Languages of Malaysia

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Life in Malaysia

The indigenous languages of Malaysia belong to the Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian families. The national, or official, language is Malay which is the mother tongue of the majority Malay ethnic group. The main ethnic groups within Malaysia comprise the Malays, Chinese and Indians, with many other ethnic groups represented in smaller numbers, each with its own languages. The largest native languages spoken in East Malaysia are the Iban language and the Kadazan language. English is widely understood in service industries and is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary school. It is also the main language spoken in most private colleges and universities. English may take precedence over Malay in certain official contexts as provided for by the National Language Act, especially in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, where it may be the official working language.

Malaysia contains speakers of 137 living languages,[1] 41 of which are found in Peninsula Malaysia.[2] The government provides schooling at the primary level in each of the three major languages, Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), and Tamil. Within these three there are a number of dialectal differences.[3]

The distribution of language families of Malaysia shown by colours:
(click image to enlarge)
  Areas with multiple languages


Main article: Malaysian language

The official language of Malaysia is known as Bahasa Malaysia. It is a standardised form of the Malay language.[4] There are 10 dialects of Malay used throughout Malaysia.[3] Malay became predominant after the 1969 race riots.[5] A variant of the Malay language that is spoken in Brunei is also commonly spoken in East Malaysia.

Other indigenous languages[edit]

Citizens of Minangkabau, Bugis or Javanese origins, who can be classified "Malay" under constitutional definitions may also speak their respective ancestral tongues. The native tribes of East Malaysia have their own languages which are related to, but easily distinguishable from, Malay. Iban is the main tribal language in Sarawak while Dusunic languages are spoken by the natives in Sabah.[6] Some of these languages remain strong, being used in education and daily life.[3] Sabah has tenth sub-ethnic languages, Bajau, Bruneian, Murut, Lundayeh/Lun Bawang, Rungus, Bisaya, Iranun, Suluk, Sungai, and Ubian. There are over 30 native groupings, each of which has its own dialect. These languages are in danger of dying out, unlike the major ones such as Kadazandusuns which have developed educational syllabuses. Iban also has developed an educational syllabus.[7] Languages on the peninsular can be divided into three major groups, Negrito, Senoi, and Malayic, further divided into 18 subgroups.[3] The Semai is used in education.[7] Thai is also spoken in northern parts of Peninsular especially in Northern Kedah and Langkawi, Perlis, Northern Perak, Northern Terengganu, and Northern Kelantan.[8]


Main article: Malaysian English

Malaysian English, also known as Malaysian Standard English (MySE), is a form of English derived from British English, although there is little official use of the term except with relation to education. Malaysian English also sees wide usage in business, along with Manglish, which is a colloquial form of English with heavy Malay, Chinese dialect and Tamil influences. Most Malaysians are conversant in English, although some are only fluent in the Manglish form. The Malaysian government officially discourages the use of Manglish.[9] Many businesses in Malaysia conduct their transactions in English, and it is sometimes used in official correspondence. Examinations are based on British English.

English was the predominant language in government until 1969.[5] English remains an active second language in many areas of Malaysian society and is compulsory, serving as the medium of instruction for Maths and Sciences in all public schools per the PPSMI policy, although this is pending reversal in 2012.[10][11] The government however recognises the importance of English, and has committed to make English a strong second language.[3]

Chinese languages[edit]

As a whole, Standard Chinese is most widely spoken among Malaysian Chinese, due to it being the lingua franca for Chinese from different dialect groups, the language of instruction in Chinese schools and an important language in business.[3]

As most Malaysian Chinese have ancestry from the southern provinces of China, various southern Chinese dialects are spoken in Malaysia. The more common dialects in Peninsular Malaysia are Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, and Hokchew.[8] Hokkien is mostly spoken in Penang, Northern Perak and Kedah whereas Cantonese is mostly spoken in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. In Sarawak, most ethnic Chinese speak either Hokchew or Hakka while Hakka predominates in Sabah except in the city of Sandakan where Cantonese is more often spoken despite the Hakka-origins of the Chinese residing there.

