Malaysia is an interesting country to study from a language perspective. The official Malaysian language, Malay, is one of 137 languages spoken in the country today. Below, I’ll take you on a tour of the languages of Malaysia, from the most commonly spoken to Malaysian languages that are now sadly extinct. Let’s dive in.
What language is spoken in Malaysia? It would be better to ask, which languages, as the country is home to a total of 137 different tongues. The majority of these are native to Malaysia, though some imported languages (most notably English, Mandarin and Tamil) also spoken.
In legal terms, standard Malaysian is codified in the country’s constitution. It is used as the main language of instruction in Malaysian ‘national schools’ at primary level, while Mandarin and Tamil are used in ‘national-type schools’.
The use of the three different languages results from Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society. Malays account for around 50% of the population, Chinese for nearly 24% and Indians for just over 7%. Malaysia has been hailed by the United Nations as an example of success in maintaining a harmonious balance between different ethnic groups and language has undoubtedly played a role in that.
I'll explore some of the more widely spoken native languages of Malaysia below, but first let’s talk about Malay.
Malaysia’s national language, Malay, is also referred to as Bahasa Malaysia (‘the language of Malaysia’) and Bahasa Melayu (‘the language of the Malay’), as well as simply Malaysian.
The leading Malaysian language in terms of speaker numbers, Malay is used nationwide. Total speakers number somewhere in the region of 20 million within Malaysia, accounting for just over 62% of the country’s population. As Malay is also spoken outside of Malaysia –most notably in Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore, as well as other locations – total speaker numbers are closer to 290 million people.
That’s not to say that Malay is the first language of all of those individuals; in Malaysia, many people also speak one or more of the country’s other indigenous or imported languages, often as their native tongue.
Standard Malaysian is not the only variety of the language spoken in Malaysia. Malay has a total of 10 dialects, some of which are spoken in Malaysia. These include, Bahasa Malaysia, Kelantanese, Terengganuan, Kedahan, Sarawakian and Perak Malay.
Now, before we dive into the detail of Malaysian language, we need a quick geography lesson. Why? Because Malaysia’s geography has, over the years, affected the country’s linguistic evolution.
Malaysia, though one country, is split down the middle by the South China Sea. The country is divided into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (also referred to as Malaysian Borneo). It also has land borders with Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Indonesia. On the subject of the latter, have you seen my post on the languages of Indonesia? If not, you can access it by clicking the link below.
Read more: Indonesian Language Snapshot
This physical division has led to the development of distinctly different languages across the country. As such, it makes sense to look at Malaysian language region by region. I'll start with Peninsular Malaysia.
The languages spoken in Peninsular Malaysia can be mainly split between Malayic languages and Aslian languages, with a few exceptions. The most commonly spoken languages (other than standard Malay) in Peninsular Malaysia include:
Mainly spoken in northwestern Malaysia, Kedah Malay has around 2.6 million native speakers spread across Malaysia and Thailand. It has a number of distinct subdialects including (in Malaysia) Kedah Utara, Perlis-Langkawi and Penang.
Also known as Kelantan-Pattani Malay, Kelantan Malay has around 2 million native speakers in Malaysia (and a further 3 million in Thailand). Geographically isolated from much of the rest of Peninsular Malaysia by mountains and rainforests, the language is distinctly different from other varieties of Malay.
With around 1.4 million speakers, Perak Malay is one of the most commonly spoken dialects of Malay. It is inherent to the identity of many of those living in the state of Perak. Perak Malay has two subdialects: Kuala Kangsar and Perak Tengah.
Terengganu Malay is spoken in the state of the same name, where it is used as a lingua franca to aid communication between multiple ethnic groups. It is mutually intelligible with the Kelantan-Pattani and Pahang varieties of Malay. Total speakers number well over 1 million.
This Malaysian language is spoken mainly in Negeri Sembilan and Alor Gajah. Many consider it to be a dialect or a variant of Minangkabau. For an in-depth discussion of the difference between a dialect and a language, please click the link below. Native speakers number around half a million.
Widely spoken in southern Thailand, Southern Thai also has clusters of speakers in northern Malaysia. Around 70,000 of its 5 million speakers live in Malaysia. It is also referred to as Pak Thai and Dambro.
Native to western Malaysia, Semai is a Malaysian language with around 44,000 speakers. Of all of Malaysia’s many Aslian languages, it is believed to be the only one that is not endangered. Around 2,000 Semai speakers are monolingual.
Considered by some to be a dialect of Malay (but a separate language by others), Jakun has around 28,000 speakers. They are mainly located on the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as further inland.
In addition to the languages detailed above, Peninsular Malaysia his home to many other native languages. These include:
• Baba Malay
• Jah Hut
• Mah Meri
• Semaq Beri
• Orang Seletar
• Cheq Wong
• Chitty Malay
• Orang Kanaq
When it comes to Malaysia language discussions, there’s plenty to say about Malaysian Borneo. The region is home to languages from the North Bornean, Land Dayak, Melanau-Kajang, Kayan-Murik, Sama-Bajaw, Malayic and Philippinic branches of the Austronesian language family tree. The vast majority are North Bornean.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the languages of Malaysian Borneo.
