Speaking English in Australia is more about the accent than the language

"Maybe you should learn more English."

It's a comment Sydney-based marketing student Richard Daniel Suteja remembers all too well. It arrived one morning while working as a barista and Suteja struggled to find the words in English to describe the difference between a flat white and a cappuccino.

Comments like this are a familiar occurrence for the 28-year-old. Originally from Bali, Suteja admits, when the cafe is at its busiest, he sometimes finds it "hard to get the right words".

Language-related remarks hidden in everyday exchanges, while often written off as minor, represent a far greater problem in Australia.

"In contrast to colour-based racism, linguistic racism has a certain deniability because language is often perceived as a choice," says Macquarie University Applied Linguistics Professor Ingrid Piller.

Got the good accent

In Australia, we love a "good" accent. It's a topic of state pride, national debate and fuel for much of our comedy. But is our love of the way we speak and an under appreciation for bilingualism simply a preference—or is it one of our biggest downfalls?

"Australia is a multilingual country – but only if you're peeking through the windows of suburban homes," says University of Canberra Adjunct Associate Professor Misty Adoniou. According to Adoniou, if you listen closely, you'll hear close to 250 languages spoken by one in five people.

But while many languages are spoken in suburban areas, homes and communities, Australians place emphasis on the ability to quickly adopt the native tongue. "Speaking English has become a default descriptor for being Australian," says Adoniou.

"There is only one language that allows you to get by, get on, and get up in Australia – and that is English," she says.

Advertisement

"If you have English you have power. And that makes English a powerful tool for anyone who likes to wield power."

Linguistic dominance

It's a practice that some experts are describing as linguistic imperialism: the practice of enforcing one language over another to insert dominance. On a smaller, day-to-day basis, this would look and sound like Suteja's coffee exchange experience.

On a larger scale, political, scale it looks like the recent video of two highway patrol officers humiliating two women in hijabs which circulated late last year. "You have to be the most stupidest person I've met," the driver was told.

"The video wasn't just racist in the context of what the policeman had to say, but was an example of a policeman using English as an additional power," Misty Adoniou says.

An eventual inquiry into the incident revealed the police officers had deliberately used "intimidating and abusive language" with the women.

Misplaced values

Australians value language and, more importantly, the "right" accent to the point where someone who struggles with more familiar intonations are immediately seen as foreign, still assimilating or not trying hard enough says University of Wollongong media and culture lecturer Sukhmani Khorana.

But our bias for English doesn't mean we have perfected it ourselves. In fact, for most Anglo Saxon Australians, correct English is simply English with an Aussie accent.

Pointing to the officer in the video who incorrectly used the superlative "most", Adoniou says people for whom English is an additional language are often more technically proficient than those who grew up with English as their first language.

According to Adoniou, having your intelligence and language capacity judged on English proficiency but also requiring an 'Australian' accent must be incredibly frustrating—"because they have nothing to do with one another".

A tool to exclude

In Australia there are many indicators, and often people, that say unless you speak English with the "right" accent you don't exactly belong.

The premise becomes clear when migrants with "good" accents are praised and surprise is expressed to non-Anglo Saxon Australians who speak English "well". According to Piller, "this can be particularly insidious when the compliment is to non-white Australians who have grown up here and speak only English".

Another example, Adoniou says, can be seen in government.

"Australia is, structurally, a monolingual country." she says. "Citizenship tests in Australia are conducted in English – despite the fact that they are not a test of English language, but a test of Australian governance and cultural facts."

Tables turned

Discriminating based on accent and language ability doesn't just happen in Australia (or even for the English language). Piller says, "other anglophone countries have a similarly monolingual mindset".

But this negative social experience may be one many Australians are yet to endure.

"Finding oneself in an environment where we cannot communicate is deeply disorienting and makes us very vulnerable," says Piller.

"Of course, in the overall scheme of things, English speakers are rarely in such a position."