Languages of Malaysia

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Languages of Malaysia
Distribution of Malaysia Families Languages.png
The distribution of language families of Malaysia shown by colours:
     Land Dayak
     Areas with multiple languages
Official languages Malaysian, English (recognised)
National languages Malay
Indigenous languages

(West Malaysia: Baba Malay, Batek, Chitty Malay, Cheq Wong, Duano’, Jah Hut, Jahai, Jakun, Kedah Malay, Kelantan-Pattani Malay, Kenaboi, Kensiu, Kintaq, Kristang, Lanoh, Mah Meri, Minriq, Mintil, Mos, Negeri Sembilan Malay, Orang Kanaq, Orang Seletar, Pahang Malay, Perak Malay, Ple-Temer, Rawa Malay, Sabüm, Semai, Semaq Beri, Semelai, Semnam, Southern Thai, Temiar, Temoq, Temuan, Terengganu Malay, Wila')

(East Malaysia: Abai, Bahau, Bajaw, Balau, Belait, Berawan, Biatah, Bintulu, Bonggi, Bookan, Bruneian/Kedayan Malay, Brunei Bisaya, Bukar Sadong, Bukitan, Coastal Kadazan, Cocos Malay, Daro-Matu, Dumpas, Dusun, Eastern Kadazan, Gana’, Iban, Ida'an, Iranun, Jagoi, Jangkang, Kajaman, Kalabakan, Kanowit, Kayan, Kelabit, Kendayan, Keningau Murut, Kinabatangan, Kiput, Klias River Kadazan, Kota Marudu Talantang, Kuijau, Lahanan, Lelak, Lengilu, Lotud, Lun Bawang, Mainstream Kenyah, Maranao, Melanau, Molbog, Momogun, Murik Kayan, Narom, Nonukan Tidong, Okolod, Paluan, Papar, Punan Batu, Remun, Sa'ban, Sabah Bisaya, Sabah Malay, Sama, Sarawak Malay, Sebop, Sebuyau, Sekapan, Selungai Murut, Sembakung, Seru, Serudung, Sian, Suluk, Sungai, Tagol, Timugon, Tombonuwo, Tring, Tringgus, Tutoh, Ukit, Uma’ Lasan)
Main foreign languages African, Arab, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Cambodian, East Timorese, Filipino, Indonesian, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Thai, Vietnamese
Sign languages Malaysian Sign Language
Common keyboard layouts
KB United Kingdom.svg
Nuvola Malaysian flag.svg
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, Dusunic and the Kadazan languages. 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, Mandarin and Tamil. Within Malay and Tamil there are a number of dialectal differences.[3] There are a number of Chinese languages native to the ethnic Chinese who originated from southern China, which include Yue, Min and Hakka Chinese.


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 Dusun and Kadazan 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, Sama, Suluk and Sungai. 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, 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 served as the medium of instruction for Maths and Sciences in all public schools per the PPSMI policy, but reverted to Bahasa Malaysia in national schools and mother-tongue languages in 2012.[10] The Parent Action Group for Education and former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called for science and math to be taught in English again.[3][11][12]

Chinese Languages[edit]

As a whole, Standard Chinese (Mandarin) is the most widely spoken form among Malaysian Chinese, as it is a lingua franca for Chinese who speak mutually unintelligible varieties; Mandarin is also 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 varieties are spoken in Malaysia (in addition to Standard Chinese (Mandarin) which originated from northern China and was introduced through the educational system). The more common forms in Peninsular Malaysia are Hokkien, Cantonese, 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 ethnicities, 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 language and/or the dominant Chinese language in their area. However, most native vernacular Chinese languages are losing ground to Mandarin, due to the prestige of Mandarin and its status as language of instruction in school. Some parents speak exclusively in Mandarin with their children. Some of the less-spoken language such as Hainanese are facing extinction.

Indian languages[edit]

Tamil is used predominantly by Tamils, who form a majority of Malaysian Indians.[13] It is especially used in Peninsular Malaysia. Other south Asian languages such as Punjabi and Telugu are also spoken.


A small number of Malaysians have Eurasian ancestry and speak creole languages, such as the Portuguese-based Malaccan Creoles.[14] A Spanish-based creole, Zamboangueño, a dialect of Chavacano, has spread into Sabah from the southern Philippines.[15]

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]

A sign showing common languages in Malaysia: Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil

Malaysian Malay languages[edit]

Malays form the largest ethnic group in the country. They are divided into several sub-ethnic groups which have their own distinct identities, most notably their language/dialect. Each state has its own unique variety of Malay, and these are sometimes mutually unintelligible.

