The most common languages spoken in Australia

In an incredibly multicultural nation with a rich history of immigration, Australia is home to people who speak a variety of languages, have a diverse culture, and have a distinct identity. Australia is known for its linguistic diversity, with over 400 languages spoken across the country, including indigenous languages spoken by indigenous Australians.

A pie graph reflecting the top ten languages spoken in Australia, after English.

Graph pictured: The top 10 languages spoken in Australia, after English.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The top languages spoken in Australia

Unsurprisingly, the English language takes the top spot as the most common language spoken at 18,303,662 speakers or 72% of Australia’s population of 25,422,788 and the time of the 2021 census.

Australian English is the national language of Australia and the most widely spoken language in the country. It is a variation of British English with unique slang and pronunciation. Nearly all Australians speak English, with most of the population being native speakers.

However, due to Australia’s very diverse society, languages other than English are spoken among Australia’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities.

A good understanding of the most common languages spoken in Australian homes is vital for several reasons;

  • We better understand and appreciate our fellow Australians’ cultural diversity.
  • We can also broaden our horizons, improve our communication skills, and build new relationships by learning about other cultures.
  • Communication strategies can include producing more accessible content for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) audiences and cater for a truly diverse country.
  • In a commercial sense, it allows us to find new markets in CALD audiences.
  • It also ensures social cohesion by ensuring we target CALD audiences in significant messaging and other government communication efforts.

Now let’s look at Australia’s top 25 most commonly spoken languages (other than English).

Rank¹LanguageNumber of speakers²,³
1English18,303,662 (72%)
2Mandarin685,274 (2.7%)
3Arabic367,159 (1.4%)
4Vietnamese320,758 (1.3%)
5Cantonese295,281 (1.2%)
6Punjabi239,033 (0.9%)
7Greek229,643 (0.9%)
8Italian228,042 (0.9%)
9Hindi197,132 (0.9%)
10Spanish171,370 (0.8%)
11Nepali133,068 (0.7%)
12Tagalog131,195 (0.5%)
13Korean115,531 (0.5%)
14Urdu111,873 (0.4%)
15Tamil95,404 (0.4%)
16Filipino90,853 (0.4%)
17Sinhalese85,869 (0.3%)
18Gujarati81,334 (0.3%)
19Malayalam78,738 (0.3%)
20Indonesian73,179 (0.3%)
21Persian (excl. Dari)72,498 (0.3%)
22French70,740 (0.3%)
23German70,247 (0.3%)
24Bengali70,116 (0.3%)
25Portuguese67,327 (0.3%)

The data is from the 2021 ABS census, the Australian government’s latest information on spoken languages.

¹ Rank after English which makes up 72% of the total population’s language spoken at home.

² Number of speakers based on languages spoken at home, which is a way of classifying an individual’s first language.

³ Percentage of Australia’s population who speak the language. Australia’s population at the time of the 2021 census was 25,422,788

Clearly, lots of different languages are spoken across the country.

The most interesting thing about this data is that it means 22.3% of the Australian population are NOT speaking English at home. This is far higher than most people expect, meaning that roughly a quarter of the country speaks a foreign language when at home.

(If you’re wondering why 72% and 22.3% don’t add up to 100%, that’s because 5.7% of the population didn’t state what language they spoke)

A brief look at some of the most spoken languages

#1: English

As the official language of Australia, English is in everyday use for 72% of Australians. However, the differentiation between Australian English and other English dialects is not made. We also have to consider large migrant populations from North America (the United States and Canada), United Kingdom and New Zealand where English is also an official language.

#2: Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the second most spoken language in Australia, with over 600,000 speakers. It is also the most widely spoken Asian language in the country. This can be attributed to the growing number of Chinese immigrants and students in recent years.

#3: Arabic

Around 400,000 Australians speak Arabic, making it the third most spoken language. Arabic is the official language of many countries in the Gulf regions, the Middle East and North Africa. It is spoken by a diverse range of people, including refugees, immigrants, and students in Australia. Most Arabic speakers in Australia speak the Levantine dialect, commonly spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.

In its written form, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the official language of the Arab world. It is used in formal settings as well as in written communication.

#4: Vietnamese

There are over 300,000 Vietnamese speakers in Australia. Australia’s cultural and linguistic landscape has been influenced by Vietnamese immigrants since the 1970s. Vietnamese is most often spoken in Victoria and New South Wales, which have large Vietnamese populations.

#5: Cantonese

People from the Guangdong province in China, Hong Kong and Macau speak Cantonese as a dialect of Chinese. The number of Cantonese speakers is nearly 300,000 and can be found in areas with large Chinese communities, such as Sydney and Melbourne.

Cantonese is one of Australia’s most widely spoken Chinese languages, particularly among Chinese immigrants who arrived in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Spoken Cantonese is most commonly attributed to the Traditional Chinese writing system.

