As a tour guide, it’s always fun to watch the amazed and delighted expressions on tourists faces when they have their first real experience interacting with the locals.
When it comes to the airport staff and guides, they expect them to speak English, it’s their job, but when they approach a vendor or any random person on the street they prepare to spill out broken sentences backed with exaggerated hand gestures. The Malaysian local smiles and speaks to them in perfect English.
Well, nearly perfect. It’s called Malaysian English.
And the response from the tourist is almost always the same.
“Oh, I didn’t know Malaysians can speak such good English!”
Yes, Malaysians do speak English, so don’t be shy to go ahead and speak as you normally would and they will reply to you in Malaysian English. Of course, there will be some differences in the usage of words, perhaps phonetics and a little Malaysian flare will be added in. But these types of differences exist even among English speaking countries such as the US, UK and Australia. So if you’re a first timer in Malaysia, you’re bound to hear (and even pick up) some local lingo throughout your stay.
Interesting fact: When it comes to language — or languages, I should say, Malaysia hosts an impressive 137 languages, dialects and indigenous sub dialects throughout the nation.
Let’s’ take a look at languages in Malaysia, so you’ll have a better understanding of what to expect and to feel a little more at ease.
Maylay: The Official
So this is where it might get a little confusing. Malay is the official national language of Malaysia, which is broken up into ten dialects. Of those, Bahasa Melayu is the official, standardized dialect which is also spoken in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand for a total of about 18 million speakers worldwide. So when we use the word Malay to describe the official language, we are referring to the Bahasa Melayu dialect. Coincidentally, Indonesian, spoken by 170 million people, is also a form of Malay.
The earliest known record of Malay, found on inscriptions in southern Sumatra and on the island of Bangka, and date back to 683-6 CE. At that time it was written in Indian script and heavily influenced by Sanskrit. It was transformed in the 14th century to Arabic, then again in the 17th century to the modern Latin alphabet.
By the mid 18th century, the British ahd set up trading posts on the Malay peninsula. With them they brought politics, goods for trade and English. Since 1819, the British already had control of Singapore and English began to have an influence on the Malaysian language, and vice versa. Words like paddy, lorry, amok, rattan, bamboo, sarong are just a few examples of Malay infiltration into the English language.
The English used in Malaysia today is based on British English and is called Malaysian English. They follow the British spellings, however, American slang is strong especially among Malaysian youth.
Like Malay, English plays an important role to bridge the gap between dialects and languages, such as among Chinese or Tamil speakers, so they can communicate comfortably. When talking to people who don’t understand their language, they will instead use Malay, English or a mixture mentioned before, Manglish.
Manglish or Malaysian Standard English (MySE)
This is where the fun begins. This is such a fun language to listen to and even more fun to speak, And it’s almost impossible not to pick up a little bit, even on a short tour.
About a month ago I overheard a tourist talking to her daughter back home in the US. Her and her husband were on their second trip to Malaysia and she was having a little trouble with the connection, so she was talking a bit loud. What caught my attention was when she said “See HOW la,” which is Manglish for something like “I’ll see and let you know.”
The entire group stopped and stared at her, myself included then we all erupted with laughter when she had realized what she said. And with an almost perfect accent! This isn’t the first time I have heard tourists speaking Manglish and I always get a kick out of it.
Let me give some examples of Manglish and how certain words are used, so you’ll have an idea of how the blend of the two languages fit together.
Warning: Manglish can be addicting — please use Manglish responsibly.
Digging into Manglish
Manglish shouldn’t be confused with Malaysian English. Even though they may have similar names, unlike Malaysian English which follows the rules with some local flare added, Manglish doesn’t always follow the grammatical structure of British English.
Manglish also has influences from other languages as, Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Tamil.
Take note: As with any country and language, Manglish can vary from region to region in its usage and slang according to certain influences.
Understanding “la” is fundamental. It can be used in a variety of ways in daily communication and describes different kinds of emotions, but it really has no specific meaning.
• Frustration – what la
• To emphasize – ya la
• Feeling so so – OK la
• Trying to chill – come on la
• To ask – serious la?
• Denying – no la
You to the vendor: Can you give me a discount?
In Manglish: Ei, cheaper la!
There’s no definite answer to where the usage of “la” came from, however the Chinese do make use of “lah” and lay claim to its influence.
Here are a few interesting words used by locals that have a different twist on their original meaning.
Only used with males, it literally means what it’s supposed to mean, but here in Malaysia, it’s widely used as a sign of respect or to make someone feel important. It’s not an official calling, but more of a respectful way to address someone. Even, if we are in the Mamak restaurant, it’s normal to call the waiter boss.
Loan officer: Your application is denied because you don’t meet the qualifications.
You : Please la, boss. Can’t you help me this time? Can la, boss?
This one can be confusing. No pun intended. When a local uses the word “one” they aren’t referring to the number. It’s used more for emphasis.
Local: So handsome one. Going out with leng loi is it?
Meaning: So handsome! Going out with a girl?
This isn’t what you would think it is. This is not referring to a person who likes to spend lavishly on things they don’t need. No, in our local lingo spender means a male’s brief. Yes, you read correctly. Spender is underwear. I don’t think an example is really needed here.
For football fans, this word has a pretty common meaning, kill the guy with the ball. In other places in English, it can be used to describe taking on a huge problem or challenge. It can also mean fishing gear. In Manglish it means none of these. Here is an example of a bit of a gap between English and Manglish.
If you hear a local saying he wants to tackle a girl, please don’t call the police. In Manglish, “tackle” means to get a girl’s attention.
The Mix Doesn’t Stop There
Manglish has a converse side to the above. Besides English words being used in different variations, Malay words make their way into English sentences.
Here are some examples of how Malay words are used in conjunction with English.
Tapau means to take away or pack up the food.
(To the waiter) Boss, can you tapau this chicken and rice for me?
Bos, tapau chicken rice, can?
This word comes from Cantonese and means “to settle” as in to finish some work or to settle a problem.
Boss: Lee, don’t forget to update me on that deal tomorrow.
Lee: Don’t worry boss. I will kautim it for you.
Other interesting words you may hear:
This word is referring to westerners, but not in a derogatory way.
Local (to the taxi driver): Tolong jap tunjuk Mat Salleh tu macam mana nak gi Kuantan.
Meaning: Please help to assist the westerner, he wanted to go to Kuantan.
Jambu’s original meaning was supposed to be a guava fruit, but has been transformed to refer to a cute boy like the author of this article and Korean boy bands.
Other Dialects and Influences
The British were not the only outside culture to make its mark on Malaysia. For instance, In southern Malaysia, Mandarin is widely spoken and taught in schools due to the high Chinese-Malaysian population. They also speak other Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Hok-chew, Yue, and Min. However, a lot of the smaller dialects are facing extinction as Mandarin becomes more dominant.
Tamil is another popular language used by the Indian-Malaysians. Shinhalese is a language mainly by the Sri Lankan population and Thai is spoken in some parts, but is considered a minority language.
Indigenous Languages Of Malaysia
There are over 30 native tribes in Malaysia each with their own unique ancestral language including sub- dialects. Kazadandusuns and Iban are the most recognizable among the native languages.
Don’t feel pressured to learn a whole new language before your vacation. Although the locals do appreciate the respect to their mother tongue, they are always more than happy to practice their English with a real westerner.