Malaysia is perhaps the nation most famous for being multiracial. It’s a country that’s so diverse, there are actually 137 local and foreign languages spoken in this country because it’s home to various ethnic groups and races.
In fact, it’s very normal to hear Malaysians talk with each other using three or four languages in just one sentence. Nonetheless, there are five languages commonly spoken in the country.
Malaysians commonly speak Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, Indian, Tamil, and English. These languages and their dialects are mainly used by Malaysians every day across Malaysia.
Likewise, ethnic tribes in Malaysia also still use their own indigenous language.
However, no matter the language spoken by Malaysians, “lah” is the most common word you’ll hear them use every day.
In this article, we’ll explain more about each language spoken in Malaysia and how they’re used by the locals. Read on to discover more about each language, in case you’re not familiar with them yet.
1. Malay or Bahasa Malaysia
Bahasa Malaysia, also known as Bahasa Melayu, is the official language in Malaysia, as prescribed in the Federal Constitution. It’s one of the several variations of the Malay language.
It’s the most popular language in the country, too, because more than 80% of Malaysians speak it. Even the national anthem of the country is in this language.
Bahasa Melayu is the vernacular across Malaysia, especially in rural areas. It’s so widely used in the country that not only the Malay community in the country speaks it — even Malaysian Chinese and Indian communities speak it.
In case you’re planning to work or live in Malaysia, you should be aware of the differences between the formal and informal variations of Bahasa Melayu.
Since it’s the national language of the country, it’s also the medium of language mainly used in educational institutions. So, if you plan to study in Malaysia, it’s important to know and understand it.
If you’re interested in learning Bahasa Malaysia, you should know that it isn’t hard to learn at all.
It’s particularly easier if you’re familiar with Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, Dutch, and English because plenty of words in Bahasa Malaysia were borrowed from these languages.
Variations of Bahasa Malaysia
There are plenty of variations of Bahasa Malaysia spoken in Malaysia, just like any language. Indeed, not everyone speaks the same dialect in this country.
An example of this local dialect is the one used by the Kelantanese. Locals in Kelantan are known for their distinct dialect brought by their speech sounds that don’t sound anything like the formal Bahasa Malaysia.
Other locals who are known for their strong regional dialects are those living in Terengganu, Kedah, Perlis, and Perak.
Despite the differences among the regional dialects, locals would still be able to understand each other. For example, those from Kuala Lumpur could still understand what someone from Johor Bahru said.
But, even if these dialects are mutually intelligible, there are still some dialects that are so unique, you’d need to learn them in-depth if you’re a non-native.
Likewise, if you’re a traveler who knows formal Bahasa Malaysia, it could be hard for you to understand the regional dialects.
Besides the regional dialects in Malaysia, there are also other indigenous languages used by ethnic groups and we’ll discuss them later.
The Chinese make up about 22% of the Malaysian population. This is why you’d also encounter Malaysians who could speak various Chinese languages.
|Chinese Speaking Malaysian Population|
Hokkien is one of the biggest Chinese dialects in Malaysia, followed by Hakka and Cantonese. Other less popular Chinese languages are now becoming extinct although there are still a few hundred thousand Malaysians who speak them.
Furthermore, Hokkien is more popularly used across the country, especially in Penang, Kedah, and the northern part of Perak. But some Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, and Ipoh widely speak Cantonese.
Likewise, to revitalize and elevate the Hokkien language in Malaysia, the Hokkien Language Association of Penang organized the “Speak Hokkien Campaign”.
This campaign also aims to expand the use of Hokkien and to encourage parents to use and teach this language to their children.
Mandarin is specially adapted to a Malaysian dialect that’s under the Malaysian Chinese category. It’s also generally the most widely spoken Chinese language in the country nowadays, but it’s particularly popular in Johor.
Notably, there are approximately 93% of the Chinese families in Kuala Lumpur who can fluently speak Mandarin. There’s a great number of locals who could speak Mandarin and it’s even used in Chinese schools and businesses.
But, don’t be surprised if you’d also hear them speak other Chinese dialects! It’s because they’re not just fluent in Mandarin but also in other dialects.
