Social and cultural groups in Australia

CALD groups comprise a significant proportion of Australia's population. Currently, 31% of Australians were born overseas and, of these, about two-thirds were born in non-English speaking countries (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2007). For consistency in this paper, CALD families refer to those born, or who have at least one parent born overseas, but the difficulty in defining the term needs to be acknowledged. On the one hand, it is an inclusive term when it is describing Australia's cultural and linguistic plurality (ABS, 1999) and so refers to all families. However, in research and practice especially, it is mostly used to distinguish the mainstream community from those in which English is not the main language and/or cultural norms and values differ. "CALD" therefore has superseded the term "non-English speaking background" (NESB) because of its reference to culture as an explanation for why differences between CALD and mainstream communities may occur, and so goes beyond linguistic factors.

CALD families, then, generally refer to those that originate from countries in which English is not the main language. Therefore, it refers to all people who are not English-speaking Anglo-Saxons/Celtics or Indigenous/Aboriginal Australians. According to the 2006 Census, in descending order of population size, the main CALD groups in Australia are from Italy, China, Vietnam, India, Philippines, Greece, Germany, Malaysia, Netherlands, Lebanon, and Hong Kong (see Table 1).

Most CALD communities in Australia, especially Asian communities, are concentrated in urban areas. Of people born in Vietnam, 97% lived in major urban areas in 2004, especially Sydney and Melbourne. Similarly, 96% of people born in China, 91% born in India, and 85% born in the Philippines reside in major urban areas (ABS, 2004).

Although it is recognised that a considerable proportion of permanent entries to Australia are via the Humanitarian Program, including refugees, it is beyond the scope of this paper to specifically address issues related to refugee families in Australia.

Table 1: Main countries of birth of overseas-born Australian residents, 2006
Country of birth (COB) '000 Predominant religion Largest minority religion/s Main language
In Australia In COBa In COB
(United Kingdom)b 1153.3
(New Zealand)b 476.7
Italy 220.5 Christianity N/A Italian
China (excl. Hong Kong) 203.1 No religion Atheist Buddhism Mandarin
Vietnam 180.4 Vietnamese
India 153.6 Hinduism Islam Hindi
Philippines 135.6 Not stated Tagalog
Greece 125.9 Greek
(South Africa)b 118.8 Zulu c
Germany 114.9 No religion/not stated German
Malaysia 104.0 Malay
Netherlands 87.0 Dutch
Lebanon 86.6 Arabic
Hong Kong 76.3 Taoism Cantonese
Other overseas-born 1633.6
Total overseas-born 4, 956.9
Australian-born 15, 648.6
Total population 20, 605.5

Notes: (a) If different from religion of Australian residents from this country. Methods of collection of this data may differ from those used by the ABS; therefore, caution should be exercised when interpreting results.
(b) Australian residents who were born in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and South Africa are not included as CALD.
(c) Although Zulu is the language used by the largest percentage of the population in South Africa, the main language of most South African migrants to Australia is English and so they are not included as CALD in this paper. Also, it is worth noting that there is a significant population of Australian residents from South Africa who are Jewish (the third most predominant religion among South Africans in Australia, according to ABS figures).

Sources: Population: ABS. (2007). Migration Australia (3412.0): Estimated resident population at 30 June 2006. Religion: ABS. (2007). Perspectives on migrants (3416.0), at 30 June 2006. Language: Wikipedia.

Characteristics of the main CALD groups in Australia

Families both across and within cultural groups vary considerably from one another, and it is important for service providers and practitioners to be aware of and sensitive to this diversity. However, there are some general characteristics of cultural groups that can be useful in informing what constitutes effective and culturally appropriate service delivery for different CALD groups. The main characteristics service providers and practitioners should be aware of are:

  • their language and religion; and
  • the individualistic or collectivistic orientation of the family's cultural group.
Language and religion

The main CALD groups in Australia vary in their languages and religions. The most common languages spoken in each country are listed in Table 1. It is important to know the main languages when translation and interpreting services are required. Predominantly, East European countries are Christian; Asian dialectical philosophies (ADPs) such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism are common across Asia; and Islam is common across Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. It is also important to consider religious norms for culturally appropriate service delivery.


Although families and cultures vary on a continuum in the extent to which their cultural norms, values, beliefs and practices are individualistic or collectivistic, these two theoretical viewpoints have heuristic value. While family responsibilities are important in both paradigms, generally collectivistic cultures emphasise family obligations over individual autonomy (Triandis, 1990). As such, social harmony and support tend to be prioritised over individuation, hierarchies based on age and gender are more socially acceptable, and the family provides relatively more social support than the state (Berry, 1980; Triandis, 1990). In addition, it is atypical for families to disclose or discuss their family-related concerns to outsiders, as this contravenes a typically collectivistic norm of "saving face" - protecting the family name (Berry, 1980; Lieh-Mak, Lee & Luk, 1984, cited in Forehand & Kotchick, 1996; Triandis, 1990).

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