The Pharos Alliance: Greek belongs in Victoria


By Joseph Lo Bianco*

It is hard or even absurd to imagine Melbourne without Greek. This is a city about which we have all heard innumerable politicians and community leaders praise as a contemporary jewel of Greek culture.   

Since the mid 1970s I recall regular praises like: “Melbourne has the largest concentration of Greek speakers outside of Europe” and “Melbourne, the biggest Greek city after Athens.”  

Even allowing for the hyperbole of politicians or the campaigning gusto of local community representatives, Melbourne and Greek have had an intimate association for well over a century.  Long enough to be ‘naturalised and normal.’ Melbourne can and should boast of this magnificent connection to Greece, Greeks, and Greek. Most Greeks who came to Melbourne were working people, and they helped build the infrastructure, services, and style of this place, so it is marked with their labour as well as their culture and civility. 

So, it seems almost sacrilegious to pose the question about whether the language of these Australians, might fall silent. Or to assume that while Greek Australians will always live in Melbourne and their contribution will never be erased, it might one day become a city without Greek on its streets, in its schools and homes.  And yet, precisely this fate is quite normal for immigrant languages around the world, including Greek, in the great urban centres of multicultural life in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. All the signs show that we are not immune from this process of language attrition, sadly it is happening here too.  

The Pharos Alliance is a community and volunteer response to this challenge. Pharos brings together a range of organisations and individuals to revitalise Modern Greek in Victoria. How did this come about?

In August 2017, Ms Maria Dikaiou then president of the Modern Greek Teachers Association of Victoria, asked me to help the Association research how the Greek language was faring in education and more broadly. The aim was to reflect on the challenges and make recommendations to strengthen provision of Greek. I was delighted to accept Maria’s invitation and worked with MGTAV and its excellent personnel. In February 2020 at Lalor North Primary School, we launched the completed study and moved to create an alliance of interested organisations to address the problems it revealed. What are these problems?

While Greek Australians are justly proud of their language, the language is receding in domains (the settings in which it is spoken), in numbers of regular users, and in the number of school and post-school institutions where it is taught. 

This is a triple retreat: 

  • first a decline in the number of regular users, which is steady but soon will be very sharp with ageing of the migrant generation and the first generation of their Australian born children.
  • second, a decline in the number of learners, especially at the upper levels of schooling and sites where it is taught in a continuous pattern.
  • third, a restriction in the number of settings (social, business, family, and media), where it is the normalised choice for interaction.  

The research revealed therefore that Greek in Melbourne is ageing, declining, and receding.  While this is the common fate of immigrant languages that are not regularly replenished with new arrivals, the full loss of the language is not inevitable; and while it is extremely troubling, expressions of concern are not going to resolve the issue.  

There is a world-wide pattern of language decline of non-official languages, whether immigrant or indigenous, and linguists and the UNESCO agency of the United Nations have documented language loss.  Some 70% of the world’s languages are globally endangered, meaning they are disappearing everywhere, or locally endangered, meaning, like Greek in Melbourne, they are retreating in specific places only, though they retain their homeland vitality. As a result, there is an entire academic discipline devoted to conserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of humanity, and what small actions we take here for Modern Greek form an honourable part of a global move to preserve the diversity and heritage of human culture.

This is the broadest context for our work at Pharos, and while we are aware of this context, we are focused on our specific local challenges. All of us in the Pharos Alliance are volunteers. We are collaborating with the Greek Australian Society to support the creation of a chapter of Pharos in NSW and have had discussions with concerned Greek Australians all over the country. Our ultimate aim is to produce a National Plan to Revitalise Greek, one of the main aims of the original Pharos research I presented to MGTAV.    

We meet monthly to coordinate action. Some issues we focus on are:

  • supporting teachers in schools facing pressure to close an existing Greek program, lobbying to reverse all closure and to encourage new schools to offer Greek.
  • Supporting parents in mixed language homes to find a prominent place for Greek in their homes and raise their children bilingually.
  • Encouraging middle and upper secondary school students to not drop Greek in VCE or Years 11 and 12.  
  • Encouraging the creation of pre-schools and after care services that use Greek.
  • Encouraging the media to report on Greek in Australia in a positive way that supports young people to identify with, learn and use Greek.
  • Ask business and other community bodies to create more Greek language immersion opportunities.
  • Encouraging exchanges with Greece, more government investment, more policy effort, more coordination across sectors etc.

We meet monthly to do this work, we have new research underway, and a symposium scheduled for December at La Trobe University to discuss and consolidate these initiatives.

The work of the Pharos Alliance is built on three principles, which we call COD: Capacity, Opportunity, Desire. We want to increase the capacity or knowledge of the language in the community, we want to expand the opportunities for the use of Greek, and we want to foster more desire and identification with Greek among young people. There is much more to do than we can manage ourselves so we need to find resources to expand our work.

In 2024 one priority is to ensure that students in upper secondary school who are studying Greek will choose to study Greek through Years 11 and 12 of the Victorian Certificate of Education. 

The decline in Greek from its Golden Age in Melbourne of a few decades ago, a period of flourishing and presence, has been steady and occasionally slow. Sadly, slow, and steady declines become rapid once a tipping point is reached, when fewer and fewer families use the language at home, and fewer schools teach it. That tipping point is arriving soon. 

I hope the media will appreciate that only with sustained effort guided by solid research will this decline and retreat of Modern Greek in our city and state be halted and reversed. I invite you to work with us to achieve this goal. Greek belongs in Melbourne.

*Professor Joseph Lo Bianco is Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne, and Facilitator of the Pharos Alliance




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