Malaysia is a country where people speak multiple languages, however the primary national language is known as Malaysian or some refer to it as simply Malay.
Malaysians refer to their language as Bahasa Melayu. Literally translated means “Malay language”. It is also sometimes referred to as Malaysian. This is spoken by the general population and is taught to school children. It is also the language of government.
English is the language of business
English is the language of business in Malaysia and the majority of Malaysians speak, or at least understand, some English. It is taught to children in school. It is common to see English on billboards, in retail outlets and in public advertising. So it is not difficult for English speakers to navigate Malaysia.
In Kuala Lumpur and larger cities like Johor Bahru, in the south of the Malaysian peninsula, almost everyone speaks some English, with varying levels of understanding and literacy. This is largely due to its proximity to Singapore, which has adopted English as its language of business, as well. Outside the urban areas, English is used less, although there is usually someone around who can communicate in English, especially in areas frequented by tourists.
Common languages in Malaysia
There are three primary ethnic groups in Malaysia and each one has a unique culture, heritage, and language. They include ethnic Malays, Malay Chinese and Malay Indians. The Malay Chinese typically speak English, Malaysian, and one or more Chinese dialects. You will hear Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien.
Indians tend to be Tamils and so they speak the Tamil language. That said, you will hear Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati, as well. The new generation of Indians have started mixing Malay and English words with their respective dialects.
In Sarawak and Sabah, which is Malaysian territory that consists of the northern part of the Island of Borneo, additional indigenous languages are spoken. Iban is the main tribal language in Sarawak while Dusunic and Kadazan languages are spoken by the natives in Sabah.
Across Malaysia, it is estimated that 137 languages are spoken by various groups.
The languages of expats
It is common to hear a variety of Western languages in areas of Kuala Lumpur frequented by expats. You will hear various accented English spoken by the British, Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. It is also common to hear German, French or Spanish. Chinese expats living in Malaysia speak Mandarin. You will also hear Filipino and Indonesian, especially among domestic and agricultural workers.
Any English speaker will be bemused to see how Malaysians have adopted English as their second language and then blended it with Malay in some cases to make it recognizable, but not always linguistically orthodox. Often odd English phrases are used that would make puritanical English speaking copyeditors cringe and yet they are in common usage in public places. Some expats call this Malenglish.