To promote Mandarin in Malaysia, the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” was initiated twice by the Selangor Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the 1980s. This encouraged the Chinese Malaysian citizens to learn the said language.
Furthermore, there are plenty of Malaysian Chinese who are stakeholders and leaders in the business sector in Malaysia who speak Mandarin.
This is why it’s also one of the languages used in offices in Malaysia and anyone proficient in Mandarin is in-demand in professional industries in the country.
Spicy food isn’t the only thing that Malaysians have adopted from the Indians, but also their languages. There are about 7% of Indians in the Malaysian population, so it’s no secret why there are various Indian languages spoken in Malaysia.
In addition, Malaysia uses vernacular education and this means that there are also Indian vernacular schools in the country. Teachers and students in these institutions use Indian languages as the lingua franca.
The most widely spoken Indian language in Malaysia is Tamil. But, it doesn’t mean that other dialects or Indian languages are not used in Malaysia.
In fact, it’s possible to hear some Malaysians speak Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, and Gujarati. Additionally, some Indians in Malaysia could also speak Mandarin when doing business or when kids are sent to Chinese schools.
Out of the Indian languages in Malaysia, Tamil is the most typically used by the locals.
Malaysians are fluent in Tamil because it’s like a native language and in Malaysia, it’s called Bahasa Tamil. In fact, a great amount of the Indian community in Malaysia speaks Tamil.
There are approximately 1.8 million Malaysians who could speak Tamil. They’re mostly found in Peninsular Malaysia, especially in the Indian communities here.
Tamil is also used in Indian temples and during Indian festivities like Thaipusam and Deepavali. Plus, there are about 500 Tamil medium schools in Malaysia, so children are also taught this language at an early age.
In addition, just like Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese, different dialects of Tamil are also spoken in Malaysia. The differences among these dialects of Tamil reflect the historic immigration patterns and socioeconomic status of the speakers.
Moreover, it’s perhaps the most complex language used in Malaysia because it uses Indian script and speech sounds. It’s also entirely different from Hindi, which is spoken by the Punjabi people.
Furthermore, as all languages evolve, so have Indian languages in Malaysia, but most especially Tamil. Nowadays, the new generation of the Indian community in this country is mixing Malay and English with their Indian dialect.
This is because of the complexity of the Tamil language and Malaysian speakers find it complicated to pronounce some Tamil words. So, they instead use Malay or English words which are way simpler to say.
Next to Bahasa Malaysia, English is perhaps the second most used language in Malaysia and it’s the second language for most of the locals. This language is evident in the country because it was formerly a British colony.
As such, it’s easy to communicate with the locals in English because Malaysians use English both in formal and non-formal situations.
Also, you’ll always see signage in Malaysia with English translations when you’re traveling in the country.
Because English is widely used in Malaysia, it’s easy for expats, digital nomads, or businessmen to move to and live in the country.
English is also one of the languages used in educational institutions in Malaysia. In fact, learning English is compulsory for Malaysians to learn English in school.
It’s not only taught in primary or secondary schools, but also at the tertiary level. Even homeschooling uses English as the medium of instruction.
Moreover, Malaysians who live in the urban areas are the ones who are most likely to speak in English rather than Malay.
Of all the urban cities in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is perhaps the most English-centric city in Malaysia because it’s the country’s capital.
Besides being a popular tourist destination for foreigners, this city is also a financial and economic hub. Additionally, there are plenty of professional industries and international affairs that take place here.
However, English isn’t a national language in Malaysia but it’s considered an official language in Sarawak, alongside Malay, even if this is quite far from Kuala Lumpur.
Because of how widely-used English is in Malaysia, there’s a Malaysian Standard English recognized in the country. This is called Manglish, a unique variety of English used in Malaysia.
Approximately 60% of Malaysians speak Manglish, which means that it’s a common language spoken across the country. It’s generally more used in schools and for official or business purposes, while it’s less used in other sectors.
Manglish is perhaps the most diverse language developed in Malaysia.
It’s rooted not only in British English, but also in Malay, Indian, and Chinese. All of these languages have greatly influenced Manglish.
