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Do They Speak English in Malaysia?

Do They Speak English in Malaysia

Key Takeaways

Official LanguageMalay (also called Bahasa Malaysia)
Commonly Spoken LanguagesMalay, English, Chinese, Tamil
English Proficiency LevelModerate to High
Purpose of Using EnglishBusiness, education, tourism, media
Historical InfluenceBritish colonial legacy


Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation with a rich tapestry of cultures, has a linguistic landscape as diverse as its people. From the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur to the serene villages of East Malaysia, one can hear a multitude of languages. Among them is English. But how prevalent is the English language, and why is it spoken in Malaysia?

Historical Background

Understanding the historical context is crucial when discussing languages in any country. Malaysia’s tryst with the English language began during the British colonial era.

  1. Colonial Era: From the 18th to the 20th century, the British Empire exerted significant influence over Malaysia, then known as Malaya. This influence ushered in English as a dominant language in administration, trade, and education.
  2. Post-Independence: After gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia adopted Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) as its official language. However, English remained significant due to its role in the global arena and the country’s educational system.

Official Language vs. Popularly Spoken Languages

In Malaysia, while the official language is Malay, many languages are spoken daily due to the country’s ethnic diversity.

Table: Languages of Malaysia by Ethnic Groups

Ethnic GroupPredominant Language
ChineseMandarin, Cantonese
IndiansTamil, Punjabi, Hindi
OthersIban, Kadazan, English

While English is not the predominant language of any ethnic group, it serves as a bridge, facilitating communication across various communities.

Why is English Spoken in Malaysia?

There are several reasons for the prominence of English in Malaysia:

  1. Education: English is a mandatory subject in schools. Additionally, many tertiary institutions use English as the medium of instruction, especially in science and technology courses.
  2. Business and Trade: Malaysia’s strategic location makes it a hub for international business. As such, English is widely used in corporate dealings and international trade.
  3. Tourism: Malaysia is a top tourist destination in Southeast Asia. English becomes an essential tool to cater to international visitors.
  4. Media and Entertainment: Many Malaysians consume English media, including movies, music, and books. English newspapers and broadcasting channels are also prevalent.

Table: English Usage in Various Sectors

SectorRole of English
EducationMedium of instruction, compulsory subject
BusinessCorporate communication, international trade
TourismCommunication with international tourists
MediaNewspapers, TV channels, entertainment

Proficiency in English

Though widely spoken, the level of English proficiency varies:

  • Urban Areas: Higher proficiency, with many able to converse fluently.
  • Rural Areas: Moderate proficiency, with some able to understand and speak basic English.
  • Educational Institutions: Many students graduate with a good command of the English language, but proficiency can vary based on the school’s emphasis on the language.

Challenges and The Way Forward

While English has a strong foothold in Malaysia, challenges remain:

  • Language Shift: Some believe there’s been a decline in English proficiency in recent years due to changes in the education system.
  • Balancing Act: Ensuring that English does not overshadow the importance of Malay or native languages.

The Malaysian government and private sectors continue to invest in English education, recognizing its global significance. Initiatives to bolster English proficiency are ongoing, including teacher training programs and educational reforms.


To answer the question, “Do they speak English in Malaysia?” – Yes, they do. While it’s not the official language, its presence is felt throughout various facets of Malaysian society, a testament to its historical significance and practical utility. Whether you’re a tourist, a business professional, or a student, you’ll find English an invaluable asset in Malaysia, bridging cultural divides and opening doors to countless opportunities.