the Greek community at large, the inclusion of Modern Greek within the national curriculum is, despite what our progressive and praiseworthy MPs may think, not about survival. Governments come and go and policies may change at a whim for innumerable economic and political considerations. Further, no evidence of submissions as to what form such national Greek language teaching shall take, exists. Is our primary motivation in running to the government as a community, the securing of means with which to produce functional bilinguals? Most probably not. We can't even speak our mother tongue. Or is it rather a matter of prestige - the fear that if other languages are included and not ours, we will feel less valued and important, and somehow lose face?
An about face is sorely needed when it comes to Greek education in Australia. Our existing institutions, at least in the metropoleis are more than capable of ministering to the linguistic needs of the Greek community, if only Greek-Australians stood behind them. The first generation built them and it is incumbent upon us to maintain them. Though the institution of Modern Greek in the national curriculum would be an honour and provide the means for those interested in Greek but lacking the necessary cultural background, or facilities to study it, it could never hope to convey the 4,000 historical, cultural and religious context that underpins the learning of the Greek language. Our teachers, in the context of our own schools, whether religious or secular, can provide these valuable resources. Wendys of the world, it is time to wake up, for Peter Pan shall not remain young forever. Instead of perennially whining about the first generation's lack focus (it is tired, deserves a rest, and should not be expected to campaign for facilities it can't use), let us address our own by embracing, augmenting and strengthening the educational institutions our forefathers toiled so unceasingly and selflessly to create, as well as enlisting the government's assistance. But if our efforts, will not all be Greek to the bemused subsequent generations, we shall have to compel them, through inspiration, to learn the Greek language in the schools that have been prepared for them, for no incentive or reason than that they are Greek and partakers of a 4000 year old most venerable and noble lineage, for that is reward and astonishment enough. And let them ponder of our works and deeds, as we do of our predecessors, John Ruskin's view that: "All that we call ideal in Greek or any other art, because to us it is false and visionary, was, to the makers of it, true and existent." Only let them do so in Greek.


First published in NKEE on 8 March 2010