What Languages Are Spoken In Malaysia?

By Joyce Chepkemoi on September 21 2020 in Society

Malay is the official language of Malaysia.
  • The official language spoken in Malaysia is the Malaysian language, also called Malaysian Malay or simply just Malay.
  • Malaysia has the Malaysian Standard English (MySE) also known as Manglish, which has roots in the British English. It is primarily used in education.
  • Malaysia is also home to an impressive number of indigenous languages. 137 indigenous languages are spoken in various parts of the country.

The official language spoken in Malaysia is the Malaysian language, also called Malaysian Malay or simply just Malay. It is spoken by the majority of the country and is taught extensively in the country's public education system. Aside from Malay, English is also very commonly spoken in Malaysia. Chinese dialects such as Mandarin and Hokkien are also spoken in the country, primarily by those of Chinese ethnic origin. Tamil is also another popular language of Malaysia, primarily spoken by Indian-origin residents.

Malaysia is also home to an impressive number of indigenous languages. In total, there are 137 languages used in different parts of Malaysia with some languages having their own dialects while others are dialects of Chinese origin like the Yue and Min. Most people in Malaysia - especially young people - are multilingual and are able to speak at least English, Malay and Mandarin with moderate fluency.

A sign at 7-Eleven stores showing common languages in Malaysia: Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil. Image credit: *angys*/Wikimedia.org

Official Languages Of Malaysia

Malay: The Official And The National Language Of Malaysia

The Malay language belongs to the Austronesian family and it is the most widely spoken language in the country with ten dialects. The official standardized dialect is Bahasa. Malay language has more than 20 million users in other countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. The language gained prominence after the race riots of 1969 in Malaysia. Languages like Indonesian are a variant of the Malay language. Archaeologists found early scripts of Malay dating back to as early as 683 AD in Southern Sumatra and Bangka Island. In the 14th century, the Malay language was written in Indian script, then Arabic, and then replaced by Latin script years later in the 17th century. Experts divide the history of Malay language into five historical periods namely; Old Malay, Transitional Period Malay, the Malacca (Classical) Period Malay, Late Modern Malay, and the Modern Malay. The Sanskrit language heavily influenced by Old Malay, and during the Malacca / Classical period (1402 – 1511) the language developed quickly under the influence of Islamic literature influence during the reign of the Sultanate of Malacca.

English

Malaysian English is commonly used as a medium of instruction in Malaysian academic institutions. Image credit: Lano Lan/Shutterstock.com

Malaysia has the Malaysian Standard English (MySE) also known as Manglish, which has roots in the British English. It is primarily used in education and less in other sectors of the country. A majority of the population (60%) can speak it though the use of the language is on the decrease. MySE has deep Malay, Tamil, and Chinese influence. MySE is non-rhotic and classified into three categories; the acrolect (near native), mesolect (normal Malaysian English), and basilect (low knowledge).

Chinese Languages Spoken In Malaysia

Mandarin is the most widely spoken form of Chinese language in Malaysia. This language is a lingua franca among the Malaysian Chinese and widely used in Chinese schools and businesses. Other variants of Chinese include Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Hok-chew, Yue, and Min among others. However, most of the less popular Chinese languages are facing extinction as more people adopt Mandarin.

Indigenous Languages Of Malaysia

There are over 30 native tribes in Malaysia with their distinct ancestral languages including sub-dialects. Among the native languages, Kazadandusuns and Iban are the most noticeable and people in Sarawak speak the language with a strong presence in educational literature. In Sabah, the indigenous people speak Dusun and Kadazan, Bajau, Murut, Lun, Bruneian, Rungus, Bisaya, Iranun, Bawang, Sungai, Suluk, and Sama. These languages are facing extinction because of their narrow reach. On the Malaysian peninsula, there are three major language groupings namely Negrito, Senoi, and Malayic, forming other 18 subgroups. Other indigenous languages include Semai and Thai.

Overview of Languages in Malaysia

LanguageStatus
Bahasa Malaysia Official Language
EnglishPopular Second Language
ManglishPopular Language Consisting of Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil Influences
ChinesePopular Especially in Southern Malaysia
TamilPopularly Spoken Especially Among Indian Population
ShinhalesePrimarily Used By Sri Lankan Population
IbanIndigenous Language Used in Sarawak
Dusunic Indigenous Language Used in Sabah
Thai Minority Language

More in Society