I find Southeast Asia to be a captivating part of the world. It is home to a rich variety of cultures, stunning landscapes, fabulous cuisine and, of course, fascinating languages. As such, I thought it was high time to take a dive into those South East Asian languages. Which is the most spoken? What is spoken where? Read on to find out.
In addition to Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, the nations of Southeast Asia include: Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
These nations are divided between Mainland Southeast Asia and Maritime Southeast Asia. Together they account for 10.5% of Asia and around 8.5% of the Earth’s population. That equates to some 655 million people, who between them speak almost 1,200 languages.
While I don’t plan to list all 1,200 of the languages of Southeast Asia, I’m going to run through some of the most used, looking at where they are spoken and by whom. If it’s the use of language across the wider Asia region that you’re after, you can click the link below to find out more.
Read more: Asian Languages
The languages in Southeast Asia largely fall into five groups:
While the majority of South East Asian languages fit within these groups, there are a few exceptions. Take Kenaboi, for example. Now extinct, this language was not derived from a greater language family but appears to have been a language isolate in Malaysia. Other examples of language isolates in Southeast Asia include Enggano, Manide and Umiray Dumagat.
Let’s take a look at which South East Asian languages fit into the five main groups.
The tonal Kra-Dai languages are spoken across several countries of Mainland South East Asia. Speakers can also be found in southern China and North East India. Some of the languages spoken in Southeast Asia that fit within this family grouping are Thai and Lao.
Travel around Maritime Southeast Asia, as well as parts of Mainland Southeast Asia and you’ll hear the sound of Austronesian languages being spoken. Some of the most extensively spoken Austronesian languages in South East Asia include Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian and Tetum.
Mainland South East Asia is home to several Austroasiatic languages. The most widely spoken of these include Vietnamese in Vietnam and Khmer in Cambodia.
The Hmong-Mien languages are spoken in several countries in South East Asia, as well as in southern China. Hmong-Mien languages spoken in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand include Iu Mien and Western Hmong.
Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in South East Asia include (among others) Burmese in Myanmar and the tonal Karenic languages spoken by some four million people along the Myanmar/Thailand border.
As with so many areas around the world these days, Southeast Asia is home not just to its native languages but also to multiple imported languages. I want to take some time to look at these now, starting with the languages which are indigenous to this part of the world.
South East Asia is home to well over 1,000 native languages. Indeed, more than 800 languages can be found in Indonesia alone. Many people living in South East Asia are bilingual if not trilingual. It's common to use one language in the home, another to converse with different communities and a third for official purposes, such as education or government business.
I’ll start this Southeast Asian languages list with a country-by-country snapshot, to give a clearer picture of what is spoken where.
As the most linguistically diverse country in South East Asia, I'll start with Indonesia. Home to over 800 languages, there’s plenty to say in relation to this linguistically fascinating country. So much so, in fact, that I've written a separate article about it, which you can read via the link below.
The national language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, which is also referred to simply as Indonesian. It is spoken by as much as 94% of Indonesia’s population, though only around 20% of Indonesians speak it as their first language. It is the main language used in Indonesia for education, by the government, by the media and in the business world.
Other widely spoken languages in Indonesia include Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Minangkabau, Buginese, Palenbang, Banjarese, Acehnese, Balinese and Betawi. All of these languages have well over a million speakers, with some having upwards of 10 million speakers.
Malaysia is another linguistically diverse country. Its national language is Malay (also referred to as Malaysian). Altogether, the country is home to 137 languages, with distinct linguistic differences between Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo.
Malaysian is used for education in Malaysia (in addition to Mandarin and Tamil in certain schools). The language has around 20 million speakers within Malaysia, equating to around 62% of the population. Malay is also spoken elsewhere in South East Asia, including Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore. The total number of Malay speakers is over ten times the number found in Malaysia – nearly 290 million people altogether.
In addition to Malay, some of the most widely spoken languages in Peninsular Malaysia include:
• Kedah Malay
• Kelantan Malay
• Perak Malay
• Terengganu Malay
• Negeri Sembilan Malay
• Southern Thai
Over in Malaysian Borneo, meanwhile, commonly spoken languages include:
• Sarawak Malay
For full details of the languages spoken in Malaysia, click the link below.
The main SE Asian languages spoken in East Timor are Tetum, one of the country’s two official languages (alongside Portuguese), and Tetum Prasa, which is a Portuguese-based creole that many islanders speak fluently as a second language.
Other native languages of South East Asia spoken in East Timor include Mambae, Makasae, Tukudede, Bunak, Galoli, Kemak, Fataluku and Baikeno, among others.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is home to several native South East Asian languages. The most widely spoken is the Myanmar language (referred to as Burmese by many English speakers), which is the country’s official language and the native tongue of Myanmar's principle ethnic group, the Burmans.
Burmese is a tonal language and a pitch-register, social-register and syllable-timed language. It is written using an alphabet descended from a Brahmic script.
In addition to Burmese the languages of South East Asia that are spoken in Myanmar include Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Kayah.
The Philippines is another country with vast linguistic diversity, which I explore in detail in the article linked to below. The country's two official languages are Filipino and English, with Filipino being the more widely spoken of the two.