Furthermore, Manglish is also likened to Singlish or the Singapore variation of English. These two are so similar that it’s very hard to distinguish between one from the other.
5. Indigenous Languages in Malaysia
Besides Bahasa Malaysia and its regional dialects, there are also other local languages that are spoken in Malaysia. These indigenous languages are especially unique to every ethnic group in the country and they’re considered natively spoken tongues.
The Orang Asli, the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, have their own unique languages. Meanwhile, ethnic groups in places like Sabah, Labuan, and some parts of East Malaysia each have their own distinct languages, no matter how small the tribe is.
More often than not, the languages of these indigenous groups are also Austronesian languages, like Malay.
Overall, Malaysia is home to more than 30 native tribes and they have distinct languages and even sub-dialects. However, they’re slowly becoming extinct because of their narrow impact and there’s only a small population of the indigenous groups.
Kadazandusun and Iban
The most widely spoken indigenous languages in Malaysia are Kazadandusun and Iban, which are also used by the tribes in Sarawak. These languages are even used in the school syllabus there!
Other Languages Also Spoken in Malaysia
The languages in Malaysia are truly diverse! So, the languages we listed above are only the top and most commonly used languages in Malaysia.
There are still plenty of foreign languages that you could hear from native Malaysians when you travel around the country.
They may not be as widely spoken as English, Indian, and Chinese. Nonetheless, they’re also used by the locals in Malaysia.
For example, Arabic is a language that some Malaysians speak and understand, as some schools teach it.
It may come as a surprise but Bahasa Malaysia is influenced by Arabic, which was because the Malays adopted the Islam religion.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, so the Muslim locals are familiar with Arabic even if it’s not widely spoken.
There’s a good number of Sri Lankan Malaysians who also speak Sinhalese or Sinhala, although it’s pretty rare to hear.
Also, Thai is another minor language spoken in Malaysia. This is brought by the influence of Thai culture in the country.
Additionally, various Indonesian languages are also spoken in Malaysia although not a great portion of the Malaysian population speaks them.
There are approximately 930,000 Malaysians who speak Minangkabau, while about 660,000 of the Malaysian population speak Javanese. Meanwhile, only 143,000 speak Buidinese.
It’s also possible to hear Cham, Kerincini, Acehnese, Banjarese, and Mandailing in Malaysia.
It’s also possible to learn Turkish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog in Malaysia as these are also spoken in the country. In fact, they’re highly in-demand in the Malaysian job market.
Finally, schools in Malaysia are also inclined to teach French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean, as part of their curriculum.
Summary of Languages Spoken in Malaysia
|Bahasa Malaysia||Official language, used by the majority of the Malaysian population|
|Indigenous languages||Used by the respective ethnic tribes|
|English||Considered the second language|
|Manglish||Popular Bahasa Rojak, consists of English and Malay|
|Chinese languages||Used in Southern Malaysia and by the Chinese population|
|Indian languages like Tamil||Used by the Indian population|
|Thai, Arabic, Indonesian, Sinhalese / Sinhala languages and dialects||Minority languages|
What is Bahasa Rojak?
As we mentioned earlier, it’s very normal to hear Malaysians use several languages when they’re speaking.
The mixing of languages by Malaysians is called Bahasa Rojak. When translated, “Bahasa” means “language” and “rojak” means “mixture”.
It’s a common phenomenon among the locals in Malaysia. Oftentimes, two to four of the languages spoken in Malaysia form Bahasa Rojak.
Bahasa Rojak is believed to have started during the early Malacca years when traders across the globe would come to Malacca. They would use different languages when trading or buying and selling their goods.
The most common example of this code-switching is Manglish, where Malay and English are used in one sentence. Malaysians would start off with English and branch out to Malay.
Sometimes, they would also throw in the mix a few words from the Chinese and Indian languages.
Before Manglish, the most famous example of Bahasa Rojak is the Baba Malay. It’s the language spoken by the Peranakans in Malaysia and it’s a mixture of Bahasa Malaysia and Hokkien.
Baba Malay is now a dying language and only the older generation of Malaysians is using it. Meanwhile, the younger generation is more inclined to use Manglish.