Guest Viewpoints

We Are What We Speak: A Case for Learning Greek

August 15, 2020
By Bela Tsilas

When I was younger, I dreaded Greek school. Every Wednesday, my father would rush out of work and drive over an hour to get to Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle. From 6-7 pm, we would attend culture class, followed by a 2-hour language course. I associated learning Greek with rush hour traffic, hunger, and exhaustion. I did not understand its importance, nor did I understand the sacrifice my parents were making to enrich their children.

After passing the B2 language proficiency test at the University of Washington, I was given a choice to continue my studies. I gave up Greek school, thinking it would allow more time to focus on soccer and school. Our long drives to the church stopped, and weekly study sessions were no longer. My dad spoke less and less Greek in the house.

That summer I went to Greece on a family vacation, hesitant to speak Greek. I had lost fluency and confidence in my ability to speak the language. Worse, I was embarrassed by my slight American accent. When family members or friends spoke to me in Greek, I started to respond in English. This was a slippery slope, and I soon lost fluency.

Greek American children repeat this pattern throughout the United States. The Foundation of Endangered Languages estimates that most immigrants have completely lost fluency in their heritage language by the third generation. Many parents decide to prioritize English over their mother language when speaking with their children as if they conflict with one another. In doing so, English becomes the children’s first language, and the native language is often lost. The pressure to learn English comes from a desire to fit in with American culture and make space for other more fun activities. However, losing our native language means we lose a piece of who we are. Language shapes our identity, culture, and traditions.

I understand now that it is a privilege to attend Greek school. Learning Greek has a plethora of benefits. It immerses you in the culture, shapes your identity and understanding of the world, and enhances cognitive development. It can advance your understanding of emotion, science, medicine, and the English language.

“Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives,” states Lera Borodsik, Cognitive Scientist Professor at UCSD. Language is more than learning vocabulary and syntax. It is about moving closer to culture, understanding people, and ways in which they express themselves. It exposes people to the traditions, religion, art, and history of the language.

To a Greek American, learning modern Greek means “coming closer to the people we love and connecting with people in Greece on a more intimate level, strengthening intercultural connections,” says Anna Venetsanos, a Greek language professor at NYU. Learning Greek brings us closer to our Greek family, friends, and ancestors. This deeper understanding and connection “bring a liberated appreciation of culture through immersion.”

Greek is the language of science, medicine, technology, and mathematics. It is the language in which Socrates and Plato spoke of democracy and the first Olympics. Greek unlocks “feelings, emotions, and behaviors which transmit cultural heritage and shape one’s identity,” states Anna Venestanos.

As any Pappou will proudly tell you, Greek is the language of all languages. For example, the word ‘phobia’ comes from the Greek word ‘Phobos’, meaning fear or horror. Take ‘democracy’, which combines ‘Demos’ meaning ‘people’ and ‘Kratos’ meaning ‘power’. The power to the people. Approximately 25% of the English vocabulary is of Greek origin. Understanding Greek gives a better understanding of the English language.

Multilingualism has also shown to enhance cognitive development. Psychology professors Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook at Northwestern found that people who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, enhanced concentration, and better listening skills. They are better at multitasking and switching between tasks.

Being multilingual will also come as an asset to young professionals. Liz Reisberg, a researcher at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, asserts that “the job market is much stronger for individuals who speak other languages. Over the past five years, demand for bilingual workers in the United States has more than doubled.” Children and young adults should learn a foreign language because it could be an essential part of their resume when searching for jobs.

Now that the global pandemic keeps people home, and many Greek schools are closed, how can children learn Greek and stay connected to their culture? As a parent, the best thing you can do is to set an example and speak Greek around the house. Read to your child in Greek, listen to Greek music, watch Greek TV shows or movies. Connect the language to the culture by exploring Greek mythology, history, and current events with your children. Consider hiring a Greek babysitter. Finding small ways for your children to connect to the language and culture is important.

Embrace remote learning and hire an online Greek tutor. There are thousands of native Greek teachers or students to choose from. Take advantage of free online Greek language courses.

Students, I encourage you to get involved in the Hellenic organizations in your community. Keep practicing your Greek and embrace your mistakes. Given a choice, make time for your Greek studies. You will learn about your Yiayia and Pappou, your parents, your country, and your identity. Invest in yourself.


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