Schools: Language diversity in NSW, 2019

This bulletin was originally published 26 February 2020.

Image: Schools: Language diversity in NSW 2019


CESE’s Schools: Language diversity in NSW, 2019 bulletin summarises the diversity of students with language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) who were enrolled in NSW government schools in March 2019. The census of students from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) was conducted on 8 March 2019 in all NSW government schools, including preschools, intensive English centres and distance education centres.



In March 2019, 64.1% of students enrolled in NSW government schools came from homes where English was the only language spoken. More than a third (35.9%) of students came from homes where languages other than English were spoken. The proportion of LBOTE students rose by 0.8 percentage points from 2018, and by 1.7 percentage points from 2017.

Largest language backgrounds of LBOTE students in NSW government schools

In March 2019 68.9% of LBOTE students were from the nine largest languages and language groups. There were at least 5,000 students in each of these languages/language groups.

Indian languages

The ‘Indian languages’ group continued to be the largest language group with 56,306 students, representing 19.3% of all LBOTE students in 2019. Since 2009 the combined ‘Indian languages’ group has more than doubled, from 24,349 students to 56,306 students in 2019. In the last two years the proportion of students from ‘Indian languages’ backgrounds increased by 1.2 percentage points, from 18.1% in 2018 to 19.3% in 2019.

Chinese languages

The second most common language background of LBOTE students was ‘Chinese languages’, with 45,123 students enrolled in 2019. Between 2018 and 2019 the number of students from a Chinese language background rose from 44,742 to 45,123. However, due to a greater increase in other language backgrounds, the proportion of LBOTE students from a Chinese language background fell slightly from 15.8% in 2018 to 15.5% in 2019.

Other language backgrounds

The largest single language of LBOTE students in March 2019 was Arabic (39,793 students), followed by Mandarin (27,396 students) and Vietnamese (16,854 students). After Indian languages, the second largest growth in absolute number of students was in Arabic, which has increased by 44%, followed by Filipino/Tagalog and Spanish which grew 29.1% and 28.2% respectively since 2009. With the exception of Indian languages, the percentage of students from all large languages/language groups either remained unchanged or decreased. While the proportion of students from Arabic and Greek backgrounds diminished 0.1 percentage points and 0.3 percentage points between 2018 and 2019 to 13.6% and 2.7% respectively, the number of students from an Arabic language background increased. Greek is the only major language background with enrolments decreasing since 2009, from 9,188 to 8,004 students in 2019.

What are the language backgrounds of our students?

There are 240 different language backgrounds of LBOTE students at NSW government schools. Kurdish entered this list for the first time in 2019, with 1,031 students enrolled, up from 783 students in 2018. There were 291,544 primary and secondary students identified as having a language background other than English, which comprised 35.9% of the 811,802 NSW government school students overall. This was an increase of 9,012 LBOTE students from 2018.

Where are LBOTE students in NSW?

Nearly 60% of all LBOTE students were located in Sydney‑West, Sydney‑South or Sydney‑South West. Students from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, German, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Polish and Dutch language backgrounds were more likely to be located in Sydney-North. In comparison, students from Hebrew, Russian and Italian language backgrounds were more likely to be enrolled in schools in Sydney-Inner. Over 40% of students with an Indian language background were located in Sydney-West. Sydney‑West also had the largest proportion of students from Filipino/Tagalog, Tongan, Turkish, Persian (excluding Dari), Dari, Fijian, Maori (Cook Island) and Kurdish language backgrounds. Almost all students from Assyrian/ Chaldean (92.4%) and Khmer (81.3%) language backgrounds were enrolled in schools in Sydney-South West. This area also had a significant proportion of the students with Vietnamese (54%), Serbian (48.9%), Samoan (47.8%), Croatian (25.3%) and Spanish (23.5%) language backgrounds. Sydney-South had the largest proportions of the students from Macedonian (41.2%), Arabic (35.9%), Bengali (26.8%), Nepali (23.8%) and Indonesian (23.3%) language backgrounds. Almost half of the students from a Greek background were attending NSW schools in this area (47.3%). The only language background with a significant concentration of students outside the Sydney metropolitan area was Macedonian, with 26.3% of these students located in South East NSW.

