How Australia casually discriminates against non-English speakers

"Maybe we could start behaving as though people from overseas should be not just suspiciously tolerated, but actively ...

"Maybe we could start behaving as though people from overseas should be not just suspiciously tolerated, but actively made welcome," writes Andrew P Street. Photo: Stocksy

Shamefully, and unusually for an Australian, I was in my thirties when I got my first passport.

I'd like to pretend that this was because I was eagerly devouring the richness of Adelaide's cultural life as one would a ripe peach, but it's actually more to do with my twenties being a volatile mix of higher education, working poverty and chronic depression than a reflection upon the zesty excitements of the Paris Of The South.

However, I've done a far better job of exposing suspicious Customs agents to my increasingly-unrepresentative passport photograph since, most recently with a lovely traipse around bits of western Europe. And coming home I have been reminded, as I always am, of something which we white middle class Australian folks don't think about all that often: my word, Australia really doesn't care for foreigners one little bit.

This is unlikely to come as a surprise in these days of Reclaim Australia and offshore detention and literally everything that Peter Dutton says to the media, but this isn't really to do with Australia's well-documented xenophobia. This is a far more blithe and careless form of racism.


It's not just that Australia doesn't consider that maybe everyone doesn't speak English - which, to be clear, is a massive blind spot to which we shall shortly come - but it genuinely appears not to cross anyone's mind that maybe, just maybe, someone in our cities might not have actually lived there their entire life and therefore be intimately familiar with how complicated local systems work.

To illustrate this, try lobbing into a large, cosmopolitan metropolis - Osaka, or Berlin, or Paris, or London - and attempt to catch a train.

You'll be confronted by announcements in several languages, including English, as well as multi-lingual signs, ticket machines and information staff that correctly assume that some of the people attempting to use their services are doing so for the first time. Not only are there clear, colourful maps and easy-to-follow instructions, they also have the helpful notion that if someone would like a bus ticket they might purchase said ticket on, say, a bus.

Now try doing that in large, cosmopolitan Sydney.

Every sign is in English. Every announcement is in English. If a staff member speaks another language, it's pure luck rather than any commitment to training or service on the part of Transport NSW - although, to be fair, the state government has historically regarded passengers as being an expensive burden that should be discouraged from grubbying up the service in the first place.

Oh, and you can't buy tickets on buses during the day - as you'll discover when the driver yells at you for asking - so you'll need an Opal card if you plan to get around. These are not available at or near any public transport hub, please note, but can be purchased at certain corner stores and newsagents. Obviously.

Also, you won't necessarily know what amount to put on said Opal card since their whimsical and opaque pricing structure has no apparent bearing on such factors as "length of journey" or "time of day" and seems to be determined largely by guesswork and the phases of the Moon.

But let's get back to Australia's casual disinterest in non-English languages, for this is no small issue.

When flying into Australia recently via Malaysia there was approximately 20 minutes of video and announcements regarding Australia's strict quarantine and customs laws, outlining what could and could not be brought into Australia and what the likely penalties would be if such things were in your luggage.

Said announcements were in English. More specifically: they were exclusively in English. And even then they weren't exactly transparent. I speak English with some degree of fluency and I still had to take an educated guess as to the breadth of what "fish products" covers.

Assuming that at least some of the passengers only spoke Malay or had English as one of the lesser of their numerous languages, this seems awfully like deliberately setting people up to fail.

Would it have taken a while to give the information in several languages? Yes, absolutely. The reason I know this is that it's precisely what they did on the flight from Paris to Kuala Lumpur.

And yes, I get that English is as close to a universal lingua franca as we have (in your face, Esperanto!) and that some might consider it careless to turn up in a country and not speak the local language. Except that I've done exactly that in half a dozen nations in the last year or so and it's never been an issue, since it turns out that some other countries actively encourage tourists to pop by and figure it's maybe worth not ensuring they feel confused and scared.

And given that Australia no longer manufactures anything and is enjoying a badly listing resources export sector, having tourists pop by is one of the few ways we're going to be able to bring in that sweet, sweet foreign investment in the decades to come. That's assuming we have anything left for tourists to see once the government completes Greg Hunt's exciting strategy to destroy the Great Barrier Reef via increased and loss-making coal shipping, but that's a rant for a later time.

Maybe we could think about dialling back our 15-odd years of being alert-but-not-alarmed about The Foreigns and start behaving as though people from overseas should be not just suspiciously tolerated, but actively made welcome. A little bit more customer service and a little less patriotic hostility might make for a refreshing change in our national culture.

Or at the very least, can we better define "fish products"? Seriously, what do fish even produce?