Languages of Malaysia

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Languages of Malaysia
Distribution of Malaysia Families Languages.png
The distribution of language families of Malaysia shown by colours:
     Land Dayak
     Areas with multiple languages
Official languages Malaysian, English (recognised, official in Sarawak)
National languages Malay
Indigenous languages (West Malaysia: Baba Malay, Batek, Chitty Malay, Cheq Wong, Duano’, Jah Hut, Jahai, Jakun, Kedah Malay, Kelantan-Pattani Malay, Kenaboi, Kensiu, Kintaq, Kristang, Lanoh, Mah Meri, Malaysian Mandarin, Malaysian Tamil, Minriq, Mintil, Mos, Negeri Sembilan Malay, Orang Kanaq, Orang Seletar, Pahang Malay, Perak Malay, Ple-Temer, Rawa Malay, Sabüm, Semai, Semaq Beri, Semelai, Semnam, Southern Thai, Temiar, Temoq, Temuan, Terengganu Malay, Wila')
(East Malaysia: Abai, Bahau, Bajaw, Balau, Belait, Berawan, Biatah, Bintulu, Bonggi, Bookan, Bruneian/Kedayan Malay, Brunei Bisaya, Bukar Sadong, Bukitan, Coastal Kadazan, Cocos Malay, Daro-Matu, Dumpas, Dusun, Eastern Kadazan, Gana’, Iban, Ida'an, Iranun, Jagoi, Jangkang, Kajaman, Kalabakan, Kanowit, Kayan, Kelabit, Kendayan, Keningau Murut, Kinabatangan, Kiput, Klias River Kadazan, Kota Marudu Talantang, Kuijau, Lahanan, Lelak, Lengilu, Lotud, Lun Bawang, Mainstream Kenyah, Maranao, Melanau, Molbog, Momogun, Murik Kayan, Narom, Nonukan Tidong, Okolod, Paluan, Papar, Punan Batu, Remun, Sa'ban, Sabah Bisaya, Sabah Malay, Sama, Sarawak Malay, Sebop, Sebuyau, Sekapan, Selungai Murut, Sembakung, Seru, Serudung, Sian, Suluk, Sungai, Tagol, Timugon, Tombonuwo, Tring, Tringgus, Tutoh, Ukit, Uma’ Lasan)
Main foreign languages Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka, Hokchew, Hokkien, Indonesian, Malayalam, Mandarin Chinese, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu
Sign languages Malaysian Sign Language
Common keyboard layouts
KB United Kingdom.svg
Nuvola Malaysian flag.svg
Life in Malaysia

The indigenous languages of Malaysia belong to the Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian families. The national, or official, language is Malay which is the mother tongue of the majority Malay ethnic group. The main ethnic groups within Malaysia comprise the Malays, Chinese and Indians, with many other ethnic groups represented in smaller numbers, each with its own languages. The largest native languages spoken in East Malaysia are the Iban, Dusunic and the Kadazan languages. English is widely understood in service industries and is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary school. It is also the main language spoken in most private colleges and universities. English may take precedence over Malay in certain official contexts as provided for by the National Language Act, especially in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, where it may be the official working language.

Malaysia contains speakers of 137 living languages,[1] 41 of which are found in Peninsula Malaysia.[2] The government provides schooling at the primary level in each of the three major languages, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Within Malay and Tamil there are a number of dialectal differences.[3] There are a number of Chinese languages native to the ethnic Chinese who originated from southern China, which include Yue, Min and Hakka Chinese.


The official language of Malaysia is known as Bahasa Malaysia. It is a standardised form of the Malay language.[4] There are 10 dialects of Malay used throughout Malaysia.[3] Malay became predominant after the 1969 race riots.[5] A variant of the Malay language that is spoken in Brunei is also commonly spoken in East Malaysia.

