Languages spoken in Australia

Surprisingly, an estimated 1 million migrants cannot speak English, a huge number in a country of only around 20 million people, and some 3 million residents (around 15 per cent of the population) speak a language other than English at home.

Sydney is Australia’s most multicultural city (closely followed by Melbourne), where four out of six people in some suburbs speak a language other than English at home (overall some 30 per cent of the population of Sydney doesn’t speak English at home). Sydney and Melbourne are home to around 65 per cent of all non-English speaking migrants, who together speak a total of some 240 foreign languages.

Many migrants predominantly use their mother tongue on a day-to-day basis and have only a smattering of English. Australia’s failure to train migrants in English is handicapping them in respect of economic, political and social life, and ghettos are emerging where Australian-born children don’t speak fluent English. There’s a thriving ethnic radio and TV broadcasting network, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which was established in 1978 and broadcasts in the main cities.

Australian English is similar to British English but has its own colourful vernacular, called ‘ strine’ (from the way ‘Australian’ is pronounced with a heavy Australian accent), thrown in for good measure. Strine (also called Ozspeak) is Australia’s greatest creative product and is full of abbreviations, hyperbole, profanities, vulgar expressions and word-tweaking. Strine is the language of a rebellious subculture and has its origins in the Cockney (London) and Irish slang of the early convicts. The use of strine and slang words varies with the state or region. The Australian language also includes many words adopted from Aboriginal languages (see below).

Australians often cannot decide whether to use American or British spelling (e.g. program/programme, labor/labour, etc.) and consequently misspellings abound. In everyday use, many words have a completely different meaning in Australia than they do in other English-speaking countries, such as crook (ill), game (brave), globe (light bulb), knock (criticise), ringer (top performer), shout (round of drinks) and tube (can of beer).

Everything and anything is abbreviated in Australia, often by shortening any word with more than two syllables and adding the vowel e or o on the end of it as in derro (derelict), garbo (dustman), reffo (refugee) and rego (car registration), or adding a suffix such as i, ie or y. Common Ozspeak includes Aussie (Australian), barbie (barbecue), blowie (blowfly), brickie (bricklayer), chrissy (Christmas), cossie (swimming costume), footy (football), mozzie (mosquito), postie (postperson), tinny (can of beer) and truckie (truck driver).

There are slight regional variations in the Australian accent, although foreigners usually find it difficult to detect them. Accents are broader in isolated country areas than among the middle class city dwellers, many of whom are of British ancestry. Newcomers have difficulty distinguishing between Australians and New Zealanders (who, like Americans and Canadians, don’t take kindly to being confused).

Australians tend to speak through their noses (not moving your lips when talking keeps the flies out), with a broad nasal drawl. The use of expletives is widespread; many of them are used as a sign of familiarity and even affection (' bloody' is in everyday use and no longer considered a swear word in Australia). Aussies believe in calling a spade a spade and to hell with the consequences! Absurd comparisons are frequently used for emphasis such as ‘ as busy as a bricklayer in Beirut’ (i.e. extremely busy), ‘ as useful as a wether at a ram sale’ (useless) and ‘ as straight as a dog’s hind leg’ (bent).

Many books have been written about Australian vernacular speech, including the Aussie Talk-Macquarie Dictionary by Arthur Delbridge (Macquarie Library), the Australian Phrasebook (Lonely Planet), The Dinkum Dictionary by Leni Johannsen (Viking O’Neil) and The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary by Richard Beckett (Child and Henry). The standard Australian English dictionary is the Macquarie Dictionary (compiled by the Macquarie University, Sydney), the bible of Aussie English (2,500 pages!).

Aboriginal Languages

Australian Aboriginal (literally meaning ‘indigenous’) society has the longest unbroken cultural history in the world, dating back around 60,000 years. When the First Fleet arrived in Australia in 1788, there were estimated to be around 250 Australian languages (all believed to have evolved from a single language family) comprising some 700 dialects (although the British didn’t do any surveys before massacring the natives). Of the original 250 or so languages, only around 20 survive today, but these are spoken regularly and taught in schools. Kriol, spoken mostly in northern Australia, is the most widely used Aboriginal language and the native language of many young Aboriginals. It contains many English words but the meanings are often different and the spelling is phonetic.

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Other comments

  • Ric Vieira, 14 July 2009 Reply

    Languages spoken in Australia

  • Archie, 02 September 2009 Reply


    • John 19 Jan 2012, 03:21

      Australians tend to speak through their noses

    • Clemence 07 Feb 2012, 12:07

      speaj through their noses

    • Proud Aussie 07 Mar 2012, 01:18


    • bob 11 May 2012, 05:37

      nostrol talking