Malaysian Language Overview: Exploring the 137 Languages of Malaysia

March 5, 2024
Malaysian Language Overview: Exploring the 137 Languages of Malaysia

Malaysia provides a fascinating study from a language perspective because the official Malaysian language, Malay, represents one of over 130 languages spoken in the country today. Let’s take a tour of the languages of Malaysia, from the most common to the extinct.

Malaysian Language – an Introduction 

What language is spoken in Malaysia? Of the 137 languages in Malaysia, most are native to the country. Residents also speak some imported languages, like English, Mandarin, and Tamil.

Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity

Malaysia’s constitution recognizes Standard Malay as the official language. Teachers use it as the language of instruction at national primary schools, while secondary schools use Mandarin and Tamil. 

The application of three different languages in educational settings results from Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society. Malays account for about 50% of the population, Chinese for nearly 24%, and Indians for over 7%. The United Nations hails Malaysia as a success in maintaining a harmonious balance between different ethnic groups, and respect for all languages has played a significant role in that.

Do you want to learn more about languages? Visit our YouTube channel or check out this video that we've made for you:

What Language Do Malaysians Speak?

My Malaysian language overview must, of course, mention imported languages. 

Malay – Malaysia’s Official Language

Many locals refer to Malaysia’s national language as “Bahasa Malaysia” (the language of Malaysia), “Bahasa Melayu” (the language of the Malay), or simply “Malaysian.” 

Malay leads all other Malaysian languages with around 19.6 million speakers or 58.4% of the country’s population. Millions of people speak Malay outside of Malaysia, too. When you add up the Malay speakers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, and elsewhere, it totals over 290 million people.

Malay has 10 dialects, only some of which are spoken in Malaysia. They include Kelantanese, Terengganu, Kedah, Sarawak, and Perak Malay.


Many Malaysians speak English as a second language due to the country’s colonial history and the role of English in international business. Sarawak (a Malaysian state on Borneo) has designated English as an official language alongside Malay. 

Malaysian English sees use in business and official settings as limited and defined by the National Language Act 1967.


Over 1.8 million Tamil speakers live in Malaysia, mostly in Peninsular Malaysia. Locals speak several Tamil dialects, reflecting historic immigration patterns and modern socioeconomic dynamics. 

Other Indian languages in Malaysia include Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu, and Urdu. 


Teachers use Mandarin to educate children in Chinese schools in Malaysia. However, some Chinese Malaysians also speak Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, and more. 

You will find around 1.9 million Hokkien, 1.7 million Hakka, 1.4 million Cantonese, 1 million Teochew, and 1 million Mandarin speakers in Malaysia. Foochow, Hainanese, and Min Bei have a few hundred thousand speakers each.

Read more: Examine Chinese Languages and Their Importance

Regional Languages of Malaysia – What Is Spoken Where?

Malaysia is split down the middle by the South China Sea, dividing the country into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. It also shares borders with Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, and Indonesia. Multiple shared boundaries and geographical divisions encouraged rich language diversity.

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

The Languages of Peninsular Malaysia

The languages spoken in Peninsular Malaysia are split into Malayic languages and Aslian languages, with a few exceptions. Let’s survey the most commonly spoken languages in Peninsular Malaysia besides Standard Malay.

Kedah Malay

Mainly spoken in northwestern Malaysia, Kedah Malay has around 2.6 million native speakers, including some in Thailand. It gave rise to several subdialects, such as Kedah Utara, Perlis-Langkawi, and Penang. 

Kelantanese Malay

Also known as Kelantan-Pattani Malay, Kelantanese Malay has around 2 million native speakers in Malaysia and 3 million in Thailand. Geographically isolated from the rest of Peninsular Malaysia by mountains and rainforests, the Kelantanese people speak a distinct form of Malay.

Perak Malay

With around 1.4 million speakers, Perak Malay represents one of the most commonly spoken Malay dialects. It contributes to the identity of Perak state residents. Perak Malay has two sub dialects: Kuala Kangsar and Perak Tengah.

Terengganu Malay

Terengganu state locals speak Terengganu Malay as a lingua franca for multiple ethnic groups. It is mutually intelligible with Kelantan-Pattani and Pahang Malay. Total speakers number well over 1 million. 

Negeri Sembilan Malay

People in Negeri Sembilan and Alor Gajah speak this form of Malay. Many scholars consider Negeri Sembilan Malay a dialect or variant of Minangkabau. Native speakers number around 500,000. For an in-depth discussion of the difference between a dialect and a language, click the link below.

Read more: What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

Southern Thai

Widely spoken in southern regions of  Thailand, Southern Thai also has a few clusters of speakers in northern Malaysia. Around 70,000 of its five million speakers live in Malaysia, where locals refer to it as Pak Thai or Dambro. 


