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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1999  
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Contents >> Population >> Population Composition: Languages spoken in Australia

Population Composition: Languages spoken in Australia

In 1996, 15% of Australia's population spoke a language other than English at home.

English is regarded as the national language of Australia.1 In 1996, 85% of the population spoke only English at home and less than 1% of the population could not speak English at all. However, apart from English and Indigenous languages (see Australian Social Trends 1999, Indigenous languages), more than 160 other languages were also spoken in the home. Although languages other than English, such as German and Chinese languages, were spoken in Australia after European settlement, today's linguistic diversity stems largely from immigration since 1945. (For information on the changing sources of immigrants since 1945, see Australian Social Trends 1994, Birthplaces of Australia's settlers)

People whose English language skills are lacking face practical problems in education, employment, and access to services. Where there is a lack of a common language there is also a need for interpreter and translation services, and programs of English instruction in schools and in other educational institutions. At the same time, many people from a non-English speaking background desire to see the use of their home language continue in Australia, for reasons of cultural continuity and identity.


Data sources

This article is based on data collected in the 1996 Census of Population and Housing, which included the question 'Does the person speak a language other than English at home?'. If more than one language other than English was used at home, people were asked to record only the one that was most commonly used.

Definitions

Language shift - the process by which speakers of a language gradually replace it with another language. In this article, the extent of shift from using languages other than English at home to using only English at home is estimated indirectly, by calculating the proportion of people born in particular countries, or with parents born in particular countries, who said they only spoke English at home at the 1996 Census. This method has been used by Clyne and Kipp in a more detailed examination of Census data.2

Language maintenance - the retention of a language within a community through people continuing to speak it and to pass it on to successive generations.

Main English-speaking countries - United Kingdom, Ireland, United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

First generation Australians - people living in Australia who were born overseas.

Second generation Australians - Australian-born people with at least one parent born overseas.

LEADING FIVE LANGUAGES OTHER THAN ENGLISH SPOKEN AT HOME(a), BY BIRTHPLACE, 1996
(a) By people aged five years and over.
(b) Excludes people who did not specify which Chinese language they spoke.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Languages other than English spoken at home
In 1996, 2.5 million people aged five years or over (15% of Australia's total population in that age range) spoke a language other than English at home. Of these, 74% were people born overseas (first generation Australians) and 22% were children of people born overseas (second generation Australians).

The most commonly spoken language was Italian, its 367,300 speakers making up 2.3% of the Australian population aged five years or more. Greek (1.6% of Australians), Cantonese (1.2%), Arabic (1.0%), and Vietnamese (0.8%) ranked next. These five languages were each spoken at home by more than 100,000 people. A further 10 languages were each spoken by more than 40,000 people. In total, people who spoke one of the 15 most common languages accounted for 72% of speakers of a language other than English, and 11% of Australia's population.

The ranking of languages partly reflects the greater numbers of immigrants who have arrived from particular countries, and the number of children they have had in Australia. However, not all immigrants who speak a language other than English continue to use it at home throughout their life; nor do their children always learn the language or continue to speak it throughout their lives. Some languages have been maintained in the home to a greater extent than have others, and this contributes to their higher ranking among languages spoken in Australia.

LANGUAGES OTHER THAN ENGLISH SPOKEN AT HOME(a), AUSTRALIA, 1996

Language speakers

Number of speakers
Proportion born in Australia
As a proportion of the Australian population
Language
'000
%
%

Italian
367.3
40.7
2.3
Greek
259.0
46.7
1.6
Cantonese(b)
190.1
12.9
1.2
Arabic
162.0
37.8
1.0
Vietnamese
134.0
12.6
0.8
German
96.7
18.9
0.6
Mandarin(b)
87.3
6.4
0.5
Spanish
86.9
17.6
0.5
Macedonian
68.1
34.9
0.4
Tagalog (Filipino)
67.3
5.0
0.4
Croatian
66.7
32.4
0.4
Polish
61.0
16.2
0.4
Maltese
44.7
27.9
0.3
Turkish
42.2
31.3
0.3
Netherlandic
40.2
12.4
0.3
All other
696.8
20.0
4.4
Total
2,470.2
26.0
15.5

