Beyond English: Discover Australia’s Spoken Languages

The sixth-largest country in the world, Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures and history. The combination of the indigenous population and migrants from all over means many languages are spoken in Australia.

But which are the most common?

English is the language most frequently spoken in Australia. The top five non-English languages spoken are Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Punjabi. 

According to the 2021 census, English is the dominant language in Australia, but many other languages are spoken around the country. More than 5.5 million people living in Australia speak a language other than English. Here’s a look at the subject in more detail. 

What Languages Is Spoken in Australia?

No language in Australia has been formally designated as the official language, but English is the most widely spoken. It’s also the language used for government functions and business transactions, consolidating its position as the language of choice. 

The 2021 census also confirms that around 76% of the population only speak English, including at home. The government offers a free program for eligible individuals, including migrants, who only have a low level of English literacy. 

However, with more than half of Australians being first or second-generation migrants, there is a diverse range of other languages also spoken. The 2021 census also shows that other than English, the top five languages in Australia are:

  • Mandarin – 2.7%
  • Arabic – 1.4%
  • Vietnamese – 1.3%
  • Cantonese – 1.2%
  • Punjabi – 0.9%

What Are the 3 Main Languages Spoken in Australia?

The three main languages spoken in Australia are currently English, Mandarin, and Arabic. English is the primary language but Asian languages, particularly Mandarin and Arabic, are increasingly prevalent. 

Chinese-based languages make up a significant proportion of non-English communication in Australia. Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese language speakers make up 4% of the total population.

Why Do Australians Speak English?

Australians speak English today due to the mass arrival of settlers from Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1788 and 1868, tens of thousands of people arrived from Britain and Ireland, bringing the English language with them.

English wasn’t spoken in Australia before the arrival of the settlers. There was originally a diverse and wide range of native indigenous languages spoken, but this was gradually displaced by a single language – English – which was enforced by colonial rule. 

Is Australian English Different?

The phrase “divided by a common language” is often used to describe the differences between the different forms of English. British and American English are two of the most widely spoken variants, but there are other types of English too. 

Australian English is often described as a cross between British and American English, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. With influences from other languages such as Chinese and Irish and native aboriginal languages, Australian English is unique and diverse. 

What Is the Difference in Australian English?

The majority of Australian spellings follow the British rules, with “-ise” rather than “-ize” and “-our” not “-or.” That’s not universally the case, though, as words such as program (not programme) demonstrate. 

But it’s not the spelling that really sets Australian English apart; it’s the components of the language. Abbreviations are far more common in Australian English than elsewhere, with more than 4300 recorded. 

These diminutives include examples such as:

  • Ambos (ambulance workers)
  • Sunnies (sunglasses)
  • Cossies (swimming costumes)
  • Defo (definitely)

All versions of English include abbreviations, but the volume and prevalence are particularly unique to Australian English.

How Do Australians Say Hello?

Australians typically use informal language to say hello, with phrases such as “G’day” and “How’re you doing?” In a professional setting before a relationship is established, it’s normal to greet someone with “Hello, Mr/Mrs/Miss XYZ.” 

As the primary language spoken in Australia, English is commonly used to say hello. However, there are several other languages spoken widely across the country, and there are alternative ways to say hello, such as:

  • Nǐ hǎo – Mandarin
  • Marhaba – Arabic
  • Xin chào – Vietnamese
  • Nei hou – Cantonese
  • Sat Sri Akaal – Punjabi

Do the Non-English Languages Spoken Vary Across Australia?

Although English is the primary language spoken in Australia, many households speak a second language. These second languages are not the same universally across the country. 

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed the distribution of languages across Australia as follows:

Most Common Non-English Language2nd Most Common Non-English Language3rd Most Common Non-English Language4th Most Common Non-English Language5th Most Common Non-English Language
NSWMandarinArabicCantoneseVietnameseHindi
VictoriaMandarinVietnameseGreekPunjabiItalian
QueenslandMandarinVietnamesePunjabiSpanishCantonese
South AustraliaMandarinItalianGreekVietnamesePunjabi
Western AustraliaMandarinItalianVietnamesePunjabiCantonese
TasmaniaMandarinNepaliPunjabiSpanishCantonese
Northern TerritoryKriolDjambarrpuynguGreekNepaliTagalog
Australian Capital TerritoryMandarinNepaliVietnamesePunjabiHindi
Other TerritoriesMalayNorfolk-PitcairnMandarinCantoneseMin Nan
Table showing languages spoken in Australia

Are the Languages Spoken in Australia Changing?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics carries out a survey every five years. This gives valuable insights into the languages spoken in Australia and how they’re changing. 

Between 2016 and 2021, four of the top five non-English languages were essentially unchanged, with just Cantonese and Vietnamese swapping positions. 

In 2016, Italian was in the fifth position but had dropped out by 2021, with Punjabi taking its place. Punjabi is Australia’s fastest-growing language, with an increase of 80% in the last five years. There are now approximately 239,000 Punjabi speakers in Australia. 

How Common Are Native Australian Languages?

The indigenous population in Australia has been recorded as approximately 984,000, so it’s perhaps surprising that no native languages feature in those most commonly spoken. 

The reason for this is due to the wide variety of indigenous languages, with more than 150 different native languages spoken. 

Studies suggest that all indigenous languages in Australia can be traced back to a single tongue known as Proto-Australian around 10,000 years ago. But the languages became linguistically diverse and split into the different languages spoken today. 

The number of indigenous languages has been declining, which has been highlighted as a concern. Some sources suggest there are as few as 20 native languages that are actively spoken, and there are fears that many indigenous tongues will simply die out. 

The most commonly spoken native Australian languages are:

  • Djambarrpuyngu 
  • Pitjantjatjara 
  • Warlpiri
  • Tiwi
  • Murrinh-Patha
  • Kunwinjku

There are relatively few speakers of each of the above languages; the precise numbers are fluid, but there are less than 5000 of each. 

Mixed languages are far more common; Kriol and Yumplatok are “new” languages made up of a combination of English and indigenous Australian languages. 

A type of creole, Kriol, is particularly prevalent with more than 30,000 speakers today, particularly in Northern Australia. This enables indigenous individuals from different areas to communicate without barriers, even though their history, heritage, and cultures may be entirely separate.

Conclusion

English remains the primary language spoken in Australia and continues to be used as the de facto language for all official functions. However, due to the number of migrants in Australia, many other languages are spoken too, especially Asian. 

There are still active communities of native indigenous languages-speakers. Unfortunately, these numbers are shrinking, with some of the minority languages now under threat of extinction.