How multiculturalism is changing the way we speak


For years migrants have struggled to master Australian slang. But as the country becomes more diverse, linguists say the way we speak English is changing.

Australia is more culturally diverse than ever before. Nearly half of the population were either born overseas or have a parent born overseas, according to the latest census data. And as our diversity continues to evolve, so too does our language.

In 2016, there were over 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes.

Australia's diverse multicultural community has impacted how we speak and how the English language has evolved.
Australia's diverse multicultural community has impacted how we speak and how the English language has evolved.
Nicholas McDonnell

A new Australian English

Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Sydney's Macquarie University, says multiculturalism is altering the way English is spoken in Australia. 

“There are more and more of us with more and more languages, but at the same time those of us who don’t speak those other languages are more and more exposed to words and idioms from other languages,” she told SBS News.

“English is the language of Australia but it's becoming a kind of Australian English with influences from all kinds of other languages. And that’s really different from the other Englishes: American, British."

“It means our language is actually becoming more diverse.”

Our language is actually becoming more diverse

Professor Piller says globalisation partly preserves a kind of universal English in the Western World. 

"We still have the influences of global media, globalisation, that will keep our English together with all of the other Englishes … But our diversity will make it unique." 

Australian slang: From 'heaps' to 'stubbies'

If Australian English was trademarked, an obvious characteristic would be its prolific use of slang, punctuated by colloquial expressions and a tendency to shorten words, most of which is done unconsciously. It’s something that can often leave foreigners puzzled. 

Take the word 'heaps' as an example. Most Australians know the word to mean 'lots', as in 'Australians use heaps of slang', or 'very' as in 'that's heaps good'. But when SBS News put the question to new migrants in Sydney, many were clueless.


Some Australian slang words.
Nicholas McDonnell

"I have heard (heaps) but I wasn't sure what it means," a Mexican man who migrated to Australia a few years ago said. We got a similar response from a young Egyptian mother who had been in Australia for two weeks. 

"Heaps? I have no idea," she said. The woman insisted she spoke English well and couldn't imagine getting confused by the way Australians speak, until she was quizzed on some our most commonly used slang.

"Arvo? No! Brekkie? Oh, no. These are Australian words? Yeah, I have no idea what this means," she said laughing.  

The same went for a young Argentinian man who has been in Australia for almost a year.

"Your shout? No. Chuck a U-ey? No," he said shaking his head. "Australians have a lot of slang, they have nearly their own language. You have to make an effort to learn some words," he told SBS. 


Professor Piller says it is a challenge for many migrants.

"Many of the migrants we've done language learning with, they come from highly educated backgrounds and have very good formal English that they'd learnt before they came to Australia," she said. "But then they had experiences where they just didn't understand." 

That was the case for one Indian woman SBS News spoke to.

How multiculturalism is changing the way we speak
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"It took me a long time to understand all that stuff, like 'brekkie', 'ciggie', it took time but I eventually got it," she said. A woman who migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka a few years ago agreed.

"When I first came here and I heard the word stubbies, I thought what's that?" she said. But now she has developed an affinity for Australian slang. "I think it's cute, it's our way, the Australian way."

But is ‘the Australian way’ changing?  

Cultural borrowings: From ‘yalah’ to ‘habib’

For years new migrants have been adopting Australian slang, but the rest of Australia is now assuming their lingo. 

"Cultural borrowings" are beginning to flourish, Professor Pillar said. "We see Arabic words, like 'halal,' making it into the Australian dictionary - 'yalah', 'habib', those kind of words.  

"You don't need to know full blown Arabic to know these words, you hear your friends at school say them, and it really happens with the young people more than old people." 

You don't need to know full blown Arabic to know these words

Egyptian-born Australian comedian Akmal Saleh told SBS News growing up in a diverse environment meant he was able to pick up various words and expressions from other cultures, some which may not have impressed many. 

"When I went to school, everyone knew the equivalent swear words in Greek and in Arabic because I went to a really multicultural school," he said. 

Comedian Akmal Saleh.
Comedian Akmal Saleh.

On the streets of Sydney, SBS News found evidence that "cultural borrowings" were alive and well. Almost half of Sydneysiders have a parent who was born overseas, and many non-Arabic speakers appeared to be aware of the meaning of common expressions like 'habib' and 'yalah'. 

"'Yalah' I understand means 'hurry up let's go' and 'habib' is sort of like Arabic for 'darling, mate'," one man in Sydney told SBS News.  

"Some of them I heard when I was out and about in places like Bankstown, out west. You slowly see them seeping out to the city and people using it more and more."

A woman SBS News spoke to agreed.