(a) Languages with more than 40,000 speakers aged five years and over.
(b) People who specified Cantonese or Mandarin have been separately classified; people who specified another Chinese language (e.g Hokkien) or simply wrote 'Chinese' are included in 'All other'.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Language maintenance among the first generation
Information about first language spoken is not collected in the Census. Nevertheless, the extent to which first generation Australians have maintained particular languages can be estimated indirectly by combining information on birthplace with information on the main language other than English that people spoke at home.

The proportion of overseas-born people who spoke only English at home increased with period of residence in Australia. Of people born overseas in a country other than one of the main English-speaking countries, 23% said that they spoke only English at home. Of those who had been in Australia for a short time (5 years or less), 9% spoke only English, rising steadily to 31% of those who had been in Australia for 15 years or more.

There were differences among people born in the major source countries for the 15 most common languages other than English. The greatest shift to English was by people from the Netherlands, 63% of whom spoke only English at home. The smallest shift to English was by people from Vietnam (3%). Differences in average period of residence would explain some of this, given that only 23% of Vietnamese-born people arrived prior to 1981 compared to 90% of those born in the Netherlands. Consistent with these differences in period of residence, the median age of the Vietnamese-born was 33 while it was 53 for those born in the Netherlands.

However, there were also differences in the rate of shift to English between birthplace groups where the difference in period of residence was less dramatic. For example, around 95% of people born in Italy and Greece had arrived before 1981, compared to 84% of those born in Germany, and 58% of those born in Poland. The median age of each group was between 52 (Germany) and 58 (Italy). Nevertheless, a smaller proportion of people born in Italy and Greece (15% and 6% respectively) spoke only English at home, than those born in Germany (49%) or Poland (20%). This suggests that factors other than period of residence are also important.

There are many differences between birthplace groups. For example, there are broad cultural and socio-economic variations among countries of origin, and different circumstances encouraging migration from particular countries. Migration from different countries has occurred in various periods, and the social and economic conditions immigrant groups have found in Australia therefore differ. Furthermore, a greater proportion of some groups had English language skills before arrival (an early language survey, in 1983, found that people whose first language was Maltese or a Chinese language were most likely to have been taught English overseas).3

One broad area of explanation for differences in language shift is the theory of 'cultural distance', which holds that differences in culture rather than language explain the differences in shift to English by different immigrant groups internationally.2 Another way of viewing this theory is that when people share many customs, beliefs and lifestyles with the majority culture, language barriers are more easily overcome. A further important factor is the number of people who speak the language and their settlement pattern. Larger numbers of speakers, and their concentration within a city or region, is thought to reinforce the use of a language other than the majority language.2

SHIFT TO ENGLISH IN FIRST AND SECOND GENERATION AUSTRALIANS, BY SELECTED COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN(a), WITH RELATED DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION, 1996

Proportion who spoke only English at home(b)
All persons - demographic information


First generation
Second generation
Median age of first generation
Median age of second generation
Proportion of mixed parentage(c)
Birthplace (associated language)(a)
%
%
years
years
%

