Re-imagining Australia using a multilingual lens

28 June 2023
How can non-English language sources help us re-imagine Australian history?
'Opening the Multilingual Archives of Australia' project hopes to mobilise under-utilised non-English resources from over 50 languages to highlight the multilingual nature of Australian history.

A handwritten Italian fascist newspaper called 'Patria', written by Italian prisoners of war detained in Australia in 1942. Credit: OMAA/Australian War Memorial

A newly launched virtual archive of rarely known non-English speaking resources about Australia is hoping to challenge the Anglocentrism of the country’s history and shed new light on the role of language in shaping Australian identity.

As part of ongoing research into how users of different languages experience Australia, the ‘Opening the Multilingual Archives of Australia’ (OMAA) project brings together historical materials referencing Australia in over 50 languages other than English.

The extensive virtual archive, now open to the public, draws on letters and diaries, newspapers, notes, personal papers and more to provide a new realm of sources for examining and unpacking Australian history and culture.

Professor Adrian Vickers, project lead and expert in Indonesian history and culture from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, says the archive highlights the wealth of non-English sources in understanding “the story of Australia”. 

“How can we fully understand Australian history and what it means to be Australian if we are only examining perspectives from sources communicated in the English language?” he said.

“To this day, our understanding of Australia’s migrant and settler history and identity has been informed by sources that centre us in our ‘British-ness’ and reinforce our colonial legacy.

“Australia has always been multilingual, so understanding Australia requires more than just knowledge of the English language. Our project seeks to mobilise these under-utilised resources so we can rethink and reorient modern Australian history using a non-English perspective.”

How can we fully understand Australian history and what it means to be Australian if we are only examining perspectives from sources communicated in the English language?
Professor Adrian Vickers

A booklet collected from a Chinese merchant in Melbourne, believed to be from the 1920s-1930s. Credit: OMAA

From the time of early British colonisation, languages other than English – not including Indigenous languages – have existed in Australia, challenging the idea the nation has only become culturally and linguistically diverse in the last few decades.

According to the project’s core group of researchers, non-English language Australian newspapers have been particularly overlooked in terms of what they can tell scholars and the broader public about the formation of modern Australia. Until recently, many have languished unexamined in Australia’s public libraries and community collections, including the State Library of NSW and the National Library of Australia.

Now, many of these newspapers – in languages including Chinese, Dutch, German, Japanese, Italian, French and more – are digitised and readily accessible via the OMAA website, where historians and other groups can use them to form a broader understanding of Australian history since colonisation. So far, the project has documented hundreds of these newspapers.

Top part of a WWII prisoner of war correspondence envelope in three languages (in English, German and Italian), directed to prisoners of war interned in Australian war camps. Credit: OMAA/State Library of New South Wales

Other materials of note include private correspondence between diplomatic representatives of different countries, such as China and Japan, and ‘secret’ documents about Australia from Indonesian officials in 1952.

Professor Yixu Lu, Head of the School of Languages and Cultures and conceiver of the project, said the extensive archive would help fill a crucial gap in understanding how users of languages other than English (and Indigenous languages) have experienced and continue to experience Australia, as well as how their use of language contributes to whether they see themselves as ‘Australian’ – or not.

“Australia’s dominant historical narrative since colonisation has resulted in the notion that speaking English is a prerequisite to identifying as, or ‘being’, Australian.”

“By putting together stories of Australia in multiple languages, we challenge this notion. There is much to learn, for example, about how German missionaries and settlers experienced Australia and New Guinea, or of experiences of people interned in Australia during both World Wars,” Professor Lu said.

“It is our hope that the project will provide policymakers, scholars, educators, community groups and members of the public with newly unearthed tools for examining and understanding Australia’s rich and ongoing cultural pluralism.”

Visit the Opening the Multilingual Archives of Australia website.

Declaration: This research is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project scheme. 

Hero image: Typed letter in Indonesian from the early 1950s, collected at the National Archives of Australia. Credit: OMAA

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Elissa Blake

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Professor Adrian Vickers

Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of Languages and Cultures
Visit Professor Vickers' academic profile

Professor Yixu Lu

Head of the School of Languages and Cultures
Visit Professor Lu's academic profile

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