Saturday, November 06, 2010


It was most gratifying to read a recent speech by Greek Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou, in which she highlighted the importance of the Greek language and the necessity of its preservation among second and third generation Greeks of the diaspora. She even went so far as to advocate the promotion of Modern Greek language course at a university level, which I’m sure everyone will agree, is a most novel and timely suggestion, coming as it does, at a temporal point marginally anteceding the erosion of Modern Greek studies at a tertiary level from almost all tertiary institutions in Melbourne and, one hastens to add, from a person who, in her capacity as European Commissioner, proposed the institution of English as an official language of Greece, because “learning to speak English as well as Greek will not hurt Greeks.”
Anna Diamantopoulou, while controversial, is of course, absolutely correct. After all, we diasporans have greatly benefited from learning English. And her pronouncement that Modern Greek is worth promoting in the diaspora should send shivers down the spines of the members of the Wales Street Primary School council. Despite the timely and efficacious intervention of the indefatigable parliamentarian Jenny Mikakos, who was able to secure government funding for the continuation of the Modern Greek program, the School refused to reinstate the program, to the consternation of parents and members of the community alike. To Ms Mikakos’ surprise and perplexity at a school refusing government funding, Wales Street Primary School principal advised that the decision to cancel the program was not based upon funding issues alone but also timetabling and behavioural issues caused by class disruption.
It would be instructive not only for Anna Diamantopoulou in determining how ailing Modern Greek language studies can be furthered in the diaspora, but also for our community, to know that some government schools consider the study of Modern Greek disruptive here in Victoria. At first glance, the cancellation of the Modern Greek language program from the school appears to be a great reversal – one more in a litany of decay and dissolution that has blighted the once thriving Modern Greek language learning ‘system,’ (if one can call it that,) in recent years. However, on closer inspection, the opposite may actually be the case.
Casting aside for one moment the valid demographic argument that there is a large Greek population residing in the region within which the school operates and of course, the bewilderment and hurt of aggrieved parents, it is worthwhile to consider exactly what it is that we have lost. In this case, the object of contention is a LOTE program for primary school children that extends for the lengthy period of sixty minutes a week. This makes the School’s cancellation of the program seem rather petty and gives rise to the suspicion that other, more hostile deeds and purposes are at play here.
Additionally, such a cancellation also begs the following question: Is the loss of a one hour a week class worth the agony and the efforts ands pains taken to reinstate it? It probably is in terms of prestige. It is a matter of great pride to our community to be able to boast of the inclusion of our language in mainstream teaching institutions because this somehow conveys the message that our language and culture has somehow found acceptance as an equal by the dominant social group. However, the number of programs in existence is not necessarily commensurate with solid language acquisition. One questions the utility of a program that teaches language only one a week, for one hour. Can a child, who in early primary school is more receptive to language learning than at any other time, really obtain a solid grounding in any given language if they are only exposed to it for so little a time? Is such a program committed to achieving measurable outcomes in fluency, or merely going through the motions?
Quite possibly, up until now, Greek-Australian parents of students at the school have felt that they have properly discharged their obligation vis-a-vis their offsprings’ Greek language education in a convenient manner, through the school’s Greek program. It is arguable whether this is the case. In this regard, the cancellation of the program by the School Council has probably done them, their children and us all a favour, as well as teaching us a valuable lesson.
We cannot and should not, rely upon or grant responsibility to governments or any other exogenous institution, for what remains our community’s primary obligation to itself – the perpetuation of our language and culture. Governments and ancillary institutions do not by nature share the same sensitivity as we do about this preservation, nor are they best placed to determine and guarantee appropriate standards and goals in this regard. The Wales Street cancellation teaches us that such ‘rights’ as we may think we enjoy can be abrogated at any time and it is short-sightedness in the extreme not to critically assess the quality of such rights as they are being ‘enjoyed.’ To shy away from our responsibility, is an admission of community failure.
In short, it is time we grew up and looked after our own needs, instead of expecting others to do so, and rail at our impotence and futility when they fail. After all we, not any one else are best placed to determine what we wish to preserve and how we wish to do it. Let us face it – we are the only ones who have a vested interest in so doing. Perhaps Wales Street students would benefit from attending an after-hours Greek language school, where they would not only be exposed to more hours of language learning, (always of benefit), but also to an environment of peers of like heritage, a culture and a community that can be a standard of reference for them, a pole of inclusion ensuring that they will consider themselves a part of that community for the rest of their lives and will be able to relate to each other accordingly, and not as a disparate array of persons that have nothing in common with each other, save for a shared background. In such a school, traditions, customs and values that necessarily fall by the wayside in the context of mainstream language learning, are passed on not as an object of study but in their organic context, as elements that are lived and are relevant to everyday existence – thus ensuring our perpetuation as a ethno-linguistic group in this country.
Events have undoubtedly proven that our community is in dire need of assistance in relation to Greek language learning. That assistance must come not in the form of injunctions as to how that learning can be effected but rather in the form of advice and technical support that will assist us in achieving the educational autonomy that is so vital, if our community is to survive as one that still speaks its mother tongue. The Greek consular official concerning himself with Greek education, Mr Haris Ladopoulos, open, friendly and incredibly committed, has during his time in Melbourne, made Herculean and multi-faceted efforts in this regard and it is hoped that if the Greek state is serious about backing Anna Diamantopoulou’s intention to promote Modern Greek in the diaspora, that the personnel charged with the task of doing so, share his skill, enthusiasm and dedication. We need all the help that we can get.
It is ludicrous that we should be in a position where primary school principals have the power to deem the teaching of our language disruptive compared with Italian and deny our younger members of our community the opportunity to learn their mother tongue. We do not need their interference, their rejection or their sanction in order to pass on our language. What we do need however, is a sense of responsibility and commitment to ensure that we remain in control of the means of our self-perpetuation. Our community’s future depends on it.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 6 November 2010