The Status of English and Other Foreign Languages in the Greek Educational Context

 Georgia Dimitrakopoulou


In recent years, the European Commission has made steps towards the promotion of multiculturalism in countries within the EU by introducing the need for communication in two foreign languages, so that European citizens could be able to benefit both individually and professionally. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century multilingual education became compulsory in Greece, as an integral part of Greek citizens’ European identity. In my paper, I will draw on the status and role of English and other foreign languages in the Greek educational system and the views of various individuals who classify them as either high or low status, depending on their prestige and degree of importance.

Keywords: Greece, English, status, role, other languages



In ancient Greece, monolingualism and monoculturalism were considered to be desirable states, since Greek speakers used to stigmatise foreigners and call them “barbarians”, an attribute which had mainly negative connotations and “originally meant one who uttered meaningless sounds, a non-language” (Phillipson, 1992, p. 19); Although thousands of years have passed, Greece still constitutes a primarily monolingual nation. According to Sifakis (2009, p. 232), “Greece’s ‘de facto population’ is around 11.1 million”, the vast majority of which use Greek as their native language. More specifically, Modern Greek is the first language of about 99 per cent of the population (Oikonomidis, 2003, p. 55).

The Status of English in the Greek Educational System

 Taking Kachru’s (1985) theory into account Greece is a typical case of an “outer circle” country, since English has acquired no official status and is taught as a foreign language in a variety of contexts. Sifakis (2009, p. 233) reports that “in 2004, 96.9 per cent of state school pupils of all levels learnt English as a foreign language”. More specifically, in primary schools English is taught to 3rd grade learners in mixed ability classes as a compulsory subject, whereas in secondary education, classes are divided into different proficiency levels according to placement tests that are carried out at the beginning of the school year (Sifakis & Sougari, 2016, p. 471).

Drawing on the Greek EFL curriculum in private schools, we should consider that it is primarily testing-oriented and based on inner-circle norms, as one of the students’ goals is the acquisition of proficiency certificates by “standardized examination boards”, (Sifakis, 2009, p. 233), or preparation for studies in prestigious British or American colleges through ESP courses. The certificates’ importance in terms of employability renders English as a higher-status language within the educational context, in comparison with other foreign languages. Driva and Chostelidou (2012, p. 261) conducted research, which involved 120 FL teachers in both primary and secondary schools in Northern Greece and revealed that almost all participants agreed on the “leading role of English as a lingua franca”, due to the prevalence and dissemination of British and American culture in general. What is more, 84 per cent of the sample argued that “equity between English and other foreign languages is far from reality” (Driva et al., 2012, p. 261), since English is considered as superior and relevant to the students’ needs, in comparison with other languages.

Sifakis (2009, p. 233), though, argues that the status of English in state schools is significantly lower than in the private sector, as EFL teaching takes place within a “TENOR situation”, where English is taught with no obvious reason and most students attend private courses or language schools that prepare them for proficiency exams. English is neglected as a subject and state school teachers have lower status in relation to the teachers of other subjects that are regarded as more important within the school context. With regard to the attitudes towards English, Prodromou (1988, p. 74) mentions that both parents and students in the Greek context have acquired a “predominantly utilitarian and materialistic” view towards EFL learning. English is considered to be the key for social mobility and professional development and therefore pupils are obliged to learn the language by any means, in order to retain their European identity and benefit from their plurilingualism.


The Role of English in the Greek Context

The emergence of “the English language fever” (Prodromou, 1988, p. 81) raises various issues about individual identity. As Sifakis (2009, p. 233) states, Greek school classes have become “increasingly multicultural and multilingual” in the past few years and therefore it is believed that English should be used as a ‘neutral’ means of communication between pupils, but at the same time provide them with opportunities for personal expression. In other words, individuals should be able to promote and realize their individuality through the use of a common language that would “meet the needs of the emerging reality of multiculturalism” and eliminate any racist views towards minorities.

