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Learn about the diverse linguistic landscape of Malaysia through our interviews with Malaysian students and annotated infographs here.


In this section, we will look at the linguistic demographics of several ethnic language communities through interviews conducted with Malaysian students and infographs highlighting important statistics and language policies in Malaysia.

1. Linguistic Landscape

in Malaysia + Interviews

2. Language Vitality

in Malaysia

3. Suggested Reading List

1 - Landscape

1 - The Land of Hibiscus


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Malaysia, home to over 28.3 million people* with a surface area of ~330,000km, is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in Asia (Coluzzi, 2017). Kuala Lumpur is the capital state of Malaysia. Malaysia's three main dominant ethnic groups are the Malays, Chinese, and Indians, and it houses many native populations such as the Orang Asli as well (Department of Information of the Government of Malaysia, 2016). While Malaysia's official language is Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil are also spoken as dominant institutional languages (Ethnologue, 2019). Additionally, with over130 other languages are spoken in Malaysia as well, Malaysia is an excellent attraction for both cultural lovers and linguists to explore. 

Learn more about the linguistic diversity of Malaysia from our interviews with 6 Malaysian students.

(*) According to the Government of Malaysia, Department of Information (2016), the prefix data of the Malaysian population in 2015 is 30,995,700 with the following ethnic demographic division: Bumiputera - 19,150,900 (61.8%); Chinese - 6,620,300 (21.4%); Indian - 1,988,600 (6.4%); Others - 270,700 (0.9%), and Non-Malaysian Resident - 2,965,300 (9.6%).


1.1 Grace


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Ethnic community: Bisaya

First, second and third languages: English, Selako, Malay

Hi everyone! My name is Grace, and I’m a Bisaya from Limbang, Sarawak, but I live in Sematan, a small district in parts of Kuching, Sarawak. I’m a student of linguistics, and as well as English. I’m University of Malaya student, and here I am, I would like to talk about where and how I speak languages with different people around Malaysia.

So basically, I would say my first language is English; and my second language is Selako because I grew up in a Selako community based on my mom’s upbringing. And I wouldn’t say I know Bisaya that well, because I don’t speak a lot of Bisaya with my dad. Then, I would say my third language is Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, because that is basically the national language of Malaysia, which I use to communicate with my Malay friends as well as some of the lecturers. But if needed be, I will speak in English.

[...] We need to speak some certain languages with different people in Malaysia that require us to communicate with them. For example, if we want to speak with them—like we want to order something —we would use certain languages. If I were to eat at a mamak stall, for example, I would speak in English or Malay. Interestingly, if I were to order some Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant, I would speak in English as well as Malay, but they would see me as a Chinese person, and they would automatically speak in Chinese with me—so I have to reinvent some kind of focus on them for them to speak in a different language for me to understand.


Sarawak, where Grace is from, is the largest state in Malaysia located in the northwest regions of the Borneo Island (Sarawak Government, 2020). It has a population of over 2.47 million people* and houses over 26 ethnic communities (Minorities Rights Group International, 2018). Dayaks, who are the non-muslim indigenous communities in Malaysia, make up 40% of Sarawak's population with 30% of them being Iban. They speak a plethora of languages, such as Iban and Bidayuh. The Chinese account for ~24% of the population, and the dominant languages spoken within this community are Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien. Malays take up another 24% of the population as well.

Selako, otherwise known as Kendayan in Kalimantan Indonesia, is a Malayic indigenous language spoken mainly on the Borneo Island. There are around 3,800 Selako speakers, just like Grace's mother, in Sarawak (Ethnologue, 2019). There are more than 350,000 Selako speakers worldwide. 

(*) This number is modified in accordance to the 2010 census conducted by the Sarawak Government. The original number cited in the article is 2.6 million


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1.2 Tharenee



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Ethnic community: Tamil

First and second languages: Tamil, English, Malay

> Watch the excerpted interview in the documentary to hear Tharenee speak Tamil! 

வணக்கம்! என் பெயர் Tharenee. நான் இரண்டாம் வருடம் University of Malaya இல் டிகிரி படிக்கிறேன்.

[Hello everyone! My name is Tharenee. I am in my second year studying in the University of Malaya.] 

I can speak three languages, but basically it can be considered as four languages. I can speak Malay, which is our national language; and Tamil, which is my mother tongue; English, which is considered my first and second language— some sort of first and second language; and fourthly, I can speak a little bit of Malayalam. I think I learnt Malayalam from my friends, because my friend’s mother tongue is Malayalam. I learnt English and Tamil concurrently during my childhood and I learnt Malay as well as Tamil through formal education. And also English!



Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken by the Tamil people of South Asia. While Tamil refers to the dominant "proper Tamil" language, it is also a descriptor for a collective language family that includes the language of more than 30 other ethno-linguistic communities. Malayalam, which Tharenee knows a bit of, is typologically closely related to Tamil (Ethonologue, 2019). As seen in the above transcript, the writing script for Tamil is not Latin-based, and is instead an abugida script which is syllabically and linearly coded. This script is also deemed "alphasyllabic". (Gnanadesikan, 2017).