As with Malaysian youths of other races, most Chinese youth are multilingual and can speak at least three languages with at least moderate fluency - Mandarin, English and Malay, as well as their native Chinese dialect and/or the dominant Chinese dialect in their area. However, Chinese dialects are losing ground to Mandarin, due to the prestige of Mandarin and its status as language of instruction in school. Some parents speak Mandarin with their children and do not pass down their native dialects. Some of the less-spoken dialects such as Hainanese are facing extinction.

Indian languages[edit]

Tamil is used predominantly by Tamils, who form a majority of Malaysian Indians.[12] It is especially used in Peninsular Malaysia where they still maintain close cultural ties with their homeland. However, many Indians in East Malaysia, especially the younger generation, do not speak much Tamil and speak either Malay or English as their first language.[citation needed] This is because there are far fewer Indians in East Malaysia than in the Peninsula. Thus, the Indians in East Malaysia prioritise on Malay and English because those languages are more useful in daily life in that region. Malaysian Tamil is a significant dialect which is different from Tamil spoken in India, with many loan words from Malay entering into its vocabulary.[citation needed] Other south Asian languages such as Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu and Punjabi are also spoken.


A small number of Malaysians have Eurasian ancestry and speak creole languages, such as the Portuguese based Malaccan Creoles.[13] A Spanish based creole, Zamboangueño, has spread into Sabah from the southern Philippines.[14]

Sign languages[edit]

Sign languages include Malaysian Sign Language and the older Selangor Sign Language and Penang Sign Language. No sign language is used in the education of the deaf. Instead, Manually Coded Malay is used.

List of languages[edit]

  • Malay Dialects or related languages:
Malaysian - Official standard register of Malay language
Johor-Riau Malay
Negeri Sembilan Malay
Pahang Malay - Various sub-dialects
Perak Malay - Various sub-dialects
Temuan - Aboriginal Malay
Orang Kanaq - Aboriginal Malay
Orang Seletar - Aboriginal Malay
Jakun - Aboriginal Malay
Banjarese - Spoken by Banjarese that immigrated to Malaya in 18th century
Indonesian - Spoken by Indonesian migrant workers or immigrants

- Various Malay-based creoles are also spoken in Malaysia such as Baba Malay, Sabah Malay, Bahasa Rojak and others.

  • Malaysian Chinese languages:
  • Malaysian Indian languages:
Tamil - also by ethnic Tamils of Sri Lankan origin
  • East Malaysian languages:
Lun Bawang
  • Other languages and groups:
Aslian languages

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ethnologue report for Malaysia". Retrieved 2010-10-18. 
  2. ^ "Ethnologue report for Malaysia (Peninsular)". Retrieved 2010-10-18. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kamila Ghazali. "National Identity and Minority Languages". UN Chronicle. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  4. ^ Constitution of Malaysia:Article 152
  5. ^ a b Andaya, Barbara Watson; Andaya, Leonard Y. (1982). A History of Malaysia. London: MacMillan Press Ltd. p. 278. ISBN 0-333-27672-8. 
  6. ^ The Austronesian languages of Asia ... - Google Books. Retrieved 2010-09-21. 
  7. ^ a b Luke Rintod (30 November 2010). "Speak up, native language champions urged". Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Malaysia". Retrieved 2010-10-26. 
  9. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (2006-10-05). "Language Log: Malaysia cracks down on "salad language"". Retrieved 2010-09-14. 
  10. ^ "PAGE hands in second memorandum". The Star Online. 2010-07-09. Retrieved 2010-09-08. "Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced last year that the policy of Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (known by its Malay acronym, PPSMI) would be scrapped from 2012." 
  11. ^ "Math and Science back to Bahasa, mother tongues". The Star Online. 2009-07-08. Retrieved 2010-09-08. 
  12. ^ West, Barbara (2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, Volume 1. New York: Facts on File inc. p. 486. ISBN 0-8160-7109-8. 
  13. ^ Malaysian Creole Portuguese: Asian, African or European?. University of Texas. 1975. JSTOR 30027570. 
  14. ^ Michaelis, Susanne (2008). Roots of Creole structures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co. p. 279. ISBN 978-90-272-5255-5.