With around 790,000 native speakers and a further 700,000 second language speakers, Iban is an important native Malaysia language. It is a Malayic language that is spoken mainly in Sarawak.
Speaking of Sarawak, the state is also home to around 600,000 speakers of Sarawak Malay. Linguists continue to debate whether it is a language in its own right or a vernacular variety of Malay, though it should be noted that speakers of standard Malay often cannot understand Sarawak Malay.
Used by people in the Malaysian state of Sabah, as well as in Labuan and Sarawak, Bajaw speakers number in excess of 430,000.
Spoken by more than 205,000 people in eastern Sabah, Tausug is a Philippinic language that is also spoken in numerous areas of The Philippines.
The Dusun language is also known as Bunduliwan. Mayalsian Borneo is home to around 140,000 Dusun speakers.
Melanau has around 110,000 first language speakers, the majority of them located in Malaysian Borneo’s Sarawak state.
There are many languages in Malaysian Borneo – also known as Eastern Malaysia – with under 100,000 speakers. They include:
• Sarawak Malay
• Sugut Dusun
• Central Dusun
• Brunei Bisaya
• Coastal Kadazan
• Mainstream Kenyah
• Bukar Sadong
• Punan Batu
• Sabah Bisaya
• Eastern Kadazan
• Nonukan Tidong
• Lun Bawang
• Kayan (Baram)
• Keningau Murut
• Uma' Lasan
• Cocos Malay
• Kota Marudu Talantang
• Selungai Murut
• Murik Kayan
• Klias River Kadazan
• Brunei Malay
• Sabah Malay
No overview of Malaysian language would be complete without mentioning a few other natively spoken tongues. Minangkabau is spoken by around 930,000 inhabitants, Javanese by more than 660,000 and Buginese by roughly 143,000. You can also hear Acehnese, Banjarese, Cham, Kerincini and Mandailing as you travel around Malaysia.
The promotion of a unifying national language can have unintended consequences. Between the extensive use of Malay and the widespread use of English as a second language in Malaysia (and I’ll talk more about that in a moment), speaker numbers of some indigenous tongues are dwindling dangerously. And some languages have already perished entirely, including Kenaboi, Sabüm and Wila’.
My Malaysian language overview does, of course, need to include a mention of imported languages.
Mandarin is used to educate children in Chinese schools in Malaysia, but it’s far from the only Chinese language used in the country. Chinese Malaysians speak Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew and more.
There are around 1.9 million Hokkien speakers, 1.7 million Hakka speakers, 1.4 million Cantonese speakers, 1 million Teochew speakers and 1 million Mandarin speakers in Malaysia. Other Chinese languages – Foochow, Hainanese and Min Bei, for example – have a few hundred thousand speakers each.
Malaysia is home to well over 1.8 million Tamil speakers, the majority of whom are located in Peninsular Malaysia. Various dialects of Tamil are spoken within Malaysia, with differences of use reflecting both historic immigration patterns and current socioeconomic status.
Other Indian languages spoken in Malaysia include Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu and Urdu.
English is widely spoken as a second language in Malaysia due to the country’s colonial history, and thanks to the role of English as a lingua franca in the modern business world. Though not a national language of Malaysia, it is considered to be an official language of Malaysia in Sarawak (alongside Malay).
Malaysian English is used extensively for business purposes and also for some official purposes, though these are limited and defined by the National Language Act 1967.
Several creole exist in Malaysia. These include:
• Kristang – based on Portuguese
• Zamboangueño – a Spanish-based creole that is a dialect of Chavacano
• Manglish – an English-based creole that’s rich with Malay, Tamil and Chinese influences
If you’re interested in the topic of creoles, you can explore these fascinating linguistic blends in more detail by clicking the link below.
Read more: Creole Languages
As we’ve discovered during the course of this article, Malaysian language is a vast topic. Personally, I find the role of language in Malaysia to be particularly interesting when it comes to the country’s sense of national unity. It feels as though there are many countries that could learn from Malaysia’s example.
Sadly, as we’re seeing all around the world, Malaysia is battling with the loss of native tongues. Several of its indigenous languages are under threat, while others have rapidly dwindling speaker numbers. Orang Kanaq is believed to have around 80 remaining speakers, for example, while Kintaq has 110, Mintil has 180 and Lanoh has 240. Lengilu has just three. I could go on…
Suffice it to say, the use of Malay, Malaysian English and various other regional lingua francas in Malaysia is leading to the loss of native tongues. All we can really do is try to record as much of them as possible before they are gone for good.
That’s perhaps a rather sombre note to end on, so if you want to move on to some more upbeat language exploration, why not click the link below to read all about the languages of Asia?
Read more: Asian languages