#6: Punjabi

Over 200,000 people speak Punjabi in Australia, making it the seventh most common language. Indian and Pakistani Punjabi-Australians and expatriates around the world speak this Indo-Aryan language. The language is also widely spoken in religious settings, particularly in Sikh gurdwaras.

#7: Greek

Greek is the seventh most spoken language in Australia, with around 260,000 speakers. Greek immigrants have been settling in Australia since the early 20th century, and Greek culture and language have become an important part of Australian multiculturalism.

#8: Italian

Over 200,000 people speak Italian in Australia, making it the ninth most common language. The migration of Italians to Australia began in the late 19th century during the gold rush and has continued to this day. Italian culture and language have significantly impacted Australian society, particularly in areas such as food, fashion, and the arts.

#9: Hindi

Hindi is gaining popularity in Australia due to a growing population of Indian immigrants and students. The number of Hindi speakers in Australia stands at over 250,000, making it the tenth most spoken language in the country. The language is spoken primarily in northern India but can be found in other parts of India, Nepal, and Mauritius. It uses the Devanagari script for its writing system and is one of the most used writing systems in the world.

#10: Spanish

Spanish is the eleventh most spoken language in Australia, with around 170,000 speakers. Despite Spanish culture and language being part of Australian migration since the 19th century, it has become more popular in recent years. The number of Australians learning Spanish and visiting Spanish-speaking countries is rising.

#11: Nepali

Moving up a spot since the 2016 census, the official language of Nepal is now Australia’s 12th most spoken language, with approximately 133,000 speakers. In Australia, Nepali is most commonly spoken in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, where there are large Nepalese communities. Nepali is also widely used in religious settings, particularly Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries.

#12: Tagalog

Tagalog is Australia’s tenth most spoken language, with over 150,000 speakers. It is the dominant language of the Philippines out of ‘Tagalog’ and ‘Filipino’. It is also spoken by Filipino expatriates around the world. In Australia, Tagalog is most commonly spoken in New South Wales and Victoria, where there are large Filipino communities.

#13: Korean

A little over 100,000 people speak Korean in Australia, which makes it the 14th most spoken language in the country. It is the official language of South Korea and North Korea. Its language and culture have become an important part of Australia’s diverse communities because of Korean migration in recent years, particularly in urban areas such as Sydney and Melbourne.

#14: Urdu

Urdu, the official language of Pakistan and spoken in parts of India, make up .40% of Australia’s population, with just over 110,000 speakers. The Urdu language has a rich literary tradition, with poets like Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbal contributing to the cultural identity of South Asia.

#15: Tamil

There are 95,404 Tamil speakers in Australia. It is the official language of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. The language is also spoken in parts of Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. In Australia, Tamil is most commonly spoken in Victoria and New South Wales, where the largest Tamil communities reside.

#16: Filipino

Filipino and Tagalog can be used interchangeably but are technically different languages or different dialects of the same language, especially due to differences in their alphabet. One could argue that #12: Tagalog, and Filipino could be combined in the census data. Recording 90,000 plus speakers in addition to Tagalog’s 130,000 plus speakers – the two dialects combined form a considerable number of total speakers and people from the Philippines.

#17: Sinhalese

Over 85,000 people speak Sinhalese in Australia, making it the 17th most spoken language. Sinhala is most commonly spoken in Victoria, where there is a large Sri Lankan community.

#18: Gujarati

Having over 80,000 speakers, Gujarati ranks 18th in Australia. It is the official language of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is also spoken in parts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Most Gujarati speakers live in Victoria and New South Wales, where there is a large Indian community.

#19: Malayalam

Malayalam, not to be confused with the Malay language, has over 78,000 speakers across Australia. It is the official language of the Indian state of Kerala. It is also spoken in parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

#20: Indonesian

At number 20, Indonesian or Bahasa (literally translates to ‘language’) has grown significantly since the last census to 73,000 speakers. It is the official language of Indonesia and is also spoken in parts of East Timor and Malaysia. Some of the first Indonesian migrants to Australia can be traced back to the early 19th century.

#21: Persian

Also known as Farsi, Persian sits at number 22 with 72,498 speakers at the time of the 2021 census. It is the official language of Iran and is spoken in parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Persian has been spoken in Australia since the 19th century, when the first Iranian migrants arrived.

#22: French

French is Australia’s twenty-second spoken language, with over 45,000 speakers. It is the official language of France and parts of Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. French has been spoken in Australia since the early 19th century when the first French migrants arrived.

#23: German

German is the official language of Germany, Austria and some parts of Switzerland. At number 23, German has been spoken in Australia since the 1830s, when German migrants arrived in large numbers.

