Saturday, 4 August 2012

Greek language maintenance in the diaspora - 7

This post is the seventh (and final part) in a series of posts that have been written specifically for the Hellenic New Zealand Congress, which will be holding a conference some time next year.

For the previous part, click here.

When we think about Greek language maintenance in the diaspora, we often think about Greek community language schools that help children maintain their culture's mother language. But there are also other ways to maintain a language often spoken at home which does not entail formal lessons: using the language in the home, visiting the mother country, using multi-media devices, etc. Before anyone thinks about how to deal appropriately with this issue, the community in question needs to be described, as previously mentioned in another blog post in this series:
Once language/cultural maintenance in a well-established (and well-assimilated) immigrant community is seen for what it truly is (a sentimental way to keep in touch with one's ancestry), it is easier to deal with it more appropriately. What is the reason behind the desire to keep our language and culture alive beyond the immigrant generation? Is it because we want to pass on some of that heritage to the next generation? Is it because we feel the need to express ourselves through our cultural heritage? Is it because we still have a strong community group whose needs must still be catered for? Maybe none of these apply in the case of Greek New Zealanders in the third millenium; what may be the case instead is that Greek New Zealanders want their heritage to be incorporated into the cultural diversity of the New Zealand make-up. Each case requires a different approach in order to have a successful outcome.
A brief survey of Greeks in New Zealand concludes that they are a successfully-integrated minority group in mainstream society. Some maintain aspects of their heritage - but most don't; a community school exists - but it is frequented by very low numbers; the Greeks themselves are very fragmented, forming tiny Greek enclaves in small clusters; the older members of the community were Greek speakers, most of whom were born in Greece - but the newer members of the community are mainly English speakers who are born in New Zealand, and the number of Greek-speaking Greek-born entering the community is not much more than a mere trickle (despite the crisis in Greece). A number of the community members also returned to Greece, reducing the size of the community, while many former members now do not consider themselves to be part of the community. Hence:
The Greek communities of New Zealand will be plagued by the same problem throughout their development: they are very small and less connected these days.
From this, we understand that what happens in a larger minority group, well-supported in numbers, such as the Greek communities in Australia, is not going to work in a small sparsely-located community like Wellington. The teaching of Modern Greek will not be included in school curricula due to little interest and functionality; nor will it be possible to hire paid staff to teach community members. Greeks in New Zealand need their own model. A survey of Greek language maintenance in the Greek community of Wellington shows that:
The later the generation, the less likely the subject will speak Greek with their family members. The Greek language was mainly used when speaking to older family members. The results showed a clear shift towards the use of English for each succeeding generation. Between the same generations, the same language was used: the first generation used Greek, while later generations used English. At the same time, there is a tendency for the young age groups - mainly females - in the second generation to use Greek to their children, suggesting that there is a greater awareness of language maintenance in this group and that more Greek may be spoken to children when they are young.
The findings of the survey also revealed some very positive attitudes towards the Greek language and culture: as competence decreases, the perceived need for the Greek language in New Zealand increases. And Greeks generally hold some kind of picture in their mind of their Greek roots, which often denote their regional homeland in the Hellenic world. But New Zealand is a culturally diverse country which aims towards a common melting-pot set of standards; hence, assimilation and integration are inevitable in later generations of Greek-New Zealanders.

The issue is not how to stop this from happening; it is more about how to nurture good practices that will help Greek-New Zealanders to have an understanding of their heritage and to preserve some links to it, namely by that will follow.

On a very personal note, I'd like to mention that bilingual children who have learnt languages from their parents in their own home have a greater cognitive awareness than people who learn foreign languages by attending classes. Such children are born clever, and their genius is visible not just in their language abilities, but also in the way they deal with everyday situations. Research has documented this kind of progress in bilingual children. Here are a few examples of what I see from my own children:
- they know there is another world beyond the borders of the country that they live in; they have greater cultural awareness than their monolingual counterparts,
- they can guess to a certain level of accuracy who in society speaks what languages, without even knowing the person,
- they are less quick to judge someone by their skin colour; they use more information to form hypotheses and catergorise people, which leads them to see more alternatives about how to manage a situation,
- they can switch between different styles and levels; hence, they are better equipped to deal with different kinds of people and situations,
- it will eventually make them better citizens of their own country, and will give them the opportunity to be more mobile in a globally connected world.
In a changing world which no longer offers sure solutions, which demands people to be flexible and adaptable to new environments, who doesn't want clever kids? Speaking of kids, they are important when you're thinking about language maintenance in a minority community. If you don't have any, then any ties with the mother country are purely for your own interests. You don't need to worry about their maintenance.