According to Ethonologue, there are over 75 million native speakers of Tamil world-wide, and at least another 6 million people have Tamil as their second language (2019). There are more than 1.3 million Tamil speakers in Malaysia, and the majority of them reside in Perlis, Kedah, Kuala Limpur, Malacca, Kelantan and Johor.

(*) According tot the 2011 Indian government census, there are approximately 69,026,881 Tamil speakers worldwide.

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1.3 Aisha



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Ethnic community: Malay

First and second languages: English, Malay

> Watch the excerpted interview in the documentary to hear Aisyah speak Malay! 

(The second half of the interview is translated into English)

Hi, nama saya Aisyah Zulkornain, dari Fakulti Bahasa dan Linguistik, di Universiti of Malaya.

[Hi, my name is Aisyah Zulkornain, from the Faculty of Languages at Linguistics at the University of Malaya..] 

Firstly, I speak Malay with my father, and English with my mother. However, because I was raised overseas, which was in United Kingdom, I speak English at home. Only sometimes do I speak Malay with both my parents. I only speak Malay when it is necessary.


English is the most widely spoken language worldwide, with almost 1.3 million speakers in total, accounting for both L1 and L2 speakers (Ethnologue, 2020). This is no surprise given the English language and its colonial history. In fact, while Standard Malay has recently been listed as the official language of Malaysia, English as a former colonial language can be considered as the De Facto second language (Coluzzi, 2017). Over 60% of Malaysians are speakers of English (with varying degrees of fluency).

In Aisyah's case, she identifies English as her L1 and Malay her L2. Off camera, she noted that as with most ethnic minority children who are raised abroad in an Anglophone country, it is likely that these children would also be more fluent in English than in their ethnic language. This becomes interesting to consider if we note that there are more than 69,000 Malaysians residing in the UK in 2018 (The Office for National Statistics of the UK Government, 2019). 


For more insight on language dominance and the English language in Malaysia, you may refer to the suggested reading list posted at the bottom of this page.


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1.4 Fayne



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Ethnic community: Chinese

First and second languages: Mandarin, Malay, English

> Watch the excerpted interview in the documentary to hear Fayne speak Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay! 

(The second half of the interview is translated into English)

Hey guys! My name is Fayne. 我個中文名係陳詩韻 [My Chinese name is Tan Shi-Yun]. I am from The University of Hong Kong studying linguistics, and I am Malaysian.

I speak fluent Mandarin, Malay and English, and moderate fluency in Cantonese, and I understand Hokkien and a little bit of Japanese. Normally I speak in English and Mandarin with my friends, and I speak 100% Mandarin in my home. I speak mostly Mandarin at home because I’ve received my education in Mandarin all through my life. When I go out to buy food or to shop, I usually speak the Malay language with the Malay people here in Malaysia.

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1.5 Nigel



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Ethnic community: Sino-Kadazan (Chinese and Kadazan)

First and second languages: English, Malay

> Watch the excerpted interview in the documentary to hear Nigel speak Sabah Malay! 

(The second half of the interview is translated into English)

Hi, nama saya Nigel Kristian Chong. Saya belajar di Universiti Malaya.

[Hi, my name is is Nigel Kristian Chong. I am studying at the University of Malaya]

I can speak Malay, English, and a little bit of Chinese—which is the Mandarin Chinese. English is like my first language which I speak at home, and I also speak English with my parents. As for my siblings, we communicate in English as well. For Malay, my father also speaks Malay with me and my siblings a lot. For example, sometimes he speaks Malay with us, but even then we would still reply to him in English. As for Mandarin, I studied Mandarin from primary level 1 to 4. I have stopped after that, so I don’t really speak Mandarin all that well. But when I began studying in the University of Malaya, I started to have more Chinese friends, so this in turn helped improve my Mandarin speaking skills a bit.


Sabah is the second largest state in Malaysia and is home to over 3.9 million people (Hirschmann, 2020). Sabah's population is made up of over 33 indigenous groups, such as the Kadazan-Dusun people, which makes up 30% of Sabah's population, and the Rungus, Iranun, Bisaya, Tatana, and Lun Dayeh (Official Website of the Sabah State Government, 2020). It is estimated that over 84% of the total population are Bumiputera (i.e. Malays and indigenous peoples of Malaysia) (Hirschmann, 2020). According to the Sabah state government's official statistics, there are more than 50 languages and 80 ethnic dialects spoken in Sabah in 2020. Another interesting to note is that while Malay is widely spoken throughout the state, Sabahans tend to speak the Sabahan Baku dialect variety (otherwise known as Sabah Malay).


An interesting fact to note is that in 2015, the Sabah state government had submitted a list of 42 ethnic groups and 200+ sub-ethnic groups to the Malaysian federal government. Datuk Masidi Manjun, the Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister of that time had stated that the project was carried out to fight for respect for ethnic minorities and to allow them to rightfully identify with their own ethnicity, instead of the much debated "others" column in governmental documents.  

