Australia

What languages will Australians speak in the future?

Nick and Nina Sventek with their daughter Amber, who speaks Greek and Mandarin. Source: Supplied

With a fivefold increase in Mandarin speakers and an ageing generation of European migrants, SBS News explores where Australia is heading.

Five-year-old Amber has been raised to speak Greek and Mandarin.

“I want her to understand both cultures,” her mother Nina Sventek says after dropping her off at Greek school in South Oakleigh, Melbourne.

Nina was born in China, while her husband Nick’s parents are Greek and Croatian.

“We’re close to both grandparents, and we enjoy both ways of living; the food, the community, the festivals,” she says.

As well as attending a local primary school, Amber does three hours of Greek school and three hours of Chinese school a week.

“We make it work because we value her. And we don’t miss out; we plan life around it," Nina says.

"On Friday night we drop her off and hang out for three hours. That’s actually our date night.”

Asian languages increasing

Australia is undergoing a massive shift from speaking European languages to Asian languages, and the full extent of those spoken is unknown, language experts say.

There is a long-term trend in Australia towards language diversity, says Glenn Capuano, a demographer with population experts ID.

“Over 20 years we’ve added about two million people speaking a language other than English,” he says.

The largest growing languages in Australia at the last census were Mandarin, Punjabi, Persian/Dari, and Hindi. There are 500,000 more speakers of those languages now.

The largest growth group is Mandarin, spoken by 600,000 people at home - that’s 260,000 more since 2011.

The biggest change to Australia’s demographic make-up is those with non-English speaking background, now making up 21 per cent of the overall population. That’s up from 15 per cent in 1996 and includes a significant boost in migrants from China and India.

In 1966, the combined immigration from India and China was 1.6 per cent. In 2016, it was 15 per cent.

“There’s a fivefold increase in 20 years in Mandarin speakers,” Mr Capuano says. 

It reflects what University of Melbourne multilingualism expert John Hajek calls “the massive shift from European to Asian languages”. 

European languages dying out

As the number of Australians speaking Mandarin, Punjabi and Hindi increases, alongside existing strong communities of Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Filipino speakers, there are less Italian and Greek speakers. One explanation is this generation of migrants is dying out: European-born migrants here have a median age of 59, whereas Asian-born migrants have a median age of 35.

A second-generation Australian (someone with both parents born overseas) is more likely to have European parents if they’re over 40, and Asian parents if they’re under 40, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

On the cusp of this statistic are Nick and Nina.

Research shows that second- or third-generation migrants are more likely to speak the language spoken to them by their primary career, normally the mother. Nina is quite clear this isn’t all her responsibility. “This is a collaborative process,” she says, “and now, it comes from Amber, too. She doesn’t want to give it up”. 

And for some migrants, Australia is the home that they settle in and English becomes the language they adapt to.

Marisa Cesario
Marisa Cesario and her family speak English to each other, rather than Italian.
Supplied

Marisa Cesario is an arts programmer from Hampton East in Melbourne. Her parents are a “miscellaneous Mediterranean mix”, predominately Italian, with a dash of Greek, Lebanese, and Maltese, she says. 

Time spent in South Africa and Egypt means her parents speak Afrikaans and Arabic, too.

Marisa, 31, spoke a bit of Italian at home, but now rarely uses it.

"I wish I spoke more Italian and I really wish we'd learned Greek growing up. I wish my parents had spoken to us, or even each other, in all of their languages," she says.

Italian was Australia’s second language in 1996 and now it’s fallen by 28,000 people. Second- and third-generation migrants haven’t picked it up with the same intensity that, for instance, the Arabic-speaking Australian-born population have picked up theirs, Mr Capuano says.

More closed communities protect their language, even as they adapt to a new country, Professor Hajek says. And by promoting marriages within their own communities they increase the chances of the language being maintained by any future children a couple may have.

Multilingual migrants

Migrants also have a rich heritage of speaking several languages but one of the limitations of current Census data is that it only asks people to nominate one language spoken at home.

“The idea is to understand 'what’s your native language', not to understand how multilingual we are,” Mr Capuano says. “In New Zealand, they ask for all the languages a person speaks.”

He also points out Australia asks non-native English speakers how proficient their English is but doesn't ask native speakers.

For the growing Indian diaspora in Australia, being bilingual or multilingual is simply part of life.

Payal Hemdev
Payal Hemdev speaks English, Hindi, Arabic, and Sindhi.
Supplied

Payal Hemdev, 33, is a copywriter from Blackburn North, Melbourne.

“I moved from India to Dubai when I was six months old, then I moved to Australia in 2015. I speak English and Hindi, fluently, plus Arabic and basic Sindhi,” she says. 

When speaking to her husband, as well as her family overseas, she may start a sentence in English and end it in Hindi, a technique that Professor Hajek calls ‘language mixing’. Payal and her husband have become more aware of how they speak since their son Prahlad, two, was born.

Payal doesn’t consider herself part of an ‘Indian community’ in the traditional sense, she says. Her son attends childcare with a mix of Australian-born children and migrants, and her friends are a mix of locals and “Indians like us” - people who have lived much of their life away from India.

There are 700,000 Australians of Indian origin or Indian residents in Australia, and they are expected to outnumber the Chinese-born community by 2031, according to a report commissioned by the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

By comparison, 26 per cent of Australia’s population is born overseas, compared to 14 per cent in the United States.

Technological advances and relative affordability of travel make it even easier for migrants to maintain language, Professor Hajek says. His Slovenian mother used to say, “There was a time we had to decide whether we took the family back home for three months, or we bought a house”. 

At present, the forms of recording language data encourage Indian migrants, for example, to be seen as just Hindi speakers, rather than multilingual, and it may miss the opportunity to understand the new linguistic diversity Australia is experiencing.

When Payal is asked if she also speaks her mother’s language, Sindhi, much these days she says:

“Yes, sometimes. When my husband and I want to say something without our son understanding!”

International Mother Language Day is marked on 21 February.

Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She speaks Argentine Spanish with a British accent and would like to improve her basic Portuguese. 

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