Helping Anglo-Greek children preserve vitality of dual heritage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Making her mark in the field of bicultural education, Sabina Fitzgerald-Melidi is a British teacher bringing up her own two bicultural sons in Greece. As one of the thousands of English-speaking migrants living in Greece , most of them married to Greeks, she faced a need to develop her children's second language and awareness of their foreign parent's culture.

Contrary to many parents' concern that their children could not straddle two cultures, Mrs. Melidi was convinced by studies carried out on cross-cultural children both in Greece and elsewhere, that such children enjoy a potentially enriching and advantaged situation if offered opportunities to develop fully each side of their heritage.

In places like Australia and the United States, where migrant groups have become well-established sectors of the community, a variety of educational and cultural support systems have been created over the years to keep alive various languages and cultures.

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In Athens. mixed-marriage parents welcomed Mrs. Melidi's first children's center, for pre-school children, in 1976. Her goal was to help their children make the most of their bicultural identity and to begin building on the strengths of their unique situation in their early, formative years.

Divided into three sections according to the needs of the age groups, the center today offers a regular preschool program both in English and Greek and includes a special language program for those whose proficiency in either language is weak.

Mrs. Melidi's own children are completely bilingual, and she emphasizes the importance of being consistent about language - ''always speak to your child in your own language.''

''By providing a separating approach to language development, the child learns to associate each language with certain people and situations and thereby avoids confusion.''

Children who will attend Greek primary school are given a special preparatory program the year before to ensure they will have no difficulties on joining the Greek school system. Once in primary school they can attend the center's general English enrichment program after school hours, which offers arts and crafts, music, a specialized language program, vocabulary development, and poetry and expressive-writing projects.

Results are starting to back up Mrs. Melidi's theories. After the first two years of the center's operation, children who had gone on to Greek primary school were adjusting well and receiving top marks the first term. Some parents' concerns that their children would ''speak neither language well'' have been dispelled.

A young English mother married to a Greek-Austrian says of her six-year-old son's progress, ''After three years at the center he has become an extremely adaptable and flexible child, who mixes easily with children of different nationalities, speaking both English and Greek.''

An Australian mother, taking her six- and eight-year-olds home to meet their grandparents in Melbourne for the first time last Christmas, found that their two years of cross-cultural education helped them fit into the Australian scene with no problems at all.

''By denying a child access to his foreign parents' culture as well as language, one is cutting him off from a source of emotional support,'' Mrs. Melidi maintains. ''Joshua Fishman, one of the leading authorities on bilingualism, claims that to do so is to weaken 'the sources from which he might have drawn consolation and guidance.' The child can have no contact with his 'other' family (cousins, grandparents, etc.) if he does not have the skills to communicate.

''Also, if the foreign parent does not feel he or she is losing the child to another culture, it is much better for the family as a whole. Developing parental awareness constitutes a major part of our work. We have been recently helped in this by the Cross-Cultural Association, an organization formed by a group of mixed-marriage parents. Resource materials and information are gathered and regular meetings held to discuss the problems of bicultural families. We were recently visited by the founder of the Melbourne Greek Welfare Society, Dr. Spyros Moraitis, OBE, who spoke to the group about common problems.

''The association is helping in lobbying for official recognition and financial support. Operating costs have risen as we maintain a high standard by having a teacher-child ratio of 1 to 10. On a recent trip to America, I visited the University of Pennsylvania where a group setting up a similar type of center was very interested in our findings. We will shortly be visited by a team from London University who will be doing research here on bicultural children.''

Recognition in Greece, although hindered by bureaucracy, has begun to spread. ''During the International Year of the Child,'' Mrs. Melidi says, ''we were visited by officials from the Ministry of Social Services. As a result of their findings, our bicultural children were included in the Greek government's program to give priority to children.''

At a recent conference on second-generation migrants held by the Council of Europe in Delphi, it was recommended to ''win respect for the cultural identity of migrants generally and young migrants in particular.

The entrance of Greece into the Common Market and the increasing emphasis on multiculturalism give increasing relevance to Sabina Melidi's work. Her supporters believe it is important for the next generation to grow up with the recognition that there is not just one right way of looking at things - and with the flexibility and adaptability their bicultural perspective affords.

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