Having been both a Greek-Kiwi and a Kiwi-Greek (depending on where I live), for long, almost equal, periods of time, while living through Greece's historically most catastrophic period in contemporary times, I know that this dual identity has helped me in many ways to overcome many problems: dual identity helps you see the same issue in a different light from a different perspective. Even though I don't live in New Zealand now, I still maintain an identity that is different from mainstream society in Greece. Even though it isn't recognised as a Kiwi identity per se, it still arouses curiosity among my compatriots; eventually, I will tell them that I was born in New Zealand to Greek immigrants. In other words, I am advertising my New Zealand connections through my virtues. The outcome of this is that I have remained, in essence, a Kiwi Greek. 

Most of the time, when we think about learning a language, we think of a teacher, a blackboard (or laptop) and a group of students sitting at desks. This is not the only option to learn a language these days.  

The home environment
The importance of the home environment cannot be underestimated in language maintenance. To learn a language successfully, you need to learn it from when you are young, a baby in fact. Until the age of five, children absorb information very quickly and often learn it for life - after they start school in mainstream society, it's too late.

You have to talk to your child in the language you want it to learn from when it's born. By speaking to your child in this way, your child is raised on hearing the language, and responding to what s/he hears (ie speaking). Research shows that it is often mothers who speak the minority language in the home and make a more conscious effort to teach it to their children (they are also the people that the child spends the most time with). The more people in the home environment available to the child, the more success the child will show in learning the language. Often there are Greek-speaking grandparents as well as parents in Greek households, which is the best set-up for language maintenance. If everyone who knows how to speak Greek actually speaks Greek with the younger generation, then the Greek language will passed on to them.

If you didn't have the luxury of doing this, you will need to use other methods to maintain a language spoken at home.

Formal language classes
Formal language classes have always been the norm in minority communities, but it is noticed these days that such classes do not have the desired outcomes. People enrol (or they enrol their children) to these classes, but do not always stick out the whole year. Other activities maytake priority in the busy globally connected world that we live in. There are also job pressures, as we no longer work regular hours, and people may be involved in their work at all times of the day. Another problem is where to set up such classes, as Greeks become more mobile and do not always live in the same areas. 
People have to start thinking outside the box. If there is a more appropriate setting for language learning to take place, this should be considered.

Whichever your language learning setting, the first thing you need to do, before you even think about the size of the community at large, is to make an inventory of your resources. Even in a small minority community, there are a number of resources available for members to use in order to keep their language alive. These resources may not be immediately obvious to you.

Older members of the community
In the past, the first-generation immigrants of a community were also the first teachers of the language to the younger generation. They were often not very educated themselves, but this is not important in maintaining a language; those first-generation immigrants were fluent in their language and were the best people who were able to pass it on to the younger generation.

Older people in an established minority community can still be used in this way. They make effective teachers because they are well known to the community members, and will be pleased that their skills are being valued. They also have more time to give up than other members, as they will not be working. They may sound surprised to hear that they oculd be teachers in their late age, so that is something that the community needs to work on: how to entice these people to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation. They may be given a payment in lieu of their services, but I think they should be volunteers, and simply have their expenses paid, eg transport and stationery costs. Therefore, such an activity should only take place one time per week per volunteer. But all a community needs is half a dozen volunteers, and a rota system can be set up so that it will be less taxing on those people. 

Groups can be started in people's homes or in community offices - whichever one is closer, because these days, not many Greeks live in Mt Victoria where the community offices are. The most important thing in these lessons is that people gather to hear the language being spoken, not necessarily to read/write the language. The written language comes much, much later in the learning process - you have to be a speaker of the language first before you learn to write it. Only those speakers with Greek-speaking family members will be able to move on to the written stage of the language; those who do not speak it regularly at home should avoid doing this too quickly until their spoken Greek is at an appropriate level (ie they can have a conversation with someone asking questions about their name, family and home).