Netherlands (Netherlandic)
62.9
95.9
53
26
72.7
Germany (German)
48.9
91.1
52
25
83.6
Malta (Maltese)
37.0
82.8
51
23
52.1
Philippines (Tagalog)
25.0
84.2
35
8
69.9
Spain (Spanish)
22.7
63.6
48
18
67.4
Poland (Polish)
20.1
77.6
53
33
55.8
Italy (Italian)
14.8
57.4
58
27
40.6
Croatia (Croatian)
13.9
41.7
50
20
37.2
South and Central America (Spanish)
13.1
36.6
37
10
56.1
Hong Kong (Chinese languages, especially Cantonese)
8.8
52.7
29
10
55.6
Greece (Greek)
6.4
27.9
54
26
33.2
Turkey (Turkish)
5.9
16.4
36
10
24.2
Lebanon (Arabic)
5.6
21.7
38
12
26.9
China(d) (Chinese languages)
4.8
48.6
40
13
56.6
Taiwan (Chinese languages, especially Mandarin)
3.4
29.3
23
7
62.9
FYROM (Macedonian)(e)
3.1
14.7
44
17
23.7
Vietnam (Vietnamese)
2.7
10.6
33
7
15.6
Total (countries other than main English speaking countries)
23.1
64.9
43
20
45.6

(a) Birthplaces most commonly associated with the leading fifteen languages (according to Census data). They are not necessarily the main language in the birthplace.
(b) Data relate to people aged five years and over. Those whose language was not stated were excluded.
(c) Proportion of the second generation whose parents did not have the same country of birth.
(d) Excludes Hong Kong and Taiwan.
(e) Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Language maintenance among the second generation
In contrast to the first generation, the majority of the second generation spoke only English at home (67%). Older second-generation Australians were more likely to speak only English at home. The proportion who spoke only English increased steadily with age from 58% of those aged 5-14 years to 93% of those aged over 84. The increase with age may be partly accounted for by living arrangements. Many aged people may live alone, or with younger third generation family members who speak only English, and therefore not have the opportunity to speak a language other than English. Conversely, a greater proportion of second generation young people than any other age group may live in their parents' home, communicating with family members who are more comfortable speaking a language other than English.

Proportions who spoke only English were substantially higher if only one parent was born in a country other than one of the main English-speaking countries. 91% of those whose father only, and 89% of those whose mother only, had been born in a country other than a main English speaking country, spoke only English at home. However, when both parents were born in a non-main English speaking country, 44% of the Australian-born generation spoke only English at home.

As with the first generation, there were large variations between people from different countries in the extent of shift to English. In general, those countries which recorded the greatest shifts to English in the first generation also recorded the greatest shifts in the second. For example, among countries associated with the 15 leading languages, people from the Netherlands recorded the greatest shifts to English in both the first and second generations (63% and 96% respectively). People from Vietnam recorded the smallest shifts (3% and 11% respectively).

Second generation Australians are a diverse group. In 1996, they ranged in age from the young children of recent immigrants to ageing children of pre-war immigrants. There were also substantial differences in the extent of mixed parentage (parents born in different countries) between second generation Australians of different background. For example, the median age of second generation Australians with one or more parents born in Vietnam was 7 and only 16% were children of families in which the parents were born in different countries. This contrasted with a median age of 26 for second generation Australians with one or more parents born in the Netherlands, and the much larger) who had mixed parentage.

LANGUAGES OTHER THAN ENGLISH BY STATE OR TERRITORY

Distribution of speakers of leading five languages and Indigenous languages by State or Territory(a)

NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Australia
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
'000

Italian
27.3
42.3
6.9
11.5
10.3
-
-
1.0
100.0
367.3
Greek
34.4
46.2
4.3
10.4
2.2
-
1.0
1.1
100.0
259.0
Cantonese(b)
52.7
26.5
8.0
3.3
7.3
-
-
1.2
100.0
190.1
Arabic
70.8
22.1
2.0
2.1
2.1
-
-
0.6
100.0
162.0
Vietnamese
38.7
36.7
8.0
7.6
6.9
-
-
1.6
100.0
134.0
Indigenous languages/creoles
2.3
0.7
14.5
4.6
18.9
-
58.7
-
100.0
44.2
All languages other than English
40.9
32.9
8.5
6.6
7.4
0.6
1.6
1.5
100.0
2,470.2

Speakers of a language other than English as a proportion of the State or Territory populations(a)

%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

All languages other than English
18.7
20.7
7.1
12.6
11.8
3.4
24.5
14.1
15.5

(a) People aged five years and over who spoke a language other than English in the home.
(b) Excludes people who did not specify which Chinese language they spoke.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


State differences
The proportion of people who spoke a language other than English at home ranged from 3% for Tasmania to 25% for the Northern Territory. The high proportion for the Northern Territory reflected the large number of people who spoke an Indigenous language. Victoria (21%) and New South Wales (19%) had the next highest proportions, reflecting the historically high levels of immigration to these States, particularly to Sydney and Melbourne.

