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ABS Census Data: A CALD Snapshot and how Australia compares to other nations

What were the results of the 2021 Census data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Australians and how the multicultural landscape is changing.

Multicultural People in Melbourne Train Station

The release of the 2021 Australian Census data is a goldmine of information on a range of topics including our country’s cultural and linguistic (CALD) diversity. The depth and breadth of the data can be daunting, so this LEXIGO blog post will attempt to provide some context.

First release data from Australia’s 2021 Census shows that:

  • 29.3% of the people living in Australia were born overseas
  • 22.2% have one or both parents born overseas and;
  • 48.5% have both parents born overseas.
  • In total, 51.5% of Australian residents were born overseas (first generation) or have a parent born overseas (second generation)

The top five ancestries identified in the 2021 Census were:

  1. 33% English
  2. 29.9% Australian
  3. 9.5% Irish
  4. 8.6% Scottish
  5. 5.5% Chinese

The top five countries of birth outside Australia were:

  1. England
  2. India
  3. China (not including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan)
  4. New Zealand
  5. the Philippines

The top six languages spoken at home in Australia are:

  1. English, followed by;
  2. 2.7% Mandarin
  3. 1.4% Arabic
  4. 1.3% Vietnamese
  5. 1.2% Cantonese
  6. 0.9% Punjabi

The language that has seen the largest increase in use in Australian homes since the last census is Punjabi. In Canberra and Tasmania, Nepali is in the top five most commonly spoken languages with 1.3% of those populations using it at home.

Across Australia, over 5.5 million people speak a language other than English at home, equating to around 21.5% of Australia’s total population of 25.5 million, or over one in five people.

In the 2016 Census, the most common languages spoken at home were 72.7% English only, 2.5% Mandarin, 1.4% Arabic, 1.2% Cantonese and 1.2% Vietnamese. In 2011, it was 76.8% English only, 1.6% Mandarin, 1.4% Italian, 1.3% Arabic and 1.2% Cantonese.

On a global scale, Australia’s neighbours Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. According to the World Economic Forum, 840 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, almost 12% of the total number of languages worldwide. Indonesia has an estimated 711 languages across the archipelago. One theory about why these countries have so many languages is that many of their communities are geographically isolated – over 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population lives in rural areas and Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands. Indonesia, it’s interesting to note, has achieved the impressive feat of establishing a national lingua franca without destroying its linguistic diversity. Australia ranks sixth in the world for linguistic diversity, between the United States in fifth and China in seventh place.

How does Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity compare to other countries?

Countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand share similarities with Australia in that they are predominantly English-speaking countries and former British colonies. Comparing Australia’s cultural and linguistic makeup, as captured in the 2021 Census, to such countries can provide useful context in understanding multiculturalism in Australia.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the latest data on languages spoken at home show that 78.2% of US households speak English only, 13.4% Spanish, 1.1% Chinese and 7.3% other. Interestingly, the United States has no official national language. English has official status in 32 of 50 states, Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii and Alaska has 20 official indigenous languages.

The CIA World Factbook also identifies ethnic groups, which admittedly is problematic, in the United States as 61.6% White, 18.7% Hispanic (including people of Spanish/Hispanic/Latinx origin), 12.4% Black or African American, 6% Asian, 1.1% Amerindian and Alaska native and 0.2% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. In total, over 350 languages are spoken in homes across the United States and around 44.9 million people or 13.7% of the total US population were born overseas, according to 2019 statistics.

Statistics on New Zealand’s cultural and linguistic diversity are based on their 2018 Census. English is the de facto national language (it does not have legal status as the official language but is spoken by the majority of citizens), spoken by 95.4% of Kiwis. Maori is legally recognised as an official national language and is spoken by 4% of the population. Other languages spoken in New Zealand include 2.2% Samoan, 2% Northern Chinese, 1.5% Hindi, 1.2% French and 1.1% Yue (a dialect from Southern China). Kiwis identified as 64.1% European, 16.5% Maori, 4.9% Chinese, 4.7% Indian, 3.9% Samoan, 1.8% Tongan, 1.7% Cook Islands Maori, 1.5% English, 1.5% Filipino, 1% New Zealander and 13.7% other (percentages add up to over 100% because census respondents could identify with more than one cultural identity). Over a quarter of New Zealand residents, 27.4%, were born overseas.

English and French are the official languages of Canada, with 63.7% of Canadians speaking English at home and 20% speaking French at home, according to the 2016 Census (language statistics from the 2021 Census are due for release in November 2022). 0.3% of Canadians speak an aboriginal language at home. Over 200 languages are spoken in Canada, plus 60 Indigenous languages. The most common international languages in Canada are Chinese languages, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German, Tagalog, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish and Urdu. Of Canada’s population of nearly 37 million, over 7 million people, or around 18%, were born overseas.

How you can find more information

The 2021 Australian Census data illustrates that Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity is increasing. This means effective communication with multicultural audiences is more important than ever. LEXIGO will create more tools, analysis and guides for understanding and making the most of this valuable information. Check out LEXIGO’s guide for choosing languages for your multilingual campaign here

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released most of the 2021 Census data on 28 June 2022, with smaller and more complex topics to be released in late 2022 and early to mid-2023. They will also host online and in-person events around the 2021 Census data release.


Written by Sophia Dickinson, LEXIGO: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences here.