Other indigenous languages

Citizens of Minangkabau, Bugis or Javanese origins, who can be classified "Malay" under constitutional definitions may also speak their respective ancestral tongues. The native tribes of East Malaysia have their own languages which are related to, but easily distinguishable from, Malay. Iban is the main tribal language in Sarawak while Dusun and Kadazan languages are spoken by the natives in Sabah.[6] Some of these languages remain strong, being used in education and daily life.[3] Sabah has tenth sub-ethnic languages, Bajau, Bruneian, Murut, Lundayeh/Lun Bawang, Rungus, Bisaya, Iranun, Sama, Suluk and Sungai. There are over 30 native groupings, each of which has its own dialect. These languages are in danger of dying out, unlike the major ones such as Kadazandusuns which have developed educational syllabuses. Iban also has developed an educational syllabus.[7] Languages on the peninsular can be divided into three major groups, Negrito, Senoi, and Malayic, further divided into 18 subgroups.[3] The Semai is used in education.[7] Thai is also spoken in northern parts of Peninsular especially in Northern Kedah and Langkawi, Perlis, Northern Perak, Northern Terengganu, and Northern Kelantan.[8]


Malaysian English, also known as Malaysian Standard English (MySE), is a form of English derived from British English, although there is little official use of the term except with relation to education. English was used in the Parliament briefly upon independence (then as Federation of Malaya), prior to a gradual and complete transition to the Malay language, and continued to be used today for specific terminologies with permission. Malaysian English also sees wide usage in business, along with Manglish, which is a colloquial form of English with heavy Malay, Chinese, and Tamil influences. Most Malaysians are conversant in English, although some are only fluent in the Manglish form. The Malaysian government officially discourages the use of Manglish.[9] Many businesses in Malaysia conduct their transactions in English, and it is sometimes used in official correspondence. Examinations are based on British English.

English was the predominant language in government until 1969.[5] English served as the medium of instruction for Maths and Sciences in all public schools per the PPSMI policy, but reverted to Bahasa Malaysia in national schools and mother-tongue languages in 2012.[10] The Parent Action Group for Education and former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called for science and math to be taught in English again.[3][11][12]

Chinese Languages

As a whole, Standard Chinese (Mandarin) and its Malaysian dialect are the most widely spoken forms among Malaysian Chinese, as it is a lingua franca for Chinese who speak mutually unintelligible varieties; Mandarin is also the language of instruction in Chinese schools and an important language in business.[3]

As most Malaysian Chinese have ancestry from the southern provinces of China, various southern Chinese varieties are spoken in Malaysia (in addition to Standard Chinese (Mandarin) which originated from northern China and was introduced through the educational system). The more common forms in Peninsular Malaysia are Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and Hokchew.[8] Hokkien is mostly spoken in Penang, Northern Perak and Kedah whereas Cantonese is mostly spoken in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. In Sarawak, most ethnic Chinese speak either Hokchew or Hakka while Hakka predominates in Sabah except in the city of Sandakan where Cantonese is more often spoken, despite the Hakka origins of the Chinese residing there.

As with Malaysian youths of other ethnicities, most Chinese youth are multilingual and can speak at least three languages with at least moderate fluency - Mandarin, English, and Malay, as well as their native Chinese language and/or the dominant Chinese language in their area. However, most native vernacular Chinese languages are losing ground to Mandarin, due to the prestige of Mandarin and its status as language of instruction in school. Some parents speak exclusively in Mandarin with their children. Some of the less-spoken language such as Hainanese are facing extinction.

Indian languages

Tamil and its Malaysian dialect are used predominantly by Tamils, who form a majority of Malaysian Indians.[13] It is especially used in Peninsular Malaysia. Other south Asian languages such as Punjabi, Malayalam and Telugu are also spoken.


A small number of Malaysians have Eurasian ancestry and speak creole languages, such as the Portuguese-based Malaccan Creoles.[14] A Spanish-based creole, Zamboangueño, a dialect of Chavacano, has spread into Sabah from the southern Philippines.[15]

Sign languages

Sign languages include Malaysian Sign Language and the older Selangor Sign Language and Penang Sign Language. No sign language is used in the education of the deaf. Instead, Manually Coded Malay is used.