#24: Bengali

Bengali, as it is known in English, is referred to as Bangla in-language. It is the official language of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. It is also spoken in parts of Assam, Tripura, and Jharkhand. Referring to the language as ‘Bangla’ is also making its way into English communities where Bengali speakers are growing. At number 24, Bengali has grown considerably since the last census, driven by an increase in Bangladeshi migration.

#25: Portuguese

The official language of Portugal, Brazil, Angola and several other countries, Portuguese is last in our top 25 list with a considerable number of speakers at just over 67,000. People from Portuguese-speaking backgrounds form part of a well-established broader community in Australia, with the first migrants arriving in the 1820s.

The top 63 languages used by Government and Public Sector Organisations for Translation

You may have noticed some public sector and government organisations translating content across 63 languages. Although the top 63 languages they use do not align precisely with the top 63 reported in the census, there is a good reason for the selection of languages.

The 63 languages include Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Bangla, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (traditional), Croatian, Dari, Dinka, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hakha Chin, Hazaragi, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Karen, Khmer, Kirundi, Korean, Kurdish Kurmanji, Lao, Macedonian, Malayalam, Maltese, Nepali, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Rohingya, Romanian, Russian, Samoan, Serbian, Sinhalese, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Tibetan, Tigrinya, Turkish, Urd and Vietnamese.

The selection of languages is based on a vast range of factors which includes:

  • Consideration of all states across Australia (for example, Victoria’s top 63 languages could be very different to New South Wales’ top 63)
  • Communities that may require more engagement and therefore more translated communication.
  • The census data accounts for spoken languages, while the government-targeted languages are more reflective of the top communities.
  • Communities or languages require in-language communication vs. communities with a higher percentage of English speakers and do not require translated material.
  • Some languages from the census are either listed as non-verbal or have been recorded more than once. For example, Tagalog and Filipino make the census list. However, they are essentially the same language (respondents would have answered Tagalog or Filipino).
  • Another example is the census data includes AUSLAN and English in the top 63, which the government accounts for in separate campaigns to their ‘top 63’ languages for translation.
  • The number of available certified translators or if translation certification is even available.
  • And many more factors and nuances, such as Chinese being identified as Mandarin and Cantonese (in its spoken form) in the census but as Simplified and Traditional (in its written form) in Government communication.

Comparison between 2016 and 2021 census data

The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts its national census once every 5 years. Looking at the results, we can see a notable changing face of Australia. In 2016, there was a slightly higher percentage of English-only speakers in Australia and 20.8% of non-English speakers.

We can also highlight a few of the big changes over the last five years by looking at the different data sets:

  • Mandarin speakers remained in the number 2 spot after English.
  • Since 2016, there has been a significant increase in Vietnamese speakers in Australia. While a boost from 1.2 to 1.3% may not seem that big, it’s quite substantial in terms of actual people. The stats show that 320,760 people speak Vietnamese at home now, while only 277,391 did so in 2016. For comparison, that was around 3,000 fewer Vietnamese speakers than Cantonese – and there are now around 25,000 more Vietnamese than Cantonese speakers in Australia.
  • Italian is one of the languages seeing the biggest decline since 2016. It was sixth on the list in 2016 and eighth in 2021. A decline of 0.2% is fairly large, with only 228,046 people speaking Italian now compared to 271,602 five years ago.
  • Arabic and Cantonese both moved up a spot.
  • Vietnamese moved up two spots, while Greek moved down one spot.
  • Punjabi is by far and away the fastest-growing language based on data. From 0.6 to 0.9% and 132,500 speakers to 239,041 speakers over this five-year period. It means that over 100,000 people now speak this language compared to in 2016.
  • Urdu is another language gaining popularity. Almost double the number of people speak now compared to five years ago (11,864 and 69,295)

If you take a deeper look at the statistics – which you can do here – there are a few interesting trends to spot. For one, in almost all languages from East Asia, the number of speakers has increased, possibly indicating a rise in East Asian immigrants.

But, the biggest gainers are South Asian languages from countries such as India, Pakistan, etc. This shows that Australia is seeing a larger influx of immigrants from this part of the world. Interestingly, the number of people speaking European languages does seem to be on the decline. Perhaps this means fewer people are moving to Australia from central European countries.

The future of languages in Australia

Essentially, all of this information means that Australia is a country with many different cultures all mixed together. Almost 25% of the population does not see English as its primary language. Clearly, this has a knock-on effect on society – especially in the business world.

If you own and operate a business in Australia, it’s not enough to only provide content in English. There’s a large section of the population that could struggle to read this and would benefit from seeing it in their preferred language.

Consequently, the need for translation services is greater than ever before. At LEXIGO, we provide a whole host of translation services for anyone in Australia to use. We can convert your content from English to a different language, ensuring that everyone can understand what you’re saying.

If you need help with any translations or would like to learn more about the complex lexicon in Australia, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team today.

By Sophia Dickinson