Sentenced to discrimination

Language as a weapon of state

Featured in

  • Published 20180501
  • ISBN: 9781925603323
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

ON AUSTRALIA DAY in 2016, artist Elizabeth Close was at an Adelaide shopping centre speaking to her young daughter in Pitjantjatjara, when a woman approached and said to her: ‘It’s Australia Day. We speak English.’ Close was shocked, and replied, ‘Pardon?’ The woman slowed down her speech and repeated herself. Close retorted that as she was speaking a native Australian language, she ‘could not get more Australian’. The woman walked off without another word.[i]

The results of the 2016 Census reveal that more than three hundred languages are spoken in homes across the nation, and that more than 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.[ii] That is one fifth of our population, and it is likely a modest estimate, as the Census does not account for Australians who did speak a language other than English at home but have since moved out and into an English-speaking home environment. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has publicly declared that Australia is ‘the most successful multicultural society in the world’, and Australia Day events centre around celebrating the nation’s multiculturalism. Yet our multilingualism is not accepted as part of our multiculturalism, even though a multicultural nation is by definition (and supported by the Census data) a multilingual one. A poll conducted in 2015 by ANU found that 92 per cent of respondents consider speaking English as ‘important’ in identifying as Australian, placing English skills higher than birthplace or citizenship.[iii] Despite the nation’s multiculturalism, English is a conspicuous marker by which Australians judge each other’s ‘Australianness’.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

If you are an educator or student wishing to access content for study purposes please contact us at

Share article

About the author

Raelke Grimmer

Raelke Grimmer is a lecturer at Charles Darwin University and a creative writing PhD candidate at Flinders University. She also holds an MA in...

More from this edition

Good fences

ReportageRUBBERNECKING. THERE’S NO denying that was my intention as I huddled with the growing crowd behind the blue-and-white checkered tape, our smartphones at the ready....

Beyond the pale

EssayMy apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ Robert Frost, ‘Mending...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.