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Is there a language gap between Aussies and migrants?

19 March 20181 comment

A new study has been launched to investigate the language gap between native in English speakers and migrants whose first language is not English.

Macquarie University’s Professor Ingrid Piller is investigating just how native English speakers in Australia communicate with migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Her study will observe intercultural communication in the workplace, including offices, aged care facilities and cafes.

Prof Piller said the project was aimed at finding out how English speakers deal with increasing linguistic diversity, with the goal of better integrating newcomers.

“We have a very good understanding of how difficult it can be for new migrants to gain the confidence to speak in English,” Prof Piller said.

“But what we don’t really know is how the majority of the population who speak English as their only language … Are contributing to making the linguistic experience of others a good one or maybe a difficult one,” she said.

Around 22 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home, and this number reaches 34 per cent in Melbourne and 38 per cent in Sydney.

“So that really means in Australia we regularly need to communicate across different levels of proficiency in English,” Prof Piller said.

Prof Piller’s colleague Macquarie University research fellow Shiva Motaghi-Tabari is also working on the study. She arrived in Australia ten years ago from Iran.

Dr Motaghi-Tabari studied English abroad, but struggled to communicate and hold conversations when she arrived in Australia.

“I remember that I was in a pharmacy with my daughter. I was looking in my purse, and the chemist asked something and I just heard ‘anything else’ and I said ‘no thank you’,” Dr Motaghi-Tabari said.

“Then my daughter said ‘mum, he’s saying ‘any allergies” but my response was ‘no thanks’.”

“So these are the kind of conversational difficulties I had when I first came. You want to be a legitimate member of society. But these little experiences we just might see as mundane and minor can have an impact on feelings and self-esteem.”

Another of the study’s researchers research fellow Vera Williams Tetteh arrived in Australia from Ghana in 1992.

“Usually the lens is turned on people like us who come here and speak and learn… But this time it’s taking the lens and going into the workplace and seeing what sort of dimensions are going on in language,” Ms Tetteh said.

The study aims to highlight the consequences poor communication has on an individual and provide socioeconomic benefits for institutions and individuals.



Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist