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Newcomers and navigating the quirks of Australian English

Australian English is known for its colour and colloquialisms. How hard is it for newcomers to grasp it?

Slang reflects the times and the people that use it. For Australians, slang offers a sense of collective identity and a fun way to express themselves. It’s colour and uniqueness has been catalogued in the first dictionary published in Australia by convict clerk James Hardy Vaux all the way to videos showing Americans trying to understand Australian slang on YouTube.  

But what is it like to study in or move to Australia and try to make sense of Australians’ colloquial and often quirky speech styles? 

This year Australia reached a new record of over 700,000 international students here for their studies. These students represent 25 percent of the country’s 2.8 million migrants in Australia. Among them is Apurva Sandeep, who is studying her second year Master’s degree in Teaching and Education at Victorian University.  Upon arriving in Australia from India, Sandeep struggled with deciphering short-expressions such as ‘brekky’ and ‘mate’. Often words were getting lost in translation, not just for the abbreviations, but because of the Australian accent. 

“I was confused when someone was speaking to me because they were speaking so fast, and I could not keep up with the conversation… and with an Australian accent as well it got tricky,”  she tells upstart.

Australian slang is layered with complexity and ambiguity, with expressions dating back to the slang of convicts in the 1800s. Their language was deeply rooted in slang to confuse judges, magistrates and those in positions of authority. It’s this influence that has morphed into the slang we’re familiar with today. 

Kate Burridge is a Professor of Linguistics at Monash University who says early colonial speech was shaped by a community of convicts and the leveling out of society “that fashioned Australia’s preference and informality in speech regardless of setting”. 

Burridge says the informalities of Australian language can also be difficult for students to adjust to. For example, there’s a strong preference for first name address, regardless of if you’re a teacher, dean, or a professor.  

“I have noticed my international students will call me Doctor Kate or Professor Kate because they know I don’t want my surname and I don’t like titles,” she tells upstart. “They have to put one in there to feel comfortable…and I don’t care what they call me… they find it comfortable and out of respect and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.” 

Rola Khalaf, a first year Bachelor of Food and Nutrition student at La Trobe University, previously studied English so she didn’t find English fluency a challenge, only the accent. It has now been five months since Khalaf migrated to Australia with her parents and it still feels “very different here” compared to Jordan. 

“Some words I had a hard time understanding such as ‘dates’ I remember someone asking me what the date was, and I was unsure what they meant,” she tells upstart. “A lot of people will shorten their words instead of saying the full word…that left me questioning if I was understanding that person completely right or completely wrong.” 

It’s not just words that are tricky. Adrian Al-Abo is a second-year architecture student at RMIT university who migrated to Australia from Iraq at the age of 13. Al-Abo says the spelling is something that he is still learning. 

“What confused me [were] words that sounds the same but has different meanings like ‘there’ and ‘their’ or ‘where’ and ‘wear’, I know what they mean now but it was really confusing at first,” he tells upstart. 

“I feel comfortable learning content in English at university, in fact I think it’s better for me that way because I got so used to the English language.”  

Although Australian slang can be confusing to hear the first time… and perhaps the rest, it becomes easier over time due to its prevalence. Asking questions helped Khalaf understand what was being said. 

“People around me are nice to speak with… I am still learning the language so there’s room for improvement.” 


Article: Deniz Ay is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @FromDenizAy

Photo: A Group of Students Studying by George Pak is available HERE and is used under a Creative Commons License. This image has not been modified.

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