Concentration of LBOTE students across NSW

There were greater concentrations of LBOTE students in the Sydney metropolitan area than in other parts of NSW. Across all Sydney schools 55.3% of the students were from language backgrounds other than English. Students from language backgrounds other than English represented 69.9% of the 90,045 students enrolled at schools in Sydney-West, the highest percentage in NSW. Of these students, the majority had an Indian, Arabic or Chinese language backgrounds. Conversely, North West NSW had the lowest percentage of students from language backgrounds other than English. While there were over 67,000 enrolments in government schools in this area, only 5.3% were LBOTE students. More than one third of these 3,540 students had a Filipino/Tagalog, Indian or Aboriginal English language background. In NSW, the highest concentrations of LBOTE students are located in Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast and Wollongong. There are also smaller concentrations of LBOTE students in regional centres such as Albury, Wagga Wagga, Griffith, Queanbeyan and Coffs Harbour.

Students’ language backgrounds by level of schooling

Students from Indian language backgrounds comprised 21.9% of the LBOTE primary enrolments, compared with 15.2% of the LBOTE secondary enrolments, which suggests that Indian languages will continue to increase as a proportion of all LBOTE students. The proportion of LBOTE students from an Arabic language background was at 13.2% for primary school students and 14.2% for secondary students. Students from Chinese language backgrounds represented a slightly higher proportion of the LBOTE secondary enrolments (15.7%) compared with the LBOTE primary enrolments (15.5%). Although students from a Vietnamese language background comprised 5.8% of enrolment of all LBOTE students, they represented 4.7% of primary enrolments and 7.5% of secondary enrolments.

Location of LBOTE students by level of schooling

For schools in Sydney-Inner the proportion of LBOTE students as a percentage of enrolments was 14.6 percentage points higher for secondary enrolments than for primary enrolments. Similarly, Sydney-South West LBOTE secondary enrolments were 5.2 percentage points higher than primary enrolments. Arabic and Vietnamese are the two largest language groups in this area and both have a higher proportion of secondary enrolments than primary enrolments. In contrast, the proportion of LBOTE students was 4.5 percentage points higher for primary enrolments than secondary enrolments in Sydney-West. This is consistent with LBOTE enrolments by level of schooling for Indian language backgrounds, which is the fastest growing language group in NSW.

LBOTE students Kindergarten to Year 12

When looking at LBOTE students as a percentage of all enrolments, in primary grades, the percentage was highest in Year 1 at 37.8%. The proportion decreased through primary years. This percentage is lowest in Year 7 at 33.5%, then increases for senior secondary grades (37.6% in Year 11 and 40.6% in Year 12). The varying proportions by scholastic year largely reflect historic enrolment patterns, with the proportion of Kindergarten students from language backgrounds other than English rising from 27.9% in 2008 to 37.5% in 2019. In previous years, LBOTE student enrolments represented a higher proportion of all secondary enrolments than of all primary enrolments. However, this trend has reversed with LBOTE student enrolments representing 36.2% of all primary enrolments and 35.9% of all secondary enrolments in NSW government schools.

What languages do newly arrived students speak?

The total number of new arrival students in 2018 was 8,830 and they spoke 137 different languages. Arabic was the most common single language, accounting for 12.2% of these students. However, 27.6% of new arrival students spoke an Indian language, and 12.7% spoke a Chinese language. For the first time, there were more than 100 new arrival students who spoke Swahili. While it is the second year where more than 100 new arrival students spoke Kurdish, the number of Kurdish‑speaking students increased by 83.2 percentage points from 2017. These figures are consistent with refugee arrivals in recent years from countries with high proportions of speakers in these two languages.

What language backgrounds do preschool students come from?

Government preschools enrolled 2,050 students from language backgrounds other than English in 2019, representing 51.3% of all government preschool enrolments. The proportion of LBOTE children at government preschools is significantly higher than the proportion enrolled at school. In NSW, most children do not attend a government preschool, but instead receive a preschool education at a government funded community preschool or in Centre‑Based services which offer a preschool program.

For more information

To access data on NSW government school student attendance, visit the NSW Education Data Hub.
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