Monday, March 30, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Malaysia

For the first time this year, we're going to explore the linguistic landscape of a country in Asia. Back in December we looked at the languages of Burma, and today we're returning once again to Southeast Asia to learn a bit more about the languages of Malaysia.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia, a standardized form of the Malay language. Malay is a macrolanguage, which means that it is a group of closely related language varieties. In fact, over a dozen Malay languages are spoken throughout Malaysia!

The Working Languages

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,
the tallest twin towers in the world.
Malaysia also has two prominent working languages that are used primarily in business: English and Chinese. The English language was originally introduced to the area when it was part of the British Empire, and was used for many decades as a key administrative language. However, it has gradually been replaced by Malay since Malaysia gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.

The variety of English used in Malaysia is known as Malaysian English, which is closely related to British English. It differs from other varieties of English due to its inclusion of loanwords from other regional languages such as Malay and Chinese, and also has several distinct phonological features.

Chinese is also spoken by a significant proportion of the Malaysian population since there are many people of Chinese descent who live in the country. Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly used variety of Chinese in Malaysia, but several other varieties are also used.

Other Languages

Over 130 other languages are spoken in Malaysia, many of them belonging to the Malay and Chinese macrolanguages. A few of the other notable languages used in Malaysia are Tamil, Iban, and Manglish. The Tamil language is spoken by nearly 4 million people in Malaysia, primarily those belonging to the Tamil ethnic group, while Iban, an Austronesian language related to Malay, is spoken by approximately 750,000 people.

Finally, there's Manglish, sometimes known as "Mangled English", which is an English-based creole that contains an eclectic mix of vocabulary from Malay, English, Tamil, and several varieties of Chinese, including Mandarin and Cantonese. It is a colloquial language that is generally spoken by users of Malaysian English.