List of languages

A sign showing common languages in Malaysia: Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil

Indigenous languages and dialects in Peninsular Malaysia

Language Code Speakers Region Family
Baba Malay mbf 12,000 Malacca Malay creole
Batek btq 1,000 Pahang, Kelantan, Terengganu Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Chitty Malay ccm 300 Malacca Malay creole
Cheq Wong cwg 460 Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Duano' dup 4,000 Johor Malayic (Austronesian)
Jah Hut jah - Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Jahai jhi 1,000 Kelantan, Perak, Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Jakun jak - Pahang, Johor Malayic (Austronesian)
Kedah Malay meo 2,600,000 Kedah, Penang, Perlis, Perak Malayic (Austronesian)
Kelantan Malay mfa 1,500,000 Kelantan, Terengganu Malayic (Austronesian)
Kenaboi xbn extinct Negeri Sembilan Unclassified
Kensiu kns - Kedah Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Kintaq knq 110 Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Kristang mcm 2,200 Malacca Portuguese creole
Lanoh lnh - Perak Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Malay (Malaysian) msa, zlm, zsm 20,000,000 nationwide Malayic (Austronesian)
Mah Meri mhe 3,000 Selangor Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Manglish - - mostly in urban centres like Kuala Lumpur English creole
Minriq mnq - Kelantan Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Mintil mzt 180 Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Negeri Sembilan Malay zmi 500,000 Negeri Sembilan, Malacca Malayic (Austronesian)
Orang Kanaq orn 80 Johor Malayic (Austronesian)
Orang Seletar ors - Johor Malayic (Austronesian)
Pahang Malay zlm-pah - Pahang Malayic (Austronesian)
Perak Malay mly-per 1,400,000 Perak Malayic (Austronesian)
Rawa Malay - - Perak Malayic (Austronesian)
Sabüm sbo extinct Perak Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Semai sea - Pahang, Perak Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Semaq Beri szc 2,000 Pahang, Terengganu Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Semelai sza 4,100 Pahang, Johor Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Semnam ssm 670 Perak Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Southern Thai sou 70,000 Kedah, Kelantan Tai (Tai-Kadai)
Temiar tea 15,000 Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Ten'edn/Mos tnz 370 Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Temoq tmo - Pahang Aslian (Austroasiatic)
Temuan tmw 23,300 Selangor, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca Malayic (Austronesian)
Terengganu Malay zlm-inl, zlm-coa 1,100,000 Terengganu, Pahang, Johor Malayic (Austronesian)
Wila' - extinct Penang Aslian (Austroasiatic)

Indigenous languages of Malaysian Borneo

Language Code Speakers Region Family
Abai - - Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Bahau bhv 19,000 Sarawak Kayan-Murik (Austronesian)
Bajaw bdr - Sabah, Labuan, Sarawak Sama-Bajaw (Austronesian)
Balau blg 5,000 Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Belait beg - Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Berawan zbc, zbe, zbw 3,600 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Biatah bth 72,000 Sarawak Land Dayak (Austronesian)
Bintulu bny 4,200 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Bonggi bdg 1,400 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Bookan bnb - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Brunei Malay kxd - Sabah, Sarawak, Labuan Malayic (Austronesian)
Brunei Bisaya bsb 60,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Bukar Sadong sdo 49,000 Sarawak Land Dayak (Austronesian)
Bukitan bkn 860 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Coastal Kadazan kzj 60,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Cocos Malay coa 5,000 Sabah Malay creole
Central Dusun dtp 140,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Daro-Matu dro 7,600 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Dumpas dmv 1,100 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Dusun kzt, tdu, ktr 36,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Eastern Kadazan dtb - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Gana' gnq 1,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Iban iba 790,000 Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Ida'an dbj 10,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Iranun ill - Sabah Philippine (Austronesian)
Jagoi sne 29,000 Sarawak Land Dayak (Austronesian)
Jangkang djo 37,000 Sarawak Land Dayak (Austronesian)
Kajaman kag 500 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kalabakan kve 2,200 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kanowit kxn 200 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kayan (Baram) kys - Sarawak Kayan-Murik (Austronesian)
Kelabit kzi 5,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kendayan knx - Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Keningau Murut kxi 7,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kinabatangan dmg, ruu, low 10,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kimaragang kqr - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kiput kyi 2,500 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Klias River Kadazan kqt 1,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kota Marudu Talantang grm 1,800 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Kuijau dkr - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Lahanan lhn 350 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Lelak llk extinct Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Lengilu lgi 3 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Lotud dtr - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Lun Bawang lnd - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Mainstream Kenyah xkl 50,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Maranao mrw - Sabah Philippine (Austronesian)
Melanau mel, sdx 110,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Minokok mqq 2,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Molbog pwm 6,700 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Murik Kayan mxr 1,120 Sarawak Kayan-Murik (Austronesian)
Narom nrm - Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Nonukan Tidong tid 20,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Okolod kqv 5,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Paluan plz 5,500 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Papar dpp - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Penan pez, pne 13,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Punan Batu pnm 30 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Remun lkj 3,500 Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Rungus drg - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sa'ban snv 2,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sabah Bisaya bsy 21,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sabah Malay msi - Sabah Malay creole
Sama ssb, sml, sse - Sabah Sama-Bajaw (Austronesian)
Sarawak Malay zlm-sar - Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Sebop sib 1,730 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sebuyau snb 9,000 Sarawak Malayic (Austronesian)
Sekapan skp 750 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Selungai Murut slg 1,200 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sembakung sbr 2,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Seru szd extinct Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Serudung srk 350 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sian spg 50 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sungai abf 500 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Sugut Dusun kzs - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tatana' txx - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tausug tsg - Sabah Philippine (Austronesian)
Tagol mvv - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Timugon tih - Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tombonuwo txa 13,000 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tring tgq 550 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tringgus trx 850 Sabah North Bornean (Austronesian)
Tutoh ttw 600 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Ukit umi 120 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)
Uma' Lasan xky 6,000 Sarawak North Bornean (Austronesian)

