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Speaking the LanguageBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
Malaysia - Speaking the Language
There have been many different waves of immigration over time and Malaysia is in a unique location. With India to the West and China to the North, it is wedged between two powerful cultural forces. These cultural influences are still seen today in Malaysia, in language use, cultural practices, and cuisine.
While some consider the business language to be English, it is not official. It is true that English is relatively common in Malaysia, which likely is the case because the country was a British territory until 1946. In fact, Malay only became the official language of Malaysia in 1968, despite the fact that the language had been used in Malaysia for hundreds of years. Many of the primary and secondary schools were taught in English because of the British colonial government, and the language medium was only officially changed to Malay in 1970.
It is required that all school aged children learn Malay along with English in primary school to better prepare students for continued education and life in the business world. The primary ethnic groups of Malaysia include Indians, Chinese, and Malays. Many of the Chinese Malaysians speak Mandarin, while the Indians speak Tamil, and those of Malay heritage speak Malay. In public schools the curriculum is taught in Malay, and there are also vernacular schools in which the curriculum is taught in either Mandarin or Tamil in Chinese-Malaysian or Indian-Malaysian communities.
Dialects and other languages
There are ten different dialects of Malay: Bahasa Malaysia, Kelantanese, Terengganuan, Kedahan, Sarawakian, Bajau, Negeri Sembilan Malay, Banjar, Bruneian and Indonesian. There are even more languages spoken in East Malaysia, such as Jaku Iban, Coastal Kadazan, Bajaw, Kelabit, Bidayuh, and Kayan. These languages belong to the Austronesian family.
Of all the languages spoken in Malaysia, Malay is the most commonly spoken as it is the official language and the majority of the population is of Malay ethnicity. The second most commonly spoken language is Mandarin, as the Chinese-Malaysians constitute the second largest ethnic group. English is also widely spoken, as it is now required of all school aged children and is considered the language of business in the private sector.
While English is the unofficial business language and it is a required part of the curriculum for primary school children, this does not mean that everyone is fluent in the language. Compulsory primary school education only became legislation in 2003, so there is a large segment of the population that has never been exposed to English because it was never needed. According to a recent census, around 20% of Malaysians are fluent in English. Since Malaysia earned its independence from Britain, the language has been in rapid decline in favor of indigenous languages or those brought in by large waves of immigration from India and China.
While an English speaker probably will not need to speak much Malay in large cities or tourist-friendly areas, it is advisable to learn some conversational Malay so that they can strike up a meaningful dialogue with the people of their host country. If you mean to travel through Malaysia or stay beyond a vacation, you will probably have to execute some business transactions, seek medical care, and want to explore the culture as much as you can.
The best way to learn any language is through immersion, but a traveler can use any number of tutorials available online or in retail stores to practice before going to Malaysia. Learning a few key phrases is important, especially ones that ask for help in the event that you find yourself in an emergency situation. When you get to Malaysia, you can then practice what you’ve learned with locals. Most people would be impressed that a visitor is trying to learn the language. Visiting a local market is an excellent way to learn Malaysian. Many of the vendors will be proficient in English and will be willing to speak with you, especially if it means making a sale.
Some great websites for learning basic Malay online are:
This course contains 64 lessons and is completely free
This website has different memory games that help with learning Malay
This website is not only great for tutorials, it explains some of the peculiarities of the language so it is easier for a learner to understand.
For those who intend to stay in Malaysia for an extended period, either for leisure or work, it may be a good idea to enroll in a more intensive course once you arrive in the country. There are many offerings in universities and local colleges, but there are a few organizations that specialize in tutoring expats. These programs come highly recommended, as the instruction is of an excellent quality. With quality comes price, and these programs do have a tuition fee.
Lot D6, Ground Floor, Block D,
Fahrenheit88, Jalan Bukit Bintang,
55100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +60 032144 2060
Fax: +60 03 2144 1850
YMCA Kuala Lumpur
95, Jalan Padang Belia,
50470 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +60 3 2274 1439
Fax: +60 3 2274 0559
1262 Block A2, Leisure Commerce Square,
I Jalan PJS 8/9, Petaling Jaya, Petaling Jaya,
Selangor 46150, Malaysia
Tel: + 603 7875 6666
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