Malaysia is a popular stopover destination for backpackers travelling around South East Asia, and many visit for a day or two before heading over to Borneo to volunteer with orangutans and for other amazing animal experiences.
Due to its popularity with gap year travellers, many locals there speak English well, but knowing a few words of the languages in Malaysia you’re likely to hear is not only polite, but could help your time there run just that little bit more smoothly, even opening up opportunities off the well-established tourist track.
What Language Do They Speak in Malaysia?
There are several languages spoken in Malaysia, and you can expect to hear quite a variety even if you’re only there for a short time. The following are some of the most common.
The official language of Malaysia is Malay (officially known as bahasa Malaysia). This is taught in schools, and is the language commonly used on television and radio broadcasts, government speeches, etc. Even knowing just a few words guarantees you will be understood almost anywhere in the country.
The language of bordering Indonesia is very similar to Malay, which can make knowing a few words even more useful, as they may help you get by in Indonesia and Borneo, common backpacker destinations in the area.
If you really aren’t able to pick up any Malay, you should get by on speaking English without many problems. It is taught in all schools and is widely spoken in all larger cities and tourist areas. You’ll also often hear it on television, with Malay subtitles.
You might get a bit confused the first time you hear somebody speak Manglish in Malaysia. It’s an English-based creole unique to the country, mixing English with vocabulary from Malay, Tamil, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other languages.
Usually Malaysians will speak standard English to western travellers, so you’re only likely to encounter Manglish in more intimate social situations.
There is a large Chinese community in Malaysia, so you may hear a range of Chinese dialects, including Mandarin and Cantonese. You may also see Cantonese shows on TV. Most Chinese speakers will also speak English, so you shouldn’t have any problems.
A large Muslim community in Malaysia means Arabic is taught in Islamic schools, and the Malay language does borrow from Arabic. You might see Jawi, a version of Malay written with Arabic letters.
Some Indian languages are spoken, particularly Tamil, and in the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia on the border with Thailand there are several Thai dialects spoken.
Key phrases in Malaysia
Here’s how to say a few handy words and phrases in Malay.
My name is…
I don’t understand
Saya tidak faham.
The orangutan is eating my trousers
Orang utan makan seluar saya.