Other languages recognised as "Bumiputera"

Language Code Speakers Family
Acehnese ace 81,000 (ethnic population) Chamic (Austronesian)
Banjarese bjn 1,241,000 (ethnic population) Malayic (Austronesian)
Buginese bug 1,128,465 (ethnic population) South Sulawesi (Austronesian)
Cham cja - Chamic (Austronesian)
Javanese jav 4,300,000 (ethnic population) Javanese (Austronesian)
Kerinci kvr - Malayic (Austronesian)
Mandailing btm - Northwest Sumatran (Austronesian)
Minangkabau min - Malayic (Austronesian)

Malaysian Chinese languages

Language Code Speakers Family
Cantonese yue 1,355,541 Sino-Tibetan
Foochow fzho 249,413 Sino-Tibetan
Hakka hak 1,679,027 Sino-Tibetan
Hainanese nan 380,781 Sino-Tibetan
Hokkien nan 1,848,211 Sino-Tibetan
Mandarin cmn 958,467 Sino-Tibetan
Min Bei mnp 373,337 Sino-Tibetan
Teochew nan 974,573 Sino-Tibetan

Malaysian Indian languages

Language Code Speakers Family
Gujarati guj 28,000 Indo-European
Hindi hin - Indo-European
Malayalam mal 14,236 Dravidian
Punjabi pan 185,000 Indo-European
Tamil tam 2,743,922 Dravidian
Telugu tel 40,000 Dravidian
Urdu urd - Indo-European

Foreign languages

See also


  1. "Ethnologue report for Malaysia". Retrieved 18 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Ethnologue report for Malaysia (Peninsular)". Retrieved 18 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Kamila Ghazali. "National Identity and Minority Languages". UN Chronicle. Retrieved 4 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  4. Constitution of Malaysia:Article 152
  5. 5.0 5.1 Barbara Watson Andaya; Leonard Y. Andaya (15 September 1984). A History of Malaysia. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-312-38121-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. K. Alexander Adelaar; Nikolaus Himmelmann (1 January 2005). The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar. Psychology Press. pp. 397–. ISBN 978-0-7007-1286-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Luke Rintod (30 November 2010). "Speak up, native language champions urged". Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved 4 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Malaysia". Retrieved 26 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Zimmer, Benjamin (5 October 2006). "Language Log: Malaysia cracks down on "salad language"". Retrieved 14 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Math and Science back to Bahasa, mother tongues". The Star Online. 8 July 2009. Retrieved 8 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Mohd Farhan Darwis (12 November 2013). "Dr Mahathir calls for Science and Maths to be taught in English, again". The Malaysian Insider. Archived from the original on 2014-10-17. Retrieved 3 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "PAGE hands in second memorandum". The Star Online. 9 July 2010. Archived from the original on 2014-10-17. Retrieved 8 September 2010. Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced last year that the policy of Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (known by its Malay acronym, PPSMI) would be scrapped from 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Barbara A. West (1 January 2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-1913-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  15. Susanne Michaelis (2008). Roots of Creole Structures: Weighing the Contribution of Substrates and Superstrates. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-5255-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>