Qualified members of the community
If there are members of the community that are recognised as good speakers of the language, they should be invivted to join the teaching process. If these good speakers are also involved in teaching or educational services in any way in the wider community, they are even more suitable candidates. They may say they don't have the time, so they need to be enticed into the community in such a way that the group members show they appreciate these people's special skills. Again, these people could be volunteering their services, in a similar way as what I have mentioned about the older members of the community, so that their volunteer work does not tax their spare time. They may even find that they enjoy this contact with other community members. In any case, they are probably the most appropriate community members to organise a curriculum catering for the needs of the community members who are going to be taking lessons.

New arrivals to the community
Another very significant event which will also help with Greek language maintenance in the Greek communities of New Zealand is the Greek economic crisis. Despite the crisis in their country, Greeks aren't flocking to New Zealand, but those few that do come will again make up a new first-generation immigrant group.

The Greeks that are leaving their country and going to distant shores to start a new life may have a grudge against Greece because their country couldn't offer her citizens a better life. For this reason, it should be noted that every effort to welcome them into the community should be made. They may claim that they are busy with starting their new life in a new country, but if they also have children, they should be aware of the importance of this task in their own personal life. What's more, these new immigrants are well educated - they are the best resource a minority community could possibly have. At any rate, without immigrants, the established Greek community, who are now very integrated into mainstream society, will not grow, so these new immigrants should not be allowed to become 'estranged' Greeks. That is a personal issue, of course, but the established community needs to foster good ties with these new arrivals.
Greek school teachers paid for by the Greek state
For more than two decades, New Zealand Greek communities have enjoyed the luxury of having a Greek school teacher paid for by the Greek state to teach children and adults. This is a great way of getting someone else to do your job for you. If you are lucky to have this available to you, then you should use these services wisely, by sending you kids or yourself along to these lessons. Those Greek-state teachers may not use the most appropriate teaching methods for immigrant communities, but that is only to be expected, as they are teaching according to Greek standards, and their training probably did not give them the chance to refine their knowledge and skills for teaching Greeks living and working in a non-Greek society. So they use methods that may seem inappropriate or old-fashioned to the established immigrant community.
If these teachers receive better direction and are given guidelines to follow by the community itself, they can perform their duties better. For example, they may be specifically asked not to use the state-provided Greek school books that are used by Greek schoolchildren, as they are rightly regarded as inappropriate for teaching, and to create their own resources, which are more suitable for teaching in such environments.

I personally hope that these teachers (and those books) stop coming to minority communities outside Greece because the Greek state is in need of money and resources, so these civil servants should be in their own country serving the people of their own country, and not using up state funds in solving the problems of citizens of other countries, who have the resources needed to do the same job. (But that's just my opinion, as a tax-paying Greek citizen who lives and works in Greece.) As for those books the Greek government sends to the diaspora, the Greek state is implementing a new program in the coming school year to do away with paper books and use only online material. The diaspora has access to all those books right now - they can print their own copies.

The internet
At the time of submitting my thesis work, the technological world was on the verge of a major breakthrough, which took place in New Zealand two years after I left - the internet arrived, one of the most important resources available to all people these days. The internet is the only economically viable way to maintain contact through distance, and it rarely needs specialised costly equipment. Since then, it has become a simple matter for anyone who wants to learn a language (through a host of multimedia) to come into contact with speakers (and most importantly, real people) from all over the world, in order to develop their foreign language skills, to find grammar rules written up in webpages, to ask questions on linguistic details through forums, and to learn something at their own pace, all from the comfort of their own home without spending much money at all. In essence, there is nothing stopping anyone from learning anything these days, as long as there is a will to learn.

The internet has one drawback: although most people use it on a daily basis, they don't always know how to use it effectively when it comes to language learning. But that can be rectified by using the appropriate people to train others to use it effectively. They don't have to be specialised teachers, or qualified personnel - they need to be willing members of the community who can guide people - online, over distance or through one class a week - through some websites to help people learn what they want to learn.
Cultural activities
The Greek community has always held a food fair and it also broadcasts a one-hour radio program for its members. Some parents have organised play groups for their childrent to get together with other Greek children. Some other Greek-related cultural events also take place form time to time, eg plays, concerts, poetry readings, writing workshops, among others. At all opportunities, these events should be used to promote the Greek language in some way, no matter how minor it seems. This will have the effect that the language is somehow seen as useful, that it has a function in the wider community. If anything, such activities create more tangible bonds between community members and the wider society, and they manifest the importance of maintaining the heritage of the minority community to the wider society. Some of these wider cultural activities may have some place in the wider society that makes up New Zealand. It may encourage non-Greeks to take part in your minority group's activities, furthering ties with the dominant culture. The effect of that can only be good.