The speakers of some languages were more highly concentrated geographically than others. In 1996, 71% of people who spoke Arabic at home and 53% of those who spoke Cantonese at home lived in New South Wales. Commonly spoken languages which were concentrated in Victoria were the longer established languages, Italian (42%) and Greek (46%).

A greater proportion of people in capital cities spoke a language other than English at home than in other areas (21% compared to 5%). This pattern applied in every State and Territory except the Northern Territory. For example, in New South Wales 27% of people in Sydney spoke a language other than English compared to 5% of people who lived elsewhere in the State. Melbourne (27%) had the next highest proportion among capital cities, and Hobart the lowest (5%). Within cities, some areas had higher concentrations than others.4


PROPORTION OF THE POPULATION(a) WHO SPOKE A LANGUAGE OTHER THAN ENGLISH AT HOME, CAPITAL CITIES, 1996
(a) Aged five years and over.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.

Recent trends
Out of the 25 leading languages in 1996, most of those spoken by the longer established immigrant groups had recorded a decrease, since 1991, in the number of people who spoke the language at home. French showed the largest decrease (17%), followed by German (16%), Netherlandic (15%), Maltese (14%) and Hungarian (11%). Factors contributing to these decreases would include the death rate among the ageing first generation, and language shift. In contrast, most of the largest proportional increases occurred in languages associated with more recent immigrants. The greatest increase was for Mandarin (65%), followed by Serbian (52%), Korean (50%), Hindi (47%), and Vietnamese (31%). Some of the less commonly spoken languages also showed large proportional increases in number of speakers. These included Tamil (up 53% to 17,500), Sinhalese (up 53% to 14,700), and Thai (up 36% to 12,800). On-going immigration from countries where these languages are spoken, and the birth of children to speakers in Australia, would contribute to these increases.

Comparisons between 1991 and 1996 Census counts cannot be made for some languages, because a more detailed language classification was used in the 1996 Census. In 1996, the leading languages separately counted for the first time were Samoan (13,900), Assyrian (11,000), Punjabi (10,100), the Chinese language Hokkien (9,800) and Malay (9,700).

MAJOR CHANGES, LEADING LANGUAGES, 1991 TO 1996(a)

Languages with fewer speakers in 1996 than 1991
Languages with more speakers in 1996 than 1991


Number of speakers
Decrease since 1991
Number of speakers
Increase since 1991
Language
'000
%
Language
'000
%

French
38.0
16.9
Mandarin
87.3
65.2
German
96.6
16.1
Serbian
35.4
52.3
Netherlandic
40.2
15.4
Korean
28.1
49.9
Maltese
44.7
14.2
Hindi
31.7
47.1
Hungarian
25.8
11.1
Vietnamese
134.0
31.3

(a) The languages showing the greatest decreases and increases since 1991, of the leading 25 languages in 1996, spoken at home as the main language other than English by the population aged five years and over.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Endnotes

1. Lo Bianco, J. 1987, National Policy on Languages, Commonwealth Department of Education, AGPS, Canberra, p 71.

2. Clyne, M. and Kipp, S., 'Language maintenance and language shift in Australia, 1996', People and Place 1997, vol. 5, no. 4.

3. Australian Bureau of Statistics 1983, Language Survey, Australia, May 1983 (Preliminary), cat. no. 4503.0, ABS, Canberra.

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Australia in Profile 1996, cat. no. 2032.0, ABS, Canberra.



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