"A lot of my Arabic friends tend to say 'habib' a lot in their day-to-day conversation. You just pick up on it."

Saleh said he too had noticed that such words are becoming more broadly understood.

"It’s funny when Anglo people start using it, that’s when you kind of go, 'hey that’s great,'" he said. "Shows like Pizza and Here Come The Habibs have introduced these slang terms … you can use them and know that generally, you’re going to be understood by someone."  

Vietnamese slang: What ‘phở’ really means

In the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, slang is widely used, but not the in the way most of us would know it. 

According to the 2016 Census, Cabramatta's Vietnamese community make up a third of the population and more than 40 per cent of residents speak the language. Most are well-versed in the key sayings.

SBS News joined a group of second-generation Vietnamese friends gathered at restaurant Thanh Binh on Cabramatta's main thoroughfare. Maria Tran, 32, Phillip Kane, 29, and Kelvin Nguyen, 24, who were all born in Australia, discussed their favourite expressions while also enjoying a traditional Vietnamese feast.

Three experts share the do's and don't's of Vietnamese slang
Three experts share the do's and don't's of Vietnamese slang

Naturally, it began with their version of cheers: "vô!"

"We pretty much use it during celebrations, birthdays, parties, weddings," Ms Tran said. "Everyone will clink their glasses together and they will say, ‘one, two, three 'Vô!’ and they will drink altogether."

Mr Kane said they also have their own version of 'G'day mate'.

"It's ‘Xin chào’ … It's the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘hey mate, how you going?'" he said. And it's not limited to his community. Mr Kane said his Australian friends say it too.

It's the Vietnamese equivalent of 'hey mate, how you going?'

And while many of us may be familiar with the word phở', a traditional Vietnamese soup, Mr Nguyen says it has another meaning. 

"You don't want to be saying to your wife that, ‘you been going to ‘pho’’ because it actually means ‘a current affair’, so when a man is like ‘oh, I've just been to ‘phở’, it means ‘I've been with another girl.'”

"Sometimes my friend asks ‘Oh, what did you have for breakfast?’ and I'm like, ‘I had some pho,’ and she'd be like ‘Oh really, really?’” he said laughing.

Mr Tran says others are beginning to catch on to the lingo.  He uses 'mắc quá', which means too expensive, as an example.

"We often say ‘Oh, $500’ and they'd say, ‘mắc quá’ and they're local, they're not Vietnamese, so they just pick it up from us, you know?"  

The Greeklish phenomenon

Over time, some migrants in Australia have developed their own way of speaking. They use words and phrases that are neither English nor their native tongue and more of a hybrid language. One example in Australia is what many in the Greek community refer to as 'Greeklish'.

Greeklish: A uniquely Australian-Greek slang.
Greeklish: A uniquely Australian-Greek slang.

At a Greek aged-care home in Western Sydney, residents and staff told SBS News how the phenomenon evolved.

The Greek Orthodox Community Home for the Aged is in Earlwood, the suburb with the largest proportion Greek speakers in Australia, according to the latest Census. Greek migrant and staff member Zoe said Greeklish developed as a result of new migrants trying to learn English. 

"This language was made up by us Greek Australians. It was easier for us to speak these things, we understood one another, what we meant," she said. 

"We wanted to go to the garage? 'Garazi'. We wanted to go to the hamburger shop? 'Hembeka.'"

Professor Pillar says migrants whose first language is not English tend to develop a variation of their native tongue during the process of learning the new language. 

"Even if the home language is maintained quite well, it is usually very different from the language back home," she said.  

Greek migrant resident Sophia called it "Greek Australian".

"It's because we can’t spell. This is not Greek, not Australian. Greeks made it up," she said.

'This is not Greek, not Australian. Greeks made it up.'

'Yardi', she said, is another example. It is used to describe a garden or backyard. Another staff member volunteered 'semista'.

"It means sandwich. So I guess, Aussies would say 'sanga', for Greeks it would be 'semista.'"

And Jonah, a five-year-old boy with Greek heritage who was visiting the care home, said 'roufi' is the word he knows for 'roof.'

But while 'Greeklish' is being used by all generations in Australia - in Greece, no one would understand it. Professor Pillar says it's because the forces of standardisation are not as strong in Australia.

"So if you come from a Greek background for instance, Greek in Greece is subject to much stronger pressure. You go to school in Greek and you learn how to spell ... here you don’t have that strong influence," she said. 

"Sometimes these migrant languages, like Greeklish, that exist in every community, are quite different from the homeland and often people when they go back experience a surprise ... they stand out as speakers who come from elsewhere." 

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