Filipino is a standardised version of Tagalog, which was created in part to help heal divisions between the Philippines’ Tagalog and Cebuano speakers. Tagalog and Cebuano are spoken by 26.3 million and 21.3 million people respectively.
Other widely spoken SE Asian languages in the Philippines include:
• Central Bikol
• Zamboangueño (a Spanish-based creole)
All of these languages have a million or more speakers.
The official and national language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. With over 90 million native speakers, it is the most spoken Austroasiatic language. Although it is a native South East Asian language, the vocabulary of Vietnamese shows heavy influences from both French and Chinese.
While the majority of Vietnamese speakers can be found in Vietnam, it is also spoken elsewhere in South East Asia (and other locations around the world) as a result of emigration.
Languages other than Vietnamese that are spoken in Vietnam include Khmer, Cantonese, Hmong, Tai and Cham.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia, with around 16 million speakers, the vast majority of who speak the Central Khmer dialect. Khmer has ancient roots and predates both Vietnamese and Mon.
In addition to Khmer, Cambodians speak a number of other native Southeast Asian languages and imported languages, including Teochew, Vietnamese, Cham, Mandarin, English and French.
Though it is the official language of Laos, the majority of Lao speakers actually live in Thailand. It is spoken by around 23 million people there and is often referred to as Isan, though its speakers still call it Lao. Within Laos, around 7 million people speak Lao.
In common with many other Kra-Dai languages, Lao is a tonal and analytic language. It includes a number of loanwords, mainly from Pali, Sanskrit and French.
Other languages spoken in Laos include Thai, Vietnamese, Hmong, Miao, Mien, Dao, Shan and many others.
As mentioned above, Malay is an SE Asian language spoken in Brunei. It is one of two official language is there, with the other being English. Indonesian, Chinese, Tamil and a number of indigenous Bornean dialects are also spoken in Brunei.
Singapore is home to four official languages: Malay, Tamil, Mandarin Chinese and English. Other languages spoken there include:
Singapore is also home to an English-based creole called Singlish. Singlish has resulted from the blending of English with several different languages, including Hokkien, Malay, Teochew, Cantonese and Tamil. There are many linguistic similarities between Singlish and the Manglish creole spoken in Malaysia, though Manglish has been more heavily influenced by Malay, while Singlish has been more influenced by Chinese languages including Mandarin and Hokkien.
Just one SE Asia language makes the grade when it comes to the official language of Thailand: Thai. That's despite Thailand being home to more than 60 indigenous tongues. Thai is a tonal, analytic language which has borrowed more than 50% of its vocabulary from other languages, including Pali, Sanskrit, Mon and Old Khmer.
As well as being spoken in Thailand, Thai is spoken in Cambodia. It has up to 36 million native speakers and 44 million second language speakers.
Other languages spoken in Thailand include:
• Northern Khmer
Nestled between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman sea, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are a union territory of India. 38 of the 572 islands are inhabited and these are home to a range of languages. Official languages there include Bengali, Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Malaylam.
The islands are also home to a diverse collection of native South East Asian languages, including:
• Southern Nicobarese
South East Asian language speaker numbers vary hugely. The most spoken language in the region is Malay, with 290 million total speakers. Other widely spoken South East Asian languages include Bahasa Indonesia (156 million speakers), Vietnamese (90 million) and Javanese (82 million). Thai, Burmese, Sundanese, Lao, Tagalog, Cebuano and Khmer also have upwards of 15 million speakers as well.
As is the case around the world, South East Asia is also home to a number of endangered and dying languages. The Isarog Agta language in the Philippines, for example, had just five speakers back in the year 2000, while Alabat Island Agta had only 30 speakers.
The influences of the area’s colonial past can still be felt across South East Asia, particularly in terms of its languages. A few of the more widely spoken imported languages include:
An important language in global terms, and used as a lingua franca in many countries, English is spoken in many South East Asian regions. It also enjoys official language status in several countries of South East Asia, including Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Alongside Tetum, Portuguese is an official language in East Timor. East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975, when it enjoyed nine days of independence before being invaded by Indonesia. East Timor officially regained independence in 2002, after the intervention of the United Nations. The island nation has retained Portuguese as an official language and is a member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, as well as the UN.
Where is French still widely spoken in Mainland Southeast Asia? Today, it is spoken in Cambodia and Laos. French is also spoken in Vietnam, though perhaps less so than these other two countries.
In South East Asia language and identity go hand-in-hand, just as they do in regions around the world. As such, any study of South East Asian culture would not be complete without encompassing language considerations.
Understanding a country’s language is part of understanding its people. If we want a unified world, we need to embrace and celebrate linguistic diversity. That's why it's important to study the languages of Southeast Asia, as well as those of other locations.
In practical terms, many South East Asian languages are also important to the global economy due to their use in the business and financial sectors.
I hope you've enjoyed this whistle stop tour of South East Asian languages. The rich variety of language spoken in the region makes it a wonderful place for linguists to explore. If you have any SE Asian language facts that you would like to add to this article, please leave a comment below.
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