Through his book The World in English, Pennycook (1994, p. 7) characterizes the spread of English as “natural, neutral and beneficial” in a global scale. These attributes refer not only to the massive cultural and linguistic effect of British colonialism but also to the age of post-colonialism, where the English language has become decentralized and has evolved into an international system that promotes collaboration, mutual respect and understanding among nations. Although in Greek society English is not used extensively in everyday life, its knowledge can provide individuals with valuable skills for their professional and personal life in general by allowing them to get involved with various domains, such as tourism, modern technology, the media and the marketplace either in their native country or abroad. Last but not least, the use of English is related with the concept of  “social and economic prestige”  (Pennycook, 1994, p. 14), since those that are deprived of the ability to learn the language are considered to be inferior in terms of their economic class and do not have access to the aforementioned benefits.


The Status and Role of Other Foreign Languages in Greek Schools

Although English is the default foreign language that Greek students have been learning over the past 15 years, being introduced to a second foreign language has become compulsory not only for secondary, but also for 5th grade primary school students since 2005. The European Commission promoted this model, in order to disseminate multilingualism and help European citizens develop both culturally and cognitively. According to a study that was carried out by Psaltou and Kantaridou (2009, p. 464) among 1555 undergraduate university students, bilingual and trilingual students seem to be more motivated to learn a foreign language than monolinguals. Apart from their motivation, “their language system is widened not only quantitatively but also qualitatively and their language learning becomes more focused and effective” (Psaltou et al., 2009, p. 462).


The Role of High-status Foreign Languages

In an aforementioned study, Driva et al., (2012, p. 259) report that more than 70 per cent of Greek citizens can communicate by using two different foreign languages. However, they argue that multilingualism in the Greek curriculum is promoted through particular languages that are considered as of higher status within the European community, due to the financial superiority of these countries (Driva et al., 2012, p. 261). More specifically, students are provided with two basic options of second foreign languages in both primary and secondary schools; namely French and German. The majority of the participants recognize the power of “strong European languages” but also express the need for the educational system to create opportunities for other foreign languages, such as Italian, Spanish or even Balkan languages (Driva et al., 2012, p. 263).

Drawing on my personal experiences, the attitudes towards high-status European languages by the native population may be considered as similar to English, since most students aim at acquiring basic knowledge for succeeding in particular examination boards instead of developing their communicative competence skills. Pupils’ motivation is mainly instrumental and their linguistic level seems to fossilize soon after achieving the desired level of competence. Although the role of these languages is restricted to testing purposes, their influence is gradually increasing in the post-colonial era, as more and more high-school graduates opt for other European rather than British institutions for obtaining their university degrees.


Minority Languages in the Greek Setting

Since the development of multilingual competence requires learning more than one foreign language, learners should be given a variety of options to choose from and the notion of multiculturalism should embrace other languages as well, in order to promote the concept of linguistic diversity and plurilingualism. Tsokalidou (2005, p. 49) stresses the fact that in Greek schools, there is a wide range of speakers that represent minority language groups and low-status languages. Her research involved the observation of three language schools in the Greek periphery and indicated that almost 40 per cent of the students originate from Albania and former USSR countries. School teachers frequently characterize these learners as “alloglossa pedia” (Tsokalidou, 2005, p. 52) or in other words as other-language speaking children; a term that has mainly negative connotations and may signal their stigmatization. What is more, educators rarely raise issues that concern the language and culture of minority groups and administrators seem to neglect the need “to promote an intercultural and antiracist education” (Tsokalidou, 2005: 52) by teaching Greek as a second language for immigrants.

Another recent study that is related to the status of minority language groups involves a sample of 180 Albanian immigrants in various areas all over Greece (Gogonas & Michail, 2015, p. 198). The vast majority of the participants report that they are “treated as foreigners due to their origin” (Gogonas et al., 2015, p. 206) by referring to specific racist views addressed to them by natives. The case of “Albano phobia” (Gogonas et al., 2015, p. 201) is related to the “othering” of Albanians and reveals the negative stereotypes that are promoted through the Greek media and represent immigrants as potentially dangerous individuals (Gogonas, 2009, p. 98).

