Multicultural and Multilingual Australia

One of the many reasons why I love Australia: an official Multicultural Policy

Multicultural and Multilingual Australia

From the government’s Multicultural Policy released in February of this year:

“Australia is a multicultural nation. In all, since 1945, seven million people have migrated to Australia. Today, one in four of Australia’s 22 million people were born overseas, 44 per cent were born overseas or have a parent who was and four million speak a language other than English. We speak over 260 languages and identify with more than 270 ancestries. Australia is and will remain a multicultural society.”

Multiculturalism in Australia produced the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which offers television and radio programs in 68 languages. Luckily they have a free to air channel (as well as an FM channel) so I don’t have to pay extra to watch France 2 news every morning. They also have several podcasts available through iTunes (which is how I discovered them while still living in France.)

Australia is also the most multilingual of the English-speaking countries, and was the first to create a multilingual language policy. The most commonly spoken foreign languages are Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic, Mandarin and Vietnamese. Most bilinguals or multilinguals in Australia are either Aborigines or immigrants who speak English as a second language. The majority of native English speakers do not speak another language, similar to the situation in the US and UK.

Though some states and territories do require the study of a foreign language at primary/secondary level, by the final years of secondary school, only about 10% continue their studies (Years 6-8 have the highest percentage of students). The main languages studied are (followed by enrollment figures for 2006):

1. Japanese 332,943
2. Italian 322,023
3. Indonesian 209,939
4. French 207,235
5. German 126,920
6. Chinese (Mandarin) 81,358
7. Arabic 25,449
8. Spanish 20,518
9. Greek 18,584
10. Vietnamese 11,014
11. Other 45,567

The situation at the tertiary level is a bit sad. Unlike the US, no Australian university requires the study of a foreign language and many language departments have been incorporated into schools of other disciplines. For example, my particular school is called Communication, International Studies and Languages. Only 10% of first-year university students are taking a foreign language, and less than a quarter continue language studies through the third and final year of a Bachelor’s degree. Thirty-one languages are taught at universities, though 12 are taught in only one jurisdiction while 8 are taught in all states (Chinese, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin and Spanish).

For more information on languages in Australian schools, download the PDF of Second Languages and Australian Schooling from the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Multiculturalism Links:

Multicultural Australia (government site)

Australian Multicultural Foundation

Making Multicultural Australia

  • I love SBS! They have podcasts in Serbian, which is one of the most difficult languages to find materials for. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your time in Australia. 🙂

  • Choltovich

    Australians have a reputation as being somewhat racist and xenophobic. Whether or not it’s true I don’t know, but has anyone else heard this, or is it an outdated stereotype?

    • Well, I don’t want to offend any Aussies, or shatter Jennie’s positive views on the subject, but definitely if you talk to any New Zealander you’ll find the stereotype is alive and well, part of our friendly or sometimes not-so-friendly rivalry with the Aussies 🙂
      I don’t know how true it actually is on the level of the man on the street, but things like the Stolen Generation, the White Australia policy, Howard refusing to apologise to the Aborigines, the whole scandal about claims that asylum seekers were throwing their babies overboard (and treatment of asylum seekers in general), the race riots a few years back etc. have definitely bolstered the stereotype I think. Of course, all those things happened in the more or less distant past, so perhaps things are changing in Australia.

      • Gwan

        PS I worded that badly, I didn’t really mean the more or less distant past, most of those things are relatively recent (within the last 40 years or so up to the last decade).

        • Samantha

          I’ll admit I’m already biased on this issue (being an Aussie) but I do feel sad when people make this comment about Australian people – I never really thought that was the case before, since I’ve grown up in a country where it’s so normal to be from a multi-cultural/lingual background. My little cousin had his 8th birthday party recently and he ran out with his group of friends all with a mixture Croatian, Italian, Vietnamese, Japenese, British and African backgrounds. His dad (born in Britain) said ‘where can you find this (kids from all different racial and cultural backgrounds playing together) in any country but Australia?’ Whilst there are countries where this is the case as well, I feel Australia is unique in the case that being from a diffferent background is rarely an issue or even brought up among kids. Plus I have spent every year of my education talking about the horrible treatment of aboriginal people and how it was unacceptable and there is no excuse for it.

          That’s not to say there hasn’t been a sad and violent history, John Howards xenophobic attitude – especially towards assylum seekers was disgusting, shameful and too recent in our history, but that doesn’t mean the average Australian would reflect his views and people shouldn’t be judged on the actions on previous Governments – who are in reality a small group of people who run the country. 

          • I had never heard of a stereotype of Aussies as being racist or xenophobic. Southern Americans definitely, but Australians no. But I suppose our only stereotype about Australians come from Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin, so we’re pretty limited to the wildlife stereotypes when we think of Australia. Personally I feel that both America and France were much more race divided and hostile to foreigners. American and French politicians can make ridiculous racist comments on TV and never get in trouble or lose their jobs. Australia today seems so much more tolerant and accepting of differences, and just lets people be who they are. I know there are horrible things in the past like what was mentioned, but I feel like American racism was much much worse and it still continues to affect our daily lives (KKK is still very active in the south and some people want to go back to segregated society, etc.) in a much more salient way than what I see in Australia.

          • Gwan

            Thanks for your response. As I said, I don’t know how true it is, but I was responding to Choltovich’s question as to whether the stereotype is still out there, and at least in NZ, it definitely is. From an NZ perspective, I’m quite sure there’s an element of wanting to be one up on the Aussies and wanting to lord it over you a bit that we have treated our indigenous people “better” (well, supposedly – I’m well aware that we don’t have a perfect track record either). It’s good to hear that there’s some positive stuff going on and I do agree that you can’t judge individuals or even necessarily society in general by their politicians – although seriously, how did Howard stay in for SO LONG? 🙂

          • Samantha

            GOOD question! haha Well some people argue that when he came in the country financially was going pretty poorly (a lot of debt in other words) and to his credit the economy did get better under his government – so a lot of people who voted for Howard during that time often talked about that, and for a long time there tended to be a fear of ‘if we go back to the other side the finances of the country will go down the toilet’. Plus the Opposition never had a really strong leader they could sell to the Australian public – but I’m not a politics expert. Those are just some of the reasons. 

            And I can understand your wanting to ‘one up’ your neighbour and classic rival – and when that comes to something like rugby or a friendly compettion that’s okay, but when you go into areas that are offensive (i.e calling a whole group of people racist/xenophobic even if it’s just a stereotype) then that’s taking it too far and is hurtful. 

            I guess because it’s an issue I am really passionate about, and there are plenty of people who want to move on from xenophobiasm and racism in Australia that it’s not fair on them to be branded with a very offensive stereotype. 

  • Ling 101 Student

    Very interesting that the overlap between most commonly spoken and most commonly taught is only Italian for the top 5 of each. I wonder are the people learning the languages the same ones that have cultural roots therein? And why would cultures differentially value their children studying their ancestral language? I can feel another PhD coming on….

  • Oldcastle

    Not all universities in the US require students to take foreign languages.