The coastal language, Boon wurrung, and the related inland language, Woi wurrung, were used by Koorie peoples in the area in and around Melbourne until the 1840s. While the main language used since the arrival of Europeans has been English, the city has had an almost continuous history of multilingualism even though the languages involved and the attitudes towards them have varied over time.
French was spoken in the household of the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria Charles La Trobe. Many of the immigrants from the British Isles were in fact speakers of Irish, Gaelic or Welsh and there were sizeable groups of German speakers as well. Adventure and fortune, the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions in central Europe, and religious upheavals brought more non-English speaking migrants to Melbourne, and German rural enclaves were established in the vicinity, for example, Waldau (Doncaster), Neumecklenburg (Thomastown), Scoresby North (Bayswater), and Harkaway. Melbourne's first Saturday language school was the German one that opened at Mill Park in 1857.
By the 1860s a range of languages was used in cultural, social and benevolent clubs, hotels and cafés. Immigrants, and a growing number of locally born bilinguals, conversed in German, Irish, Chinese, Gaelic, Welsh, French, the Scandinavian languages, and Italian. It was possible to carry out all one's shopping and business transactions in German, which served as the language of inter-cultural communication between various central European ethnic groups. Several English-speaking candidates for parliament presented their policies in German. Lutheran services were conducted in German, and there were Catholic masses with German sermons. German-English bilingual schools were conducted at primary and secondary level. There were as many as six German newspapers, both secular and religious, available in Melbourne. Other language groups were less prominent. A Welsh newspaper appeared briefly and part-time ethnic schools provided instruction in Gaelic and Hebrew. There were also four bilingual French-English girls' schools which helped pioneer girls' secondary education and attracted many children from English-speaking families.
Some French and German bilingual education continued after the Education Act of 1872. By the 1890s Irish and Gaelic speakers had largely shifted to English. German and French, however, continued to function as lingua franca between various groups, French mainly among the highly cultured and aristocratic. Le Courrier Australien, published in Sydney but also read in Melbourne, carried a section in Polish. Apart from several German newspapers, there was also one in the Scandinavian languages. New migration of German speakers and internal migration from rural enclaves in Western Victoria augmented the German-speaking community, and there were also churches conducting services in Scandinavian and Chinese languages and in Welsh.
The dominance of an aggressive monocultural language policy before, during and immediately after World War I brought about a language shift in families and in public domains, such as churches, education, and the foreign language press. However, newspapers in French and the Scandinavian language continued. A weakened German press which re-emerged after the wartime publications ban was lifted in 1925 was able to cater for the increased demand brought about by refugees from Nazism. Eastern European Jewish refugees congregating in Carlton continued to use Yiddish in their community and cultural lives.
Although German was again subjected to patriotic pressures during World War II the existing resources provided a basis for its use as a lingua franca during the first phase of the postwar immigration which transformed Melbourne into the multilingual capital of Australia. The 2001 census recorded 26.9% of the population regularly using a language other than English. The most widely used community languages were (in order): Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic, Mandarin, Macedonian, Turkish, Spanish, Croatian, Maltese, Polish, Filipino, German, and Serbian. By the 1996 census, 25.4% of Melbourne's population used a language other than English in their homes (and more used one elsewhere) with the main languages now being Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic, Mandarin, Macedonian, Turkish, Spanish and Croatian. While the older languages (for example, German, Italian, Maltese) are not maintained as well as are Macedonian, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek, their maintenance rates are higher than in other parts of Australia.
None of Melbourne's local government areas is monolingual. In 2001 94% reported more than 1000 home users of at least one community language. The city of Casey contains 15 such language groups, and Brimbank, Greater Dandenong and Monash nearly as many. Melbourne now has three radio stations broadcasting full-time in a total of about 80 languages, four full-time ethnolinguistically specific stations, and a number of other stations that broadcast for part of the time in community languages. Apart from the national television station that transmits films and news in a wide range of languages, there is a multi-lingual community television station. The Department of Education holds Saturday classes in most of the 43 languages which are examined in the Victorian Certificate of Education, and ethnic communities run Saturday or Sunday schools for the maintenance of their languages, especially at the primary level.