Sabah copy.png

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1.6 Jaime



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Ethnic community: Chinese

First and second languages: Mandarin, Malay, English

> Watch the excerpted interview in the documentary to hear Jaime speak Cantonese! 

(The second half of the interview is translated into English)

Hi! 我個名叫做Jamie,我係馬來西亞人,我係University of Malaya讀緊書。我識講華語,Malay,English,廣東話,同埋福建話。

[Hi! My name is Jamie—I’m Malaysian, and I’m currently studying in the University of Malaya. I can speak Mandarin, Malay, English, Cantonese and Hokkien.]

[In] What kind of situations [do] I use all these languages… would be—for Malay—usually in the school area, because there are a lot of Malay people, so we need Malay to converse with them. For English—mostly with my friends, in class, and with lecturers; for Chinese—I would use that with my Chinese friends on a daily basis; Cantonese—not much, but when it’s necessary, where certain people speak Cantonese, I would use it with them as well. As for Hokkien—I use it mostly with my relatives, because most of my relatives are from the Terengganu state and the Penang state, and they use Hokkien a lot, so I would use Hokkien to converse with them.



As the Chinese are one of the largest minority groups in Malaysia, naturally, the Chinese-speaking population would be considerably large as well. However, just like many other language groups, 'Chinese' is a collective term for many genealogically related languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Xiang and Min Dong to name a few. Globally, Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect, with over 882 million speakers worldwide (Joshua Project, 2020). The second most spoken dialect, Cantonese, has a speaking population almost 11 times smaller than that of Mandarin at around 80 million. 

However, the largest Chinese dialect community in Malaysia is actually not Mandarin, and is instead Hokkien. There are nearly 2 million Hokkien speakers in Malaysia, closely followed by Hakka and Cantonese, with 1.8 million and 1.4 million speakers respectively. Hokkien is mostly spoken in Penang, north Perak and Kedah; while Cantonese is mostly spoken in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur (MM2H, 2020). 

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2 - Death & Decay


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2 - Death and Decay



According to the Straits Time, 80% of the 136 officially recognized languages in Malaysia are endangered (2017). Ethnologue reports similar numbers: there are 11 institutional, 5 developing, and 9 vigorous languages in Malaysia, and over 115 are endangered (2020). This phenomenon could be attributed to a number of reasons:

  • "Standard" national schools are regulated to use Malay, Chinese or Tamil as mediums of instructions - as a result, vernacular schools with minority languages as medium of instructions are rapidly closing down (Gill, 2008)

  • Ethnic minorities' desire to move out of their traditions and assimilate into 'modern' society, leading to language shift and decay in heritage language (Coluzzi, 2017)

  • Minority communities run into feasibility issues when promoting language maintenance programmes (Coluzzi, 2012)

  • A case study on Bidayuh vitality shows that younger speakers tend to prefer learning their heritage language as an "elective" rather than mandatorily, implying a lessened desire and focus on linguistic heritage succession (Coluzzi, Riget & Wang, 2013)

For further reference, please refer to the suggested reading list below.



The problem of minority language preservation has long been a problem for the Malaysian government as it strives to strike a balance between solidifying Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and maintaining the vitality of minority languages. On one hand, the loss of minority languages will mean a loss of cultural resources, but on the other hand, the need to strengthen Bahasa Malaysia's role as the national language means that centralizing the use of the national language is inevitable. In response to the decay of minority lanaguges, a lot of language preservation initiatives have been going on over the past decades. 

  • Language maintenance of ethnic languages is generally good despite the language shift from indigenous languages towards standard Malay, English, and Mandarin Chinese in certain parts of Malaysia. NGOs have created writing systems, textbooks, and dictionaries for indigenous languages, such as Iranun, Bidayuh, and Tobilung. UNESCO has funded pre-schools taught in heritage tongues as well (Coluzzi, 2012).

  • The Malaysian government has launched the "Pupil’s Own Language" policy (POL) to counted language shift and encourage the maintenance of minority language through education.

Yet, these projects often do not proceed smoothly. Here are some major roadblocks, to name but a few:


  • The POL policy lacks effectiveness as these classes are only offered a few hours a week, lack of compulsory assessment, and have insufficient students to form a class (Coluzzi, 2017)

  • NGOs can only do so much-- there is insufficient support from the government to help communities of minority languages to carry out language planning: e.g. The Dayak Bidayuh National Associatoin aims to develop and promote the Bidayuh in Sarawak, but its effectiveness was low due to a lack of governmental support (Zhou & Wang, 2016).

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3 - Suggested Reading List


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3 - Reading List

Ethnologue: Languages of the World.

Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, & Charles D. Fenning (2019). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-second edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

Language planning for Malay in Malaysia: A case of failure or success?

Coluzzi, P. (2017). Language planning for Malay in Malaysia: A case of failure or success?. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2017(244), 17-38.

Politics, economics and identity: Mapping the linguistic landscape of Kuala Limpur, Malaysia.

Manan, S. (2015). Politics, economics and identity: Mapping the linguistic landscape of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. International Journal of Multilingualism., 12(1), 31.

And many other useful resources...


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