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Travelling to Malaysia Language Tips

So you are planning a trip to Malaysia, an ‘exotic’ country in the Far East you heard about from your friends or read about in a travel magazine? Now the name ‘Malaysia’ might conjure up wrong notions that it is Malay, and nothing else. Well, yes, Malaysias’ national language or official language is Malay (otherwise known as Bahasa Melayu), a language that is quite similar, but distinct from, Indonesian (or Bahasa Indonesia) and the country is made up of mostly Malays, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Some General Remarks about languages spoken by Malaysians:

The first thing about language use in Malaysia is that Malaysia is actually a very multi-lingual nation. Malaysians speak a great variety of languages: Malay, Mandarin (and a variety of Chinese dialects, or vernacular languages like Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, etc), Tamil (an Indian language), Sikh or Punjabi and Malayalee
(another two Indian languages), plus a host of aboriginal languages spoken by some of the tribal peoples (eg. Dayak, Bidayuh,
Penans, etc) who live mainly in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

However, most importantly from the tourists’ point of view, many if not most Malaysians speak English at different levels of competency; some could speak it very well, engaging in intellectual discourse entirely in fluent English, while others could only manage simple conversations in broken or ‘Malaysian
English’ i.e. English sprinkled with many Malay words. For instance, many Malaysians would say,”come-lah”, “cannot-lah”. The “lah” is a Malay suffix used simply for emphasis and its use has seeped into the local use of English. As for English in written form, you would be happy to note that many sign-boards in Supermarkets, Airports, Train Stations, and shops etc are in both Malay and English.

Although you could get an English-speaking tourist guide easily when you tour Malaysia, it is useful and advisable to learn some Malay. I offer my reasons here: first, Malay is an easy language to learn (definitely easier than English itself, or French, German or Chinese ) and second, if you speak Malay, even at a very elementary level, the average Malay Malaysian will be delighted. In this way, you gain their favour and if you could converse in some simple Malay, you will be able to get by freely and easily in Malaysia, especially in small towns and rural areas where English is less commonly spoken.

I would like to offer here some language tips for travelling in Malaysia:

1. Get a small English-Malay dictionary and learn how to say something common in Malay. Examples: Selamat
Pagi (Good Morning), Terima Kasih
(Thank you), Good-bye (Selamat Jalan/Jumpa
lagi ). How much? (Berapa ?), etc. Learn the Malay terms and phrases needed for everyday use as a tourist. Many tour brochures also provide bilingual translation of some of these common terms.

A Malay sentence is easy to construct, without the need for tenses for verbs, unlike English. And the beauty is, there is no need to adhere to strict grammatical rules in simple conversational Malay. Malay words are also easy to pronounce. After listening for a while from the Malaysians, you should have no difficulty in speaking some of the words.

2. As mentioned above, English is very commonly spoken, especially in cities (eg. Kuala Lumpur, the capital; Penang, the Northern Island state.) but less so in small towns. If you venture into the smaller towns e.g Taiping ( in Perak state ) and Temerloh( in Pahang state ) you could still use some English when you go shopping but if you tour the marketplaces and other social gatherings (e.g ‘Pasar Malam’ or night market’; ‘Pasar Pagi’ or morning market) it is still best to talk to the locals in Malay. Even if you shop at a store (for groceries, etc) run by non-Malay Malaysian, you do not have to speak anything except Malay. Of course, if you happen to speak Mandarin, or some of the Chinese dialects, you could impress the Chinese Malaysian store-owners but every Malaysian, whatever his or her ethnicity, speaks some Malay. Needless to say, one doesn’t have to learn any Indian languages to enjoy holidaying in Malaysia!

3. A word of caution, though: even if you have ‘mastered’ some simple conversational Malay and have been quite happy using it, gaining praise and friendship along the way from your Malaysian hosts, be prepared for some surprise. I am speaking of language variations: Malay is spoken slightly differently from one region to another of Malaysia – in the state of Kelantan, for instance, Malay is spoken with a heavy local Kelantanese accent and even Malaysians from other states may not be able to understand immediately the Kelantanese Malay. Similarly, the Malay terms commonly in use in West Malaysia may be different from those used to describe the same things in East Malaysia. In West Malaysia, a market is ‘pasar’ whereas it is ‘tamu’ in Sabah and Sarawak. Well., on reflection this may not really surprise you; after all, even English, whether spoken or written, has many variants. American English is different from British English, or Australian or New Zealand English, for that matter.

It is my humble aim in writing this article that these language tips will help you, the English-speaking foreign tourists, travel in Malaysia more profitably and help make your visit to Malaysia more enjoyable and memorable.