The lack of institutional support for preserving their individuality leads immigrants to the gradual abandonment of their mother tongue so that they can become integrated in the Greek community.  Nonetheless, the Albanian community should realize the crucial role that their language plays for the maintenance of their “ethnolinguistic vitality”, which is defined by Giles, Bourhis and Taylor (1977, p. 308) as the quality that “makes a group likely to behave as a distinctive and active collective entity in inner-group situations”. Instead of abandoning their native language and adopting Greek as their main language, in order to achieve “social incorporation, social mobility and socialization” (Gogonas et al., 2015, p. 208) they should consider their bilingualism as an asset within the general picture of multiculturalism. Greek teachers need to raise the issue of bilingual awareness and create a non-threating environment of pluralism that supports students from all cultural backgrounds. In that way, minority language groups would be able to preserve their national identity and “contribute to a richer, more colorful, diverse and dynamic environment” (Tsokalidou, 2005, p. 54).



 All in all, Phillipson (1994, p. 36) maintains that in “periphery-English countries’ the dominance of English as a second or foreign language leads gradually to the ‘displacement and replacement” of other native languages, within a context of linguistic hegemony. In the case of Greece, the notion of colonial power is further disseminated, signaling the superiority of English as an international means of communication that governs most domains of social, economic and political life, such as business, education, the media and many more. As far as the sector of education is concerned, the Greek government has made significant steps towards the introduction of multiculturalism, in order to conform to the demands of the European Commission.

In my paper, I have attempted to prove that the promotion of high status foreign languages in Greek schools, such as German or French, has resulted in the exclusion of other minority languages that are treated as inferior due to prevailing racist attitudes towards immigrants. It is of utmost importance that teachers and administrators are trained appropriately in order to correspond to the needs of the intercultural setting in Greek classrooms and thus, make students aware of the benefits of plurilingualism, which constitutes “a unique asset that does not cost any money, but has great value” (Tsokalidou, 2005, p. 61).



Driva, E., & Chostelidou, D. (2012). Multilingual competence development in the Greek educational system: FL teachers’ beliefs and attitudes. International Journal of Multilingualism, 9(3), 57-271.

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Gogonas, N. (2009). Language shift in second generation Albanian immigrants in Greece. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 30(2), 95-110.

Gogonas, N., & Michail, E. (2015). Ethnolinguistic vitality, language use and social integration amongst Albanian immigrants in Greece. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 36(2), 198-211.

Kachru, B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the Outer Circle. In R. Quirk & H. G. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (pp. 11-30). Cambridge University Press: London.

Oikonomidis, A. (2003). The impact of English in Greece. English Today, 74(19), 55-61.

Pennycook, A. (1994). The world in English. In A. Pennycook (Ed.), The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language (pp. 1-37). London: Longman.

Phillipson, R. (1992). English, the dominant language. In R. Phillipson (Ed.), Linguistic Imperialism (pp. 17-37). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prodromou, L. (1988). English as cultural action. ELT Journal, 42(2), 73-83.

Sifakis, N. (2009). Challenges in teaching ELF in the periphery: the Greek context. ELT Journal, 63(3), 230-237.

Sifakis, N., & Sougari, A.  (2016). Pronunciation issues and EIL pedagogy in the periphery: A survey of Greek state school teachers’ beliefs. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 467-488.

Tsokalidou, R. (2005). Raising “Bilingual Awareness” in Greek primary schools. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 8(1), 48-61.


georgia-photoGeorgia Dimitrakopoulou entered the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2010. She graduated from the Faculty of English Language and Literature by obtaining her BA degree with distinction and since then she has worked in private language schools in Greece teaching English as a Foreign Language. She is currently studying as a postgraduate ELT student in the University of Warwick. More specifically, she specializes in teaching English to Young Learners and intends to pursue a career as a materials developer and teacher trainer.


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