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Oh my Manglish!

Ever wondered how many languages a Malaysian can speak?


This article was written by Stephanie, an IHD resident studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts and Industries (Communication). She has a flair for fashion, fun and meeting new people.





Malaysia, a beautiful nation with 4 main cultures – Malays, Chinese, Indians and other indigenous Bumiputra groups (mainly in East Malaysia). Over the past almost 60 years, Malaysia has become a unique multi-ethnic and multilingual society with a diverse and ever-growing economy. There is a long history behind this multicultural society, which resulted in most of the Malaysian population being multilingual.

The Malays has the largest population in Malaysia, which is the ethnic group of Austronesian people who populate Peninsular Malaysia, parts of Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the island of Borneo. They are also known as “Bumiputera” or indigenous of Malaysia as they are the first to have migrated to west Malaysia. Their mother tongue is “Bahasa Malaysia” which is also the official language of Malaysia. Since it is the official language, every Malaysian knows how to speak it!

Next, the Malaysian Chinese are descendants of the Chinese population who migrated to Malaysia between the first and the mid-twentieth centuries. Malaysian Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia. And of course, Mandarin is fluently spoken by the Chinese here including dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Fuzhou, Hainanese and Foochow. This is because of their background in the dialects in their region in China before they migrated. After so many years of residing together, many Malaysian Chinese can speak more than one Chinese dialect now!

Originally from India, the majority of Indians in Malaysia speak Tamils. Other Indian languages like Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati are less spoken. Although every culture has their own mother language, English is still widely spoken by the Malaysian population and actively known as a second language. Even business and education are conducted in English, and English is our second formal language too. However, with the influences from the respective mother language, the English that is spoken by Malaysians is slightly different from the native speakers, and is known as “Manglish”. For instance, the use of “lah”, “meh”, “hor” are commonly used when speaking English although that is part of an expression in Chinese speaking.

In other words, Malaysians will also consider that as “Bahasa Rojak”. The word “Bahasa” has the meaning of language and “Rojak” is a famous Malaysian dish that includes all different kinds of fruits in it. “Bahasa Rojak” which translates into ‘mixed languages of 3 different groups’ also refers to the Malaysian way of mixing languages when speaking.

For example, “Boss, I mau tabao satu Char Keow Teow!” means, “Sir, I would like to order Char Keow Teow for take away!” Calling hawker seller as “boss” is part of Malaysia culture, the word “mau” is the Malay language of “want”, “tabao” is the Chinese language of “take away food”, “satu” is the Malay language of “one” & “Char Keow Teow” is a famous and iconic food in Malaysia. No matter what their background is, every Malaysian will definitely understand this sentence that would be used in daily life.

Bahasa Rojak is part of the Malaysian identity now! It is not as simple as you think, you have to understand all 3 languages or sometimes dialects to speak like a Malaysian. Although we as Malaysians are proud of ourselves and the extraordinary way of speaking, we still have to get rid of it when it comes to talking to a non-Malaysian. It is actually tough for a Malaysian who is trying to get rid of their Manglish accent to make sure non-Malaysians understand them. So, bear with all the new residents from Malaysia and give them some time to adapt to a new way of speaking English!

- Stephanie