Australia is a combination of relatively small populations of indigenous people, the descendants of mainly European migrants and many relatively recent migrants from all parts of the world who speak a myriad of different languages. It is worth noting that there are many different indigenous languages, which are typically not related. Also, there are now relatively few indigenous people in Australia who are fluent in their own language.

Because Australia was colonized primarily by British settlers and remained a British colony, or more accurately, a small number of separate colonies until federation, English became the official language. This remains true today. English is the only official language used in Australia and is the primary language used in all official settings, such as government, healthcare, education and business. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future despite Australia having become a multilingual and multicultural country with recognition of the existence and contribution of indigenous and migrant languages.

Languages other than English spoken in Australia

Apart from English and several dozen (previously several hundred) indigenous languages and dialects, there are about a dozen languages that are spoken and understood by Australian citizens and residents, even if these are primarily spoken only in the home.

The frequency of use of these languages has changed over time as migration patterns and the influx of refugees changes. For example, until the 1970s, the major non-English and indigenous languages were European – Italian, Greek, Serbian and Croatian, German, but since the 1970s there has been a larger number of Asian and Middle Eastern migrants, so languages like Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Persian and Afghani have appeared.

This is the list of the top 10 languages spoken in Australia other than English according to the 2016 census:

  1. Mandarin
  2. Arabic
  3. Cantonese
  4. Vietnamese
  5. Italian
  6. Greek
  7. Tagalog/Filipino
  8. Hindi
  9. Spanish
  10. Punjabi

Australian English

Australian English is almost identical in every way to the English of the original colonial country, Great Britain. There are very few differences in spelling (‘labor’ rather than ‘labour’ is one of them), which marks it out from American English or grammatical construction. Like all languages which have diverged in time from the original version, there are now some unique colloquial expressions and vocabulary that mark Australian English as distinct from other forms of English.

The Australian accent tends to be quite distinct and recognisable by other Australians overseas as well as by other English language speakers who have spent time in Australia. It is most similar to New Zealand English, but is still somewhat different. As with any language, of course, there are some differences between socio-economic groups. Middle class Australians tend to have a less broad accent than working class Australians. Unlike the English of Great Britain, there is virtually no difference geographically across Australia, so Tasmanians tend to speak with the same accent as Queenslanders or Northern Territorians, as long as English is their native or first language.

Australian indigenous languages

There were probably several hundred different languages and dialects spoken by indigenous Australians when the continent was first colonised by British settlers. Many of these languages disappeared or are in the process of disappearing over time, often because indigenous peoples’ culture and way of life was strongly curtailed as the continent was settled. There are still numbers of languages which are still understood and used by indigenous groups and there has been a revival in learning these languages in schools and communities as the importance of culture is recognised. Most indigenous Australians understand and speak English even if they use their own language at home or in their own community.

Conclusion

While English remains the most important and the official language of Australia, there are several dozen indigenous languages actively recognised in the country and many languages from all around the world brought to Australia by migrants and refugees. Asian and Middle Eastern languages have become the predominant non English languages used in Australia.