The church
The reason why I have mentioned the church as the last resource is because I believe that the church has less influence in people's life these days than it did in the past. When language/culture maintenance activities are related to religious activities, they may not be seen for what they really are. In Greece, the church has a diminishing role in people's spiritual life these days. Besides, the language of the church is not the language spoken among the community members. Its formalities may be off-putting to intermarried couples who wish to take a non-denominational view of religion, as well as to half-Greeks who may have grown up with Greek grandparents but not necessarily with the influence of the Greek church. 

Religion is a controversial subject, and a highly personal one at that. In Greece, children learn about religion as a formal school subject. In my humble opinion, this is a sad state of affairs. 

The general foundation on which language maintenance in a minority community is based is that there is a purpose behind what is happening, and above all, it is conducted in a fun way. People no longer do things that they think have no useful function for them, and if these things are done in a boring way, they will not devote the time to do them. 

It's all very well to stage theatre, concerts, film screenings, radio broadcasts, etc in addition to providing Greek school lessons to children, food demonstrations, cultural evenings, dances, fairs, etc, but we should always bear in mind that we take part in such activities because we enjoy them. It's unlikely that we will want to take part in all of them, due to various factors (cost, time, interest).
What needs to be developed for the Greek communities of New Zealand is some kind of portal that links Kiwi Hellenes with other Greeks for the purposes of exchanging language and culture.

A look around at more established minority communities (eg the Chinese) in New Zealand also shows what is being done by others to promote language and culture maintenance in minority groups. They will generally have some advice to offer to the Greek community. It may not actually be language that should be the focus of cultural maintenance. Have you ever thought about using food instead? Greek food is quite popular at the moment, being highly regarded for its health properties. Reliance on the wrong channels is making the community shrink at a greater pace. At any rate, some imminent changes need to be made if the Greek community of Wellington intends to survive in the next decade - those changes can't wait.

On the subject of the Greek identity, I conclude the findings of my study with a direct quote from the conclusions chapter of my thesis:
The original purpose of my study was to determine the language patterns of the Greek community of Wellington. In so doing, I became very interested in the relationship between the Greek language and Greek identity - what it means to be Greek. Clearly the Greek language has some role to play in Greek identity, but it is not the same role for every Greek person...

Greek people are not a homogeneous group. Their origins and attitudes can differ quite significantly. Greek identity can be legitimately claimed by those possessing a number of qualities/characteristics, such as being Greek orthodox, being born in a Greek-speaking country, having a Greek name, regularly partaking in Greek-related activities, living in a traditional Greek home, speaking the Greek language, among many others. 

There is no one characteristic from the above list that on its own defines the Greek identity. For some, Greek Orthodoxy is the most important; for others, the Greek language is most important; and for others still, neither religion nor language are important, but something else. Greek New Zealanders have different ideas on what exactly constitutes Greek identity. It may be the case that there are a number of core characteristics that one needs to have (eg Greek ancestry) before one labels themselves Greek. There may also be a configuration of characteristics, where each Greek New Zealander must possess a number of characteristics from each group of characteristics. This is at present an unresolved issue, but one that could form the basis for an extremely interesting study. 
For more fascinating insights into the Greek-New Zealand identity, you should read Athena Gavriel's study: "We are all different and the same: culture, identity and mental health: worldviews, wellbeing and health-illness experiences of Hellenes in Aotearoa New Zealand" (2005, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. NZ: Wellington), available at the VUW library.

It should be clear at this stage that the community members should realise that they themselves must take charge of their future destiny. Resources should be pooled, knowledge should be shared and a conscious effort should be made if any kind of language/cultural maintenance is to take place. The outcome of any effort may not be immediately noticeable, but it should focus on group identity. Values connected to heritage, leading to group identity, should precede individual personality traits.

You can find more of my writing about identity and New Zealand throughout my blog.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.