I used to work from 8am to 6pm and we had an English speaking childminder. A Greek friend of mine was with her kids around the clock at the beginning, and although they are trilingual and we are bilingual, their Greek was stronger.
I have my kids now from 4pm to 8pm and then return to my desk until 11pm. I didn’t change my career for that reason, but it became a wonderful side effect. It makes such a huge difference. In this past year that we’ve spent all afternoons together my kids’ Greek has improved a lot.
On different family structures
My husband and I nearly always speak English at home. He speaks English to the kids and I speak Greek to them. When they talk to me about how their day at school was, it’s always exclusively in English. We have maybe 20% Greek and only when it’s about our personal life or less technical descriptions.
I was a little apprehensive about it at the beginning, I was doubting it more. The first years when I was talking and talking and talking and getting no response back it was a real fight. We didn’t have our Greek playgroup back then. To simply see other families face similar struggles was crucial for me. I don’t know if otherwise I would have been so invested in it.
Now I’m not thinking about it anymore. When the answer is in Greek I feel happy, it is very moving.
Sometimes when we have a long time to go to Greece, when there are 6 months or more between our visits, I too lose touch with the language.
On neighbourhood games
Without wanting to sound like someone belonging in the past, I believe, mostly for Greece and the Greek culture… I have the impression some of the habits and traditions we grew up with are on their way to getting lost. There are so many western influences. Many of the games I remember from my childhood have disappeared.
What are children playing now?
They are more indoors and meet on weekends with their families. In the summer we would go out to play at 5pm and walked back home at 8pm, even during the week. Our parents had this feeling of security. Granted, maybe that wasn’t right either, but that has become near impossible today.
I remember going downhill to a plateia and playing ‘lastixaki’ (twist). These kind of games helped shape the Greek identity. There’s even an expression for them: we call them “neighbourhood games”. And now tell me, how are you going to play ‘mila’ indoors?
How do you play it?
There is one child on either side and a group of children in the middle. You try to throw the ball to one another and the children in the middle try to catch it. If a child catches it, you swap places and keep going. There’s a myriad of such games out there!
Do your children have friends in Greece they could play this with?
Yes, but of course these are light summer friendships and they don’t have this connection we’ve had. They have met through us, their parents, they haven’t formed bonds of their own. These are not truly independent friendships.
Initially, my children will try to speak English with their Greek friends and I’ve noticed that the Greek children will answer back in English. But after a week to ten days this changes and becomes all Greek.
Don’t you think this is a problem of our times rather than cultural?
For sure, in part it is our times, but I didn’t grow up here so I don’t know what childhood in Britain looked like and I can only talk about the changes I see happening in Greece. I believe children in both countries were equally more free or less supervised than they are now.
From one generation to another is the key to access culture
Greek is a colloquial language which you can’t easily learn by the book. So much meaning resides in expressions. We have a clear need for it, without Greek my children wouldn’t be able to speak to my parents because English is an alien language to them.
My parents care for our children over the summer holidays. The original arrangement grew out of need, somebody had to watch over them while we went to work. By now our children prefer to stay in Crete without us and I can see my parents really benefiting from shaping their own stories with our children too.
When I’m there with them their Greek gets limited. I understand them when they speak English, although I will answer back in Greek, but they know I’m ok with our two language conversations and lose their incentive to speak Greek in Greece.
I wonder if they will keep it alive in the next generation.
Is this important to you?
I’m not sure. Of course I’d love it. It is incredibly beautiful to keep your roots alive and not lose them within one or two generations. To be able to say“I come from there”,to feel a connection. Language is the key to access culture.
How much Greek remains?
I’ve lived in the UK since 1995. That’s 22 years. I’ve spent more time living in England than Greece.
How does that make you feel?
When I think about it, I go “Oh wow! That can’t be true”. But I still think of myself as Greek and don’t feel like anything else.
It is funny when people talk to you and don’t ask where you’re from anymore. There are so many foreigners in London, you’re part of them. I don’t feel foreign in this country but I’m also not from here. It is a weird feeling I believe many people have.
Is it important to you that your children learn to read and write in Greek?
To be honest, yes. They don’t necessarily need to know how to write, but if they can read they can have the same feeling they have when walking through the streets of London, discovering signs, magazines, or books. I want them to be able to manoeuvre through life in Greece on their own.
I also remember my friend’s son who’s growing up in Norway. He was reading Arka comics in the summer holidays and was laughing out loud. It perplexed me and I thought “This humour of Arka is very particular, to have a 10 year understand it is quite something.” and took it as an incentive to start formal lessons, to offer my children the same access to the Greek soul that he has.
From Teachers to Homeschooling
Have you started any classes in Greek?
We hired a private tutor to come to our place every Saturday and my daughter liked her a lot! I think she saw her more as a friend and we approached it from a very playful perspective.
But because it was at our home, from 10am to 12pm every Saturday, it put too much pressure on us as a family. We had to be ready for the lessons, which meant we had to tidy up the room upstairs and clean the kitchen before the teacher arrived.
So we changed. And now every Saturday when the boys leave home, I sit down with my daughter and we work our way through the Greek curriculum together. I do it more to make sure we have a particular time a week set aside to focus on Greek rather than focus on an academic goal.
How is it going?
Great! We have a couple of books which are super easy. They start with the most basic phonics ‘ki-ki-ki’ and ‘ni-ni-ni’ in year one, which is more akin to nursery in England. My daughter is the one who insists “Can we do the next letter, please?”. It is easy for children who attend a British school as they are familiar with this structure already. I would highly recommend it as a way to stay in touch with your language.
Do you have anything else in place to support Greek?
We organised piano lessons in Greek, but I’m sceptical about this sort of immersive experience. There is so much technical vocabulary that is said in English… We originally started it to have another Greek person in our children’s life, who isn’t a family member. Maybe this alone has an effect of its own, who knows?
My brother lives in London too, although he’s extremely busy and we only see him occasionally. Diaries in London are so full, we don’t easily find time to catch up.
Feeling like standing alone on the dancefloor
When I’m with friends I find it extremely difficult to speak Greek to my children, especially when other children are around.
Because it’s hard to translate or because it makes you feel uncomfortable?
It’s more the social aspect, although I wouldn’t take offence if people said “talk to me in English so I can understand you, please”. But nobody ever said that to me when I’ve decided to speak Greek to my kids in public despite my initial reservations.
When you have a mum-friend at home who speaks French to her kids, how would that make you feel?
That would be no problem at all! I’d feel happy for her, I wouldn’t mind it at all.
So when somebody else does it, you don’t feel like they are excluding you, yet when you do it yourself you feel judged?
I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how I feel. Isn’t it somehow normal though? When somebody else does it we don’t mind, but when we have to do it ourselves, we cringe. Instead of taking comfort that we too are allowed and should be speaking our language, we take the flip position and feel uncomfortable. It is a bit like standing alone on the dancefloor.