REFLECT: It's all Greek to me

How important is teaching your child a LOTE (language other than English)?

We’re proud of the fact that Australia is a multicultural society, yet many of us don’t prioritise the importance of our children learning another language. Instead, we rely on our schools to teach our children these skills. In many other countries, learning a language is compulsory from kindergarten right through until the final years at senior school. In contrast, most Australian schools introduce languages in primary school, but far fewer students actually continue language study through until the end of school. Most often they drop out mid way through secondary school, when language no longer becomes compulsory. Encouragingly, though, our federal government recently allocated $11.6 million to early years language education*. This suggests that it may be kind of important?

Back when I was at school, and we’re talking around 30 years ago, it was compulsory to learn German in primary school, and then my options in early secondary school were Chinese and French. And yes, as soon as it was no longer compulsory, those were the first subjects I dropped – I am that statistic. I don't know how to say a simple greeting in these languages, let alone know how to order a coffee. So for me, I can't say it was all that effective, learning a language in that environment.

However, I’m fluent in Greek. This shows that I’m totally capable of learning a language – it's the approach to learning that differs. As a second generation Greek-Australian, the Greek language is part of my culture and identity. We spoke Greek in the home – although, as the youngest of four children, English very soon became the language of choice. Despite my best efforts to revert to English, Greek was very much the common language when conversing with grandparents, aunties and uncles, and the wider Greek community of my childhood. What’s more, attending Greek school, outside my regular school days, was non-negotiable for my siblings and me. Understandably, I wasn't happy about going to Greek school, as it often clashed with my schoolmates’ preferred activities like ballet, netball and basketball. However, it wasn't considered a choice. Just as I attended English school, I also attended Greek school. Who knows, perhaps I had the talent to become a professional ballerina, or play for the Australian netball team – but I’ll never know!

Around the age of 14 years old, we travelled to Greece as a family: this is when the penny dropped and I understood the value of another language, and the subsequent connection with another culture.  Although born in Australia, I understood and valued my Greek heritage. Thankfully, my parents persisted in sending me to language school, even when I protested. Travelling in Greece, the benefits of my Greek language were huge – I could communicate with family, order an ice cream at the periptero (street kiosk), try on a pair of shoes in my size when shopping, and yes, order a coffee. Remember, I’m Greek – we started drinking coffee with our parents at seven years old).

I continued to study Greek as a LOTE right up until year 12 and it became one of my VCE subjects. When I finished university I worked in a graduate placement in one of London’s advertising agencies for three years. Once again, I was so grateful to speak and understand a second language fluently. It was a question that was asked in every job application. Londoners saw me as an Australian. They didn't really understand what it meant to be Greek-Australian and I found that many people were surprised that I was bilingual. This didn't really fit our reputation.  I soon discovered my boss was fluent in four languages: English, French, Italian and Spanish. To be honest, she put my Greek to shame: she could deliver a business presentation in all four languages. It was beautiful to watch and to listen to. I felt robbed of the opportunity gone wrong with learning German, Chinese and French back in my school days. Where did it go wrong?

Learning Greek was part of my culture and I was exposed to the language outside of school. I’m sure this contributed to my fluency. However, living in a country with so many multicultural communities, could we adopt a similar learning process with other languages? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for Australians to be able to speak at least one other language and have this become normal practise within our own culture? It requires dedication.

As parents, we don’t prioritise the importance of our children learning a language. We’re happy to spend our time and money for other after schools activities, like karate, basketball, footy, soccer, guitar or piano lessons. Deep down we know we probably don't have a junior Beckham or a future Mozart, but we recognise the importance and benefits of our children being active, part of a team sport and having the discipline to learn an instrument. But why don’t we give this importance, energy and investment to learning a language?

There are so many benefits. I know that we are somewhat isolated out here in Australia; however, our children will soon grow up and realise there’s a big world out there with so many opportunities.

Learning a language extends beyond learning how to read and write. It opens our children's minds to other cultures and societies; it could lead to study overseas; and boost their tertiary scores, with many universities offering bonus points for languages. It can provide your child with a competitive edge when looking for a job and will give them access to a greater range of rewarding and challenging opportunities in the new world of work. And perhaps the most important benefit of all is the link to intellectual and physiological benefits. There is research linking bilingualism to literacy development and improved cognitive skills such as memory, perception and the ability to multi-task. It can even provide your child with developmental skills in learning their first language - English.

So with all this in mind, we’ve chosen to introduce this ‘not negotiable’ language school to our children. All three of our boys attend Greek school every Saturday morning. Yes, it clashes with so many other activities; however, by prioritising language school, we’ve found alternative sport and music programs outside of their Saturday morning commitment. In time, when they’re at secondary school, we’ll move their language school to a weeknight.

I’m married to a Welshman so we don’t speak Greek at home. Interestingly, this third-generation typically doesn’t speak Greek at home, even if both parents speak Greek. They won’t be exposed to the language like I was, growing up. In fact, even when they see their Yiayia and Pappou (grandparents) they generally communicate in English. This has made the language schools change their approach with their teaching. The learning experience had to evolve and become fun and relevant. The classes have modernised and are now much more interactive, using iPads with educational apps. The teachers are mostly second-generation Greek Australians who understand the new environment and challenges that our children are faced with. I guess this is a social experiment and it will be interesting to see where this all ends.

My children are also learning Chinese at school, and I feel helpless with guiding them down this language path because it’s so foreign to me. However, if my child develops a passion for languages I will explore options that can help them with their fluency outside from school. For now, with primary school aged children, it feels completely natural to teach my kids the Greek language as it is part of who they are and it exposes them to their rich Greek culture. I can also help them and guide them with this learning journey. They will appreciate this effort in their later years. Especially when travelling the Greek Islands as young adults or more seriously when applying for university courses and jobs.

Ned eating karpouzi in Greece

Ned eating karpouzi in Greece

They love going to 'Greek School', and their ability to understand and speak the language is quite incredible, given it’s only two active learning hours per week. Yiayia and Papou are so proud watching them at the annual end-of-year Christmas concerts.

For me, it's all about keeping the Greek language and culture relevant and strong with our younger generation. We travelled to Greece last month for a family holiday and I was watching to see if the penny dropped for them too. The boys were totally in awe watching me converse 100% in Greek.  Their connection with Greece was cemented for sure. They became much more confident and used their basic language skills wherever they could. I must admit they tried harder when they really wanted the Greeks to understand them. They are totally fluent when ordering Fanta portokali (orange Fanta) and pagoto me sokolata kai fraula (chocolate and strawberry ice-cream).... well it was their Summer holiday.

*The Department of Education and Training


Greek School
Lexi School of Modern Greek

Written by Helen