- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

ATHENS A proposal to adopt English as a second official language has split Greece into two warring camps, aroused national passions and exposed a weakness in the country's educational system.
"Never," said Vyron Polydoras of the opposition New Democracy Party, who said, "Language is the most definitive factor and characteristic of our ethnic identity."
Critics of the proposal claim that while English might be "the language of computers," the Greek language represents ancient Hellenic culture, "political, economic, athletic, philosophical and possible Christian heritage."
Yet the suggestion was made in good faith and for very practical reason by Anna Diamantopoulou, the Greek member of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.
Citing the perpetual EU wrangle over the cost of translation into 11 languages and more than 20 after the union's planned enlargement she stated that English was the most widely used international language and Greece and the rest of the EU should face it the sooner the better.
"It is hard to imagine simultaneous translation into 20 or 22 languages," she said. "The question is likely to come up soon, and everyone is avoiding it. I have to say that Greece should get in early and make English its second official language."
Answering those critics who invoke the loss of cultural heritage and national identity, Mrs. Diamantopoulou said, "I don't think Greeks have anything to lose by learning to speak English as well as Greek."
While the governing Social Penhellenic Movement (Pasok) was split on the issue, the Greek press picked up the debate with gusto.
Statistics released during the past week showed that the inadequacy of foreign language courses in state schools has led to the creation of 11,000 private language institutes, teaching 1 million children. Ninety percent of the children in those schools study English while the remainder take up French, German and Italian.
According to EU figures, Greek and French state schools begin teaching a foreign language in the fourth year of education, compared with the first grade in Austria and Luxembourg. The Panhellenic Association of Language Schools in Athens said that 14 percent of Greek parents believe foreign language education should start at the age of 6.
The ensuing debate in the Greek media showed that in modern Greece, English is essential to most careers and its knowledge enhances the chances of employment.
"Those who travel around the world know that nobody speaks Greek besides the Greeks," said Vassilis Zarboulas, an Athens teacher. "In the new millennium, the English language is the language of communication, science and commerce."
A sobering note to Mrs. Diamantopoulou's proposal was voiced by the conservative Athens daily Kathimerini.
"Implementation of her proposal would generate some very real consequences," the newspaper wrote. "One of these is that official state documents would have to be translated into English. Moreover, any citizen would have the right to request the use of English in transactions and relations with the public sector."
The EU has been struggling with the linguistic problem for some time, particularly since the departure of Jacques Delors from the presidency of the European Commission ended the supremacy of the French language.
So far, efforts to curtail the number of "acceptable" languages has met stiff opposition from member states. Proposals included a plan to limit "official" EU languages to English, French, German and Italian. It was defeated, with Greece being one of the most vocal opponents.
The debate on the teaching of foreign languages has revealed other flaws in the Greek educational system. According to the highly critical Kathimerini article, the system is plagued by "hasty laws, ill-prepared programs, overemphasis on exams and lack of funding."
Moreover, wrote the newspaper, Greece is last in the EU as far as new educational technology is concerned. "The ratio of pupils to computers presents a dismal picture, with one computer to 183 primary school pupils and 43 secondary school pupils."

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