G’Day to yallah: The changing Australian English

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Words || Mariah Hanna

Australia is famous for a lot of things – our beaches, near constant sunshine, allegedly murderous wildlife, vegemite. But we’re also renowned for our absolutely cooked vocabulary. Honestly, it’s no wonder people find it hard to understand us. Our accents are funny, we talk fast, we abbreviate everything, and we have slang that even I, a Sydney native who was born and raised here, struggle to understand at times. There are tutorials on YouTube dedicated to translating what the bloody hell we’re saying into plain English that have clocked up millions of views – that’s a lot of confused foreigners.

Macquarie’s own Professor Ingrid Piller has been leading a team that is studying communication between native English speakers and migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, and how these interactions impact upon the overall experience immigrants have in Australia.

Most immigrants with English as their second language learn a standardised English that is more of a British or American English, so often the Australian version, with all its euphemisms, are lost on them.

There’s the standard slang that we take for granted: G’day, throw a few snags on the barbie, chuck a u-ey, chuck a sickie (lots of chucking things). But then there are the more nuanced phrases that most of us Australians don’t seem to notice the rest of the world doesn’t use, like ‘heaps’, ‘maccas’, ‘reckon’ and ‘arvo’.

This may all sound comedic and maybe even like an adorable characteristic of Australian culture, but research has found that these linguistic divergences may actually be contributing to challenges that new migrants face upon arriving in Australia.

“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,” Dr Piller told SBS. “But then they had experiences [here] where they just didn’t understand.”

Prof Piller’s research has found that not only do many immigrants in Australia struggle to understand us even if they are fluent in English, but that multiculturalism is also actively changing the way we speak.

According to last year’s census, overall overseas migration to Australia was up 27% between 2016-2017, with New South Wales and Victoria experiencing the highest rates of immigration, up 31% and 23% respectively from the previous year. Post World War II, people from all over the world have migrated here, so it’s not all that surprising that our language has evolved with this influx of cultures.

Not only are we more ethnically diverse than ever, but we are increasingly becoming more linguistically rich than we have ever been.

If you’ve been to Western Sydney – the most ethnically and culturally diverse pocket of Australia – then you’ve definitely heard words like ‘yalah’ or ‘habib’ thrown around. Moreover, if you grew up in or around Western Sydney then these words may have even made it into your vocabulary, despite not being or speaking Arabic.

“We see Arabic words, like ‘halal,’ making it into the Australian dictionary – ‘yalah’, ‘habib’, those kind of words,” Piller said. “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.”

Research like Prof Piller’s is integral in better facilitating new migrants so the gap between native English speakers and people with non-English speaking backgrounds closes. New immigrants face enough challenges when not only assimilating in a new culture, but also in the workplace, in education, and when seeking medical attention.

Australia has not always looked fondly on immigration (see the mortifying White Australia Policy, and Abbott’s recent calls to cut migration numbers) but this type of cultural exchange could prove to be a fundamental stepping stone in the acceptance and accommodation of immigrants from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.