Is the Greek language in danger?

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By Anastasios M. Tamis*

The basic principle of multiculturalism theoretically tolerates, encourages or in some cases enhances the teaching of languages in a host country’s education system (Australia is the only country in the world with a specific National Policy on languages).Language is key to the social behaviour of a particular country’s culturally heterogeneous ethnic groups. Therefore, a functional language, commonly accepted and dominant, is needed that interconnects and unifies the ethnic groups of a country.

The language of an ethnic group, of minor socio-economic and cultural importance, to endure, must have a functional and equal co-operation (case of bilingualism, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium), or its own dominant social spaces, or finally, the users of that ethnic group must operate within a static and watertight society. The status of bilingualism in a multicultural regime does not recognise the privileged characteristics of diglossia, where the social domains (territories) of operation of the language of the ethnic minority are very clear.

Australia’s multicultural status essentially puts Modern Greek at risk and mines its operation in the long run, for the following reasons:

  1. In order for Greek to survive, it must be part of a diglossic situation, i.e. a static linguistic situation, in which its user lives socially strictly isolated, sealed off in his particular cultural environment and dominates specific linguistic domains, where it is spoken exclusively as a main or at least equal in status language.
  • The whole process and infrastructure of multiculturalism is based exactly diametrically on positions opposite to the above. Multiculturalism is based on the dynamics of cohabitation and social coexistence, the breaking down of silos and social borders, the breaking of linguistic and social ghettos, the leveling of social segregation and differentiation.
  • The high prevalence of the above data of multiculturalism reduces the chances of survival of the language and culture of Greeks in the Diaspora. Simply speaking, multiculturalism is the enemy of a minority language.

The phenomenon of the vitality of Greek beyond the corrosive rules of multiculturalism will depend essentially on the ability of Hellenism to establish and shape in the diaspora appropriate institutions for the promotion of the Greek language and culture, on the functioning of a spirit of unity and syncretism, on the functional presence of bodies willing to follow systems and conditions for preserving their cultural physiognomy.

Theoretically, social differentiation from the dominant group and the implementation and consolidation of a regime of cross-culturalism and bilingualism are the effective ways of preserving the Greek identity. In practice, however, linguistic convergence in favour of Greek is possible even after the third generation, if institutions encourage its learning are in place and if a positive psychological predisposition of the recipient student is cultivated.

Communication is not a static state, a simple process of transferring information, feelings, and ideas, but a phenomenon of dynamic social and psychological interaction. For a language and, more broadly, a culture to function and last, the diaspora needs to have a strong user base, high functionality of the culture/language and their acceptability, and stability in the form of the language/culture.

In the last decade, the number of languages of Greek in the immigration countries of North and South Africa and Oceania decreased significantly due, mainly, to the fact that Hellenism was not renewed with arrivals of new immigrants, with the exception of the period 2009-2019, when approximately 80,000 Australian citizens of Greek origin were repatriated to Australia. The school and work territories where Greek was spoken have been progressively lost since the beginning of this decade.

The almost complete lack of truly bilingual Greek programs in English-speaking countries, the shrinking number of bilingual immersion programs in a school, the progressive exodus of Greek from the Orthodox churches and the administration of organised Hellenism, the ever-increasing space of English-language inserts in Greek-language newspapers, reduce the functionality of Greek, which they essentially shrink into a ruthless one.

But it is also being tested, with the low but steady increase in transnational marriages (mixed), the index of which is approaching 50 percent, with the shrinking norm of juicy Greek used by parents at home due to the influence of the dominant language.

Greek did not develop sufficient mechanisms to compete with other lingua franca or commercial languages and popular languages of ethnic groups in English-speaking countries. This situation is reinforced by the lack of institutions which, without selfish interventions by Hellenistic power actors, could implement effective strategies for the functional penetration of Greek into the education system and its upgrading in the consciousness of the wider Australian society.

The split of the forces of the Hellenic Diaspora, the barren pluralism, the syndrome of parochial chauvinism, the clash of power bodies, the attempt to impose unequivocal power over Greeks abroad by the Church, the threatened denationalisation of Orthodoxy in a All-Orthodoxy institution without Greece and the Greek language, as this is methodised by many priests, the unfair proscription of useful cells of Hellenism out of personal empathy and the attempt to marginalise them from the authorities of Hellenism, circumvent and undermine the endurance of the communities. The figures are tragic: In 2020, 38 percent of children of Greek origin did not attend Greek-language programs, while 40 percent of children who attended the programs did not know Greek, half of whom did not even have cultural sounds (Greek is even at risk as an ecolect).

The survival of Greek and Hellenism beyond the 3rd generation will depend on the pursuit of goals that we must first demystify: (a) Sociolinguists claim that learning Greek requires 2600 to 2800 contact hours of teaching. Our systems and institutions in Australia, at best, offer 900 hours of instruction, as long as attendance is twelve years. Teaching a language, once a week for a few minutes, does not develop the learning abilities of the recipient-student and does not improve his skills and knowledge. With the ecolect already shrunk at the level of parents linguistic adequacy and with poor teaching of Greek, it becomes essentially a Sisyphean test for the recipient students, with no hope of acquiring language proficiency.

The operation of kindergartens with bilingual emergence programs is certainly the most direct, rapid, efficient, and economical method of preserving and upgrading Greek in the Diaspora. The operation of bilingual pre-school centres in Melbourne and Canberra has demonstrated the rapid and efficient nature of these programmes, which can act as precursors to language emergence programmes at primary and secondary school level. Unfortunately, the systematic planning of the community bodies has never touched this strategy.

*Professor Anastasios M. Tamis taught at Universities in Australia and abroad, was the creator and founding director of the Dardalis Archives of the Hellenic Diaspora and is currently the President of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies (AIMS).

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