  1. Johorean : spoken in Johore, Selangor, southernmost Perak, westernmost Pahang and some parts of Malacca and Negeri Sembilan. It is the most widely spoken and understood Malay variant in the country. The Johor-Riau Malay is also the basis for the Malaysian language, the official and national language of Malaysia.
  2. Kelantanese : spoken in Kelantan, Besut and Perhentian Islands in Terengganu.
  3. Terengganuan : spoken in Terengganu, coastal Pahang and north-easternmost of Johor.
  4. Kedahan : spoken in Kedah, Perlis, Penang and northernmost Perak.
  5. Sarawakian : spoken in Sarawak.
  6. Bruneian : spoken in Limbang (Sarawak) and Sabah.
  7. Sabahan : a Bruneian-based creole spoken in Sabah, it is a major lingua franca in the state.
  8. Negeri Sembilanese : a variant of Minangkabau spoken in Negeri Sembilan.
  9. Rawa : a variant of Minangkabau but distinct from Negeri Sembilanese, it is spoken in Perak.
  10. Pahangite : spoken in Pahang, it is a dialect continuum of 40 different dialects. Pahang Malay is closely related to but distinct from Terengganu Malay.
  11. Perakian : spoken in Perak, it is a dialect continuum of various dialects spoken in the state.
  12. Malaccan : possibly a variant of Johore Malay, it is spoken in the state of Malacca.
  13. Banjar : spoken by the descendants of Banjar settlers that migrated from Kalimantan to Peninsular Malaysia in the 18th century. They are mostly concentrated at the state of Perak.
  1. Temuan : spoken by 25,000 ethnic Temuans in Pahang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.
  2. Orang Kanaq : spoken by 90 ethnic Orang Kanaqs in Johor. It is possibly a variant of Orang Laut Malay.
  3. Orang Seletar : spoken by ethnic Seletars that can be found in southern Johor and northern Singapore.
  4. Jakun  : spoken by 28,000 ethnic Jakuns in Pahang and Johor.
  5. Duano' (Orang Kuala) : a Para-Malay language, it is spoken by ethnic Orang Kuala or Desin Duano in western Johor and neighbouring Sumatra.

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

Malaysian Chinese[edit]

  1. Mandarin
  2. Cantonese
  3. Min Nan
  1. Hakka
  2. Hokchew

Malaysian Indian languages[edit]

  1. Tamil - also by ethnic Tamils of Sri Lankan origin
  2. Telugu
  3. Punjabi
  4. Malayalam
  5. Gujarati
  6. Hindi
  7. Sinhalese

East Malaysian languages[edit]

  1. Iban
  2. Kadazan
  3. Dusun
  4. Bajau
  5. Bruneian
  6. Kelabit
  7. Bidayuh
  8. Kayan
  9. Lun Bawang
  10. Penan
  11. Maranao
  12. Melanau

Other languages and groups[edit]

  1. Arabic
  2. Aslian languages : aboriginal (Orang Asli) languages of Peninsular Malaysia.
  3. Kristang : a Portuguese-based creole spoken by ethnic Kristangs, they are mostly concentrated in Malacca.
  4. English
  5. Burmese
  6. Indonesian
  7. Thai : spoken by 60,000 Malaysian Siamese. They can be found in Kelantan, Kedah, Perak and Perlis.
  8. Sinhalese
  9. Filipinos
  10. Pakistani
  11. Rohingya

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ethnologue report for Malaysia". Retrieved 18 October 2010. 
  2. ^ "Ethnologue report for Malaysia (Peninsular)". Retrieved 18 October 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kamila Ghazali. "National Identity and Minority Languages". UN Chronicle. Retrieved 4 September 2013. [dead link]
  4. ^ Constitution of Malaysia:Article 152
  5. ^ a b Barbara Watson Andaya; Leonard Y. Andaya (15 September 1984). A History of Malaysia. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-312-38121-9. 
  6. ^ K. Alexander Adelaar; Nikolaus Himmelmann (1 January 2005). The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar. Psychology Press. pp. 397–. ISBN 978-0-7007-1286-1. 
  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 26 October 2010. 
  9. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (5 October 2006). "Language Log: Malaysia cracks down on "salad language"". Retrieved 14 September 2010. 
  10. ^ "Math and Science back to Bahasa, mother tongues". The Star Online. 8 July 2009. Retrieved 8 September 2010. 
  11. ^ Mohd Farhan Darwis (12 November 2013). "Dr Mahathir calls for Science and Maths to be taught in English, again". The Malaysian Insider. Archived from the original on 2014-10-17. Retrieved 3 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "PAGE hands in second memorandum". The Star Online. 9 July 2010. Archived from the original on 2014-10-17. Retrieved 8 September 2010. 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. 
  13. ^ Barbara A. West (1 January 2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-1913-7. 
  14. ^ "Malaysian Creole Portuguese: Asian, African or European?" 17. University of Texas. 1975. pp. 211–236. JSTOR 30027570. 
  15. ^ Susanne Michaelis (2008). Roots of Creole Structures: Weighing the Contribution of Substrates and Superstrates. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-5255-6.