J: A photo of… a family gathering last year; my mother, my sister and I speak Norwegian, Icelandic and English (nearly) fluently. My cousins do not speak Norwegian… they speak Danish, Icelandic and English… my grandmother was there and she only speaks Icelandic. My sister’s boyfriend only speaks Norwegian and English, and my cousin’s husband only speaks Danish and English… there was a constant mix of all four languages, and we all kept using them interchangeably and translating for whoever could not understand some of the words…


3 participants completed a questionnaire about language use in the home, at their current residence, family home or both. All spoke two languages; all spoke English fluently. 1 spoke more than two languages. All respondents’ parents spoke at least 2 languages.

All currently lived in Australia but 2 were born overseas. 2 identified their ancestry as European, 1 as Indian. 1 respondent talked about their family home and another residence, 1 talked about their family home (not current residence), and 1 talked about their family home (current residence).

My respondents were not ‘average’ Australians. In 2011, 0.3% of the population in NSW and nationally spoke French (respondent K), 0.2% spoke Tamil nationally and 0.3% in NSW (respondent J), and less than 0.1% nationally and in NSW spoke either Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish or Danish (respondent I). 15.2% nationally and 18.6% in NSW spoke another language and English well or very well, compared to 76.8% nationally and 72.5% in NSW who spoke only English. 1.4% nationally and in NSW were born in India (respondent J) and less than 0.1% nationally and in NSW were born in Iceland (respondent I) – 24.6% nationally and 25.7% in NSW were born overseas. (Sources: languages spoken other than English, English proficiencyplace of birth)

Therefore, bilinguals, those who speak a language other than English at home (especially the languages of my respondents) and those born overseas are not representative of the ‘average’ Australian.

Language Use and Unwritten Rules

Choice of language was based on internal and external factors, including: known languages of the audience (all); efforts to know a language other than English (J); and fear of being judged on competency (K and J).

All were happy with personally speaking multiple languages and others speaking multiple languages in the home. However, all responded they would feel neutral or negatively if others spoke a language they did not know with the purpose of excluding them.

“If I know I am not part of the conversation it is usually fine – and if I have someone else to speak to it is fine, but it can feel uncomfortable if people suddenly speak another language in front of me without including me and/or explaining what they are talking about.” – Participant I

This suggests an unwritten (implicit) rule of communication saying the ‘unmarked’ (normative) decision is to include all participants in conversation, through using a language shared by all participants, by translating for participants, etc. By violating this rule, a ‘marked’ decision is made, which conveys information and socialisation in a way someone cannot participate in.

“I would feel uncomfortable having a conversation in front of someone who does not understand unless I am translating the conversation as well – it would feel awkward if I knew they did not understand and I did not translate.” – Participant I

Mixed-language sign near one of my homes – which community does this appeal to? Which senses of identity? Who are the buildings intended for?

Ethnic Tongues – Online and Offline

When asked, ‘What is the importance of your language(s) in your home?’, Participant I said “very important”, but J and K did not feel language had much importance. K qualified their statement by saying they felt it had “low explicit importance”, which I think is a very important distinction to make. However, all participants believed language had a strong role in their identity. I and J both felt language was an identifying feature – I said, “I feel that it is one of the things that people identify me from” and J explained,

“In India, language is a way to identify a group of people because we are so divided by numerous state borders and languages. Therefore, it strongly identifies me not only as an Indian, but a Tamil…”

A street sign near one of my homes. Who is it representative of? What norms does it convey?

When comparing the effect of language on their identity and the importance of language in the home, it is K’s insightful comment – that language had “low explicit importance” – that explains the tension between these contrasting beliefs.

Notably, participants said they consumed and created a minimum of 80% of their internet content in English, despite all having at least advanced competency in another language. Participant I listed their consumption and creation as 80% English, 15% Norwegian and 5% Icelandic, J as 80% English, 15% Korean and 5% Japanese and K as 97% English and 3% French. A common thread among using languages other than English was ‘keeping in contact with family and friends’, showing participants changed the common language of the conversation depending on the situational context. J did not say they created or consumed any Tamil-language content. The kinds of English content consumed and created were online books, YouTube, Facebook and news articles; J’s Korean and Japanese content was consumption of anime and Asian dramas. J mentioned their parents watch Tamil TV but they themselves had “no interest”.

The internet is a place where bilingualism (and multilingualism) may be the norm – “a space of seemingly endless possibilities for self-expression and community formation” (Varis and Wang, 2011: 70) – but the de facto language for my participants was English. Much content is only accessible if you speak English, leading to the creation and consumption of more English-language content. Some may become (at least) bilingual to give them access to these spaces. Specific hubs exist where my participants consumed languages other than English material, like news sites or anime. However, their main consumption of news and consumption and creation of public social media was in English. Private social media (e.g., Facebook Messenger) was where content was created and consumed in languages other than English. This division of public and private audiences again suggests unwritten rules of making sure conversation is intelligible to all participants. Part of this is how our definition of community or audience is changing with globalisation and technology, and how this is affected by and affects diversity in places online and offline, places “where diversity is constrained by a complex of normative struggles” (Varis and Wang, 2011: 70), and how these struggles inform language and its users’ choices.


Varis and Wang (2011) Superdiversity on the Internet: A case from China. Chapter 5 in Language and Superdiversities by Blommaert, Rampton and Spotty. DIVERSITIES: An online journal published by UNESCO & MPIMMG.

Anna Kristo