The official language of Malaysia is Malay

What Language Is Spoken in Malaysia? Translation Specialists Explain!

When people ask for translation services, they often mention the Malaysian language. But this is a very imprecise generalization because Malaysia is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. As we will show in this article, the Malay originated in what is today’s Borneo, and, as it expanded, absorbed influences from Indonesia, Persia, the Arabic-speaking world, China, India, and the old British Empire. The mix of nations and ethnic groups has created a wonderful culture with various languages.

Malaysians speak Malaysia’s official language, Malay, as well as many other idioms, dialects, and foreign languages. There is even a version of the spoken Malaysian language, which is a mix of three different languages.

So, as you can see, getting accurate Malay language translations depends a lot on working with an experienced agency that understands the complexities of this particular country’s languages.

A Short History of the Malaysian Language

The national language in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia, Malay for short. It is important to know that Malay is also what is spoken in Indonesia (where it is called Bahasa Indonesia), although with distinct differences – notably different pronunciation,several differences in grammar and a 70% overlap in vocabulary. The Malay vs. Indonesian differences are obvious to an experienced translator.

However, the reality is that the right question to ask is: what do they speak in Malaysia? The answer is over 137 – yes, that’s a huge number, but accurate taking into account spoken dialects and idioms.

The second most popular language in Malaysia is English – more precisely, British English. Malaysia is a former British colony. It gained its independence in 1957 but continues to maintain English as one of its three official languages.

The third most spoken language in Malaysia is Chinese. This is largely due to the structure of the population in the country:

  • 50% Malay
  • 24% Chinese
  • 7% Indian
  • 19% other ethnic groups.

This is why it is not easy to say what language Malaysians speak. Many of them know at least two of Malaysia’s most spoken languagesMalay and English. Malaysia received praise from the United Nations for its success in creating an inclusive environment where all ethnic groups can thrive and maintain their identity and traditions.

Undoubtedly, the complex Malay language origin and coexistence with several official languages play a key role in this success.

An Overview of Malaysia’s Official Language and Imported Languages

To understand the importance of Malay not only in Malaysia but throughout the greater region, it is important to note that Malay is also spoken in Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia (where, as explained above, it is called Indonesian), Singapore and southern Thailand. It is official in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore

Also, it has a wide range of local dialects, including:

  • Kelantanese
  • Kedahan
  • Perak Malay
  • Sarawakian
  • Terenggnuan.

Let us look now at the imported languages also spoken in Malaysia:


British English in Malaysia is compulsory for everyone in primary and secondary school. It is widely used in business, education, and formal situations, such as interactions with the authorities. 

At present, almost half of the population in Malaysia is highly proficient in English. This fact is undoubtedly one reason why the country has so many successful connections with the rest of the world in various fields of business.


Mandarin Chinese or Malaysian Mandarin (called such due to its notable differences from Mandarin as spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore) is the lingua franca of the country’s ethnic Chinese community. The government of the country has even implemented a “Speak Mandarin Campaign” to encourage Chinese Malaysians to learn Mandarin. Given its geographical position, Malaysia is striving to build solid economic relationships with China, hence, popularizing Mandarin Chinese among the country’s speakers is one way of facilitating tourism and trade.

Since many C-suite leaders and industrial stakeholders are Mandarin Chinese, any non-Chinese Malaysian with good knowledge of Mandarin is highly employable.


As the vast majority of immigration from India originated from the state of Tamil Nadu, Malaysia’s third-largest ethnic group, Indians, speak Tamil. 

Indians in Malaysia have Tamil language in their formal education curriculum. However, given the multicultural nature of the country, many young people tend to use English words in their everyday speech, thus creating a unique dialect called Tanglish. You are most likely to hear it in large cities, especially Kuala Lumpur.

Indigenous Languages

You will find over 30 native tribes in Malaysia – each speaking its ancestral language, many of which have roots in common with Malay. The largest indigenous language groups are the Kazadandusuns and Iban people. Sadly, indigenous languages spoken by smaller tribes risk becoming extinct in the near future due to the narrow reach and shrinking of the population.

Other Native Malaysian Languages

A remarkable language in Malaysia you will often hear is actually a mix of Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil. It is called Manglish, and it is one of the ways in which people from different ethnic groups manage to communicate quickly and efficiently.

Other languages spoken in Malaysia are:

  • Sinhalese – the language of ethnic Sri Lankans
  • Thai – a minority language
  • Dusunic – spoken in Sabah
  • Iban – an indigenous language spoken in Sarawak.

This concludes the details on what language Malaysia speaks. But there is one more aspect that is important to know.

The Difference between Malay and Indonesian

As explained above, Malay is not just the official language of Malaysia but is also spoken in Indonesia. At first glance, it appears to be the same language. But translators know that there are many Malay vs. Indonesian language differences in terms of:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar 
  • Pronunciation
  • Vocabulary 
  • The source of loan words: English in Malaysia and Dutch in Indonesia.

These differences can make it a challenge for a Malay and an Indonesian to have a conversation, however, they can usually manage it by speaking slowly and avoiding local slang terms.

Malay is one of the many idioms and dialects spoken by the various ethnic groups

Malaysia is a country with over 130 different spoken languages

Work with Specialists in Malay Language Translations!

Pronto Translations can help you with English to Bahasa Malaysia as well as Bahasa Malaysia to English translation and interpretation services. We have over 20 years of experience and offices all over the world. We work with native speakers of over 300 languages, offering one of the largest numbers of language pairs in our industry.

Our main office is in New York, NY, get in touch with us to get a personalized offer for Malay language translations: 646-984-4073!