Native to western Malaysia, Semai has around 44,000 speakers. Of Malaysia’s many Aslian languages, only Semai remains unendangered. About 2,000 Semai speakers use it exclusively. 


Considered a dialect of Malay by some and a separate language by others, Jakun has around 28,000 speakers. Most of them live on the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia and further inland.

Other Peninsular Malaysian Languages 

Peninsular Malaysia has bred many other native languages, including Temuan, Temiar, Baba Malay, Jah Hut, Semelai, Duano’, Mah Meri, Kristang, Semaq Beri, Orang Seletar, Batek, Jahai, Semnam, Cheq Wong, Ten’edn/Mos, Chitty Malay, Jedek, Minriq, Kensiu, Lanoh, Mintil, Kintaq, and Orang Kanaq.

Malaysian Borneo – Language List 

Malaysian Borneo preserves many languages from the North Bornean, Land Dayak, Melanau-Kajang, Kayan-Murik, Sama-Bajaw, Malayic, and Philippine branches of the Austronesian language family tree. The number of North Bornean speakers outstrips all others, however. Let’s take a quick look at some of Malaysian Borneo’s languages.


With around 790,000 native speakers and a further 700,000 second-language speakers, Iban remains an essential, native Malaysian language. Most people who speak Iban live in Sarawak.

Sarawak Malay

Speaking of Sarawak, the state is home to around 600,000 speakers of Sarawak Malay. Linguists debate whether they should consider Sarawak Malay a language or a local vernacular of Malay. However, speakers of Standard Malay often can not understand Sarawak Malay. 


Used by people in the Malaysian states of Sabah, Labuan, and Sarawak, Bajaw has more than 430,000 speakers. 


A language originating from the Philippines (known as Tausug) spoken by more than 205,000 people in eastern Sabah. The use of Suluk in this region is attributed to trade and migration.


Also known as Bunduliwan, Dusun has around 140,000 speakers in Malaysian Borneo. 


Melanau has around 110,000 native speakers; most live in Malaysian Borneo’s Sarawak state. 

Other Languages from Malaysian Borneo

You will find many languages in Malaysian Borneo with less than 100,000 speakers, including Lelak, Seru, Bukitan, Tringgus, Iban, Sekapan, Sarawak Malay, Tutoh, Tring, Kajaman, Papar, Sungai, Bajaw, Lahanan, Serudung, Sugut Dusun, Tausug, Kanowit, Central Dusun, Ukit, Melanau, Sama, Biatah, Brunei Bisaya, Coastal Kadazan, Rungus, Mainstream Kenyah, Tagol, Sian, Bukar Sadong, Jangkang, Dusun, Punan Batu, Jagoi, Iranun, Sabah Bisaya, Tatana', Eastern Kadazan, Lotud, Nonukan Tidong, Bahau, Lun Bawang, Kayan, Penan, Tombonuwo, Ida'an, Kinabatangan, Lundayeh, Sebuyau, Timugon, Kuijau, Daro-Matu, Keningau Murut, Molbog, Uma' Lasan, Kelabit, Paluan, Cocos Malay, Okolod, Bintulu, Berawan, Remun, Lengilu, Kiput, Narom, Kalabakan, Minokok, Sa'ban, Sembakung, Kota Marudu Talantang, Sebop, Bookan, Bonggi, Selungai Murut, Murik Kayan, Dumpas, Gana', Klias River Kadazan, Abai, Belait, Brunei Malay, Kendayan, Kimaragang, Maranao, and Sabah Malay.

Other Native Malaysian Languages

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.


Several creole languages thrive in Malaysia, including:

• Kristang – Based on Portuguese Language

• Chavacano – Spanish-based creole derived from native speakers from Southern Philippines

• Manglish – English-based creole, rich with Malay, Tamil, and Chinese influences 

Do you have an interest in creoles? Explore these fascinating linguistic blends in more detail by clicking the link below. 

Read more: Creole Languages  

Extinct Malaysian Languages

The promotion of a national language can lead to unintended consequences. Due to the extensive use of Malay and English in Malaysia, some indigenous tongues have dwindled to unsustainable levels or disappeared entirely, including Kenaboi, Sabüm, and Wila’.

Some of the indigenous languages under threat include Orang Kanaq with 80 speakers, Kintaq with 110, Mintil with 180, Lanoh with 240, and Lengilu with four.

Wrap Up 

Overutilization of Malay and Malaysian English in Malaysia promotes the loss of native tongues. In some cases, the best we can do involves recording the endangered languages before they are gone for good. To continue your study of the languages of Asia, click the link below.

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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