Malaysia is a very vibrant and growing country in South East Asia, with a tropical climate and plenty of lure for tourists. But how widely spoken is English there? Can tourists from America, the UK and Australia expect to get by there just using English?
English is reasonably widely spoken in Malaysia, with around 50-60 percent of the population having some level of English skills. You will find English very commonly spoken in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities, and less spoken in rural areas and along the east island of the country.
Malaysia was formerly an English colony before gaining independence in 1957, so some British cultural influences have remained, including the language.
Here is a different way of summarizing the prevalence of English in Malaysia:
- Urban centers (large cities) – High level of spoken English.
- Semi-urban centers (smaller towns and cities) – Some level of spoken English.
- Rural areas – Often very little spoken English.
Therefore as with most countries in South East Asia where English is not the first language, it all depends on where you go and who you speak to as to whether you can get by using English.
Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and English is widely spoken there
English Proficiency Levels in Malaysia – An Overview
This older source suggests that around 50% of Malaysians can speak some level of English; however it is a very old reference from the early 2000s. Since then, the Malaysian government has made English compulsory in schools in a bid to increase skills and prospects among the younger generations coming up.
If this policy has been successful in increasing English proficiency, then one would expect that the fluency rate has hopefully crept up to 60% or beyond since then, as the younger generation has come through being taught English more rigorously.
Nevertheless, a 50-60% English proficiency rate is still good by South East Asian standards, far ahead of nearby countries like Japan and Thailand, which struggle with low levels of English proficiency. However, it is still way behind other nearby countries like Singapore or the Philipines, which have exceptional rates of English proficiency in the 80-90% range.
Malaysia lies somewhere in the middle in terms of the South East Asian countries in terms of English skills – there are better countries and there are worse ones for the prevalence of English.
Here are some areas where you can expect to find good levels of spoken English in Malaysia:
- Large cities like Kuala Lumpur
- Among younger people
- Among businessmen and other professionals in high level and international companies
- Hotels and restaurants in built up areas
- Taxi drivers to some extent in cities.
- Road signs tend to be in English in major cities.
Here are some areas where you’ll struggle to find spoken English in Malaysia
- Smaller towns and rural areas.
- On the east island of Malaysia in general
- Among older people
- Among lower level government workers and bureaucrats – ask for mid and upper level workers for more chance of being able to use English.
In these more difficult areas, it is a very good idea to have some local phrases ready to aid conversation. We’ll cover this in a section further below.
Malaysia is actually broken into 2 islands, with English being more prevalent on the west side and less spoken on the east side
Spoken English in Different Parts of Malaysia
Let’s be more specific and break down the reported spoken levels of English in various parts of Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur – Capital city of Malaysia, and very multicultural and international. English very widely spoken here in hotels, restaurants, shops, malls. Tourists never report any problems getting by here. Menus, road signs and food labels are also commonly in English. Taxi drivers also usually speak English, though be careful with them overcharging – a common scam in KL.
For longer term/expat stays in Kuala Lumpur, then learning some of the local language is recommended, for dealing with government workers, police, tradesmen, bus drivers, door men and so on. A growing number of English speakers are settling here, as it is very easy to get a foothold just using English.
However, the local accent of English is quite heavy, with a number of idiosyncracies, and can take a while to get fully used to. It is also best to speak slowly and clearly to locals to make sure you are understood; you may have to repeat a few times.
Penang – Another major city and receives plenty of tourists, so again no reported problems with getting by using English here. Widely spoken in restaurants, bars shops, banks and public buildings in the tourist areas. If a waiter doesn’t speak English, they’ll call over someone who can. A great place to visit for English speaking tourists.
Johor Bahru – Again a good level of English spoken, but maybe not as much as KL or Penang. Still enough to get by the major central areas, especially in shops and restaurants. Taxi drivers can be hit and miss for English. In more rural areas out of town, English will be less spoken. A good idea to have some Malay phrases when visiting here; see further below.
Selangor – English reasonably widespread, as plenty of tourist attractions and other events such as motorsports which have led to English being widely spoken and understood. English will be spoken in the restaurants and hotels. Plenty of newspapers still in English as well. A great place to visit for spa and massage lovers.
East Island – Generally less spoken English reported here, since most of the tourism focuses on the west island. Here you will need to look for younger people who may speak some English and understand you if you speak slowly. In rural areas you will struggle to use English and will need some local phrases to help.
Malaysian English & Manglish
It should also be noted that the English spoken in Malaysia does have it’s own particular dialects, slang phrases and modifications from standard English. The English for official documents will follow standard English but the spoken English you may hear from locals in Malaysia will sometimes drift off into Malaysian English or a close variant. Let’s explain this in more detail.
Firstly, Malaysian English refers to the fact that the form of English spoken in Malaysia does have it’s own characteristics that differ from the English spoken in the USA or UK. Some words are pronounced slightly differently, which may take a while to get used to at first – see here for some examples.
It’s not a big deal for short term tourists; it just means you may have to listen a little harder at first to pick up the accent and pronunciation. It will still be recognizable as English.
There are also some different turns of phrase with Malaysian English. In other words, things may be said a little differently, or interpreted differently than in US or British English.
Here are just a couple of examples of this which could cause confusion:
- “Handphone/HP” in Malaysian English means mobile phone/cellphone.
- “Bungalow” means “detached house” in Malaysian English, different meaning to UK English.
- In Malaysian English, the word “send” can mean “take” eg. they may say “can you send me to the airport?” to mean “can you take me to the airport?”
- They can sometimes use “or not” just by habit at the end of a question, and not to be rude. They may say “Do you want to hang out or not?”, not to be confrontational, but just as normal, when we may take this as being confrontational. It’s just the Malaysian English custom.
- “Follow” can mean “come with you” in Malaysian English eg. they may say “can I follow you” to mean “can I come with you”. May sound strange to Brits and Americans if they aren’t used to it.
- See here for some more interesting examples of the idiosyncrasies of Malaysian English.
These are all just things to be aware of when visiting Malaysia, or especially staying there longer term. As with all countries, you’ll pick up the local formalities and turns of phrase in time.
A more obscure phenomenon is so called Manglish, a more street form of Malaysian English, which would not be used in more formal settings like schools, business or administration. This is a pidgin combination of Malaysian and English that goes back to British colonial times that you’d hear more spoken informally between local Malaysians.
It’s grammar differs radically from standard English, having more local phrases and colloquialisms in there. Tourists don’t really need to worry about this; standard English and some Malay will get you by fine. See here for more on Manglish, including some examples of phrases.
Learning Some Malay Phrases
Unless you are sticking strictly to downtown Kuala Lumpur or Penang during your stay, it would be a good idea to learn some basic local phrases to help get you by with the locals.
Malaysia is actually quite a complex country linguistically, with many different languages and dialects being spoken, but the other official main language alongside English is Malay, also sometimes referred to as Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu.
Around 60% of the population can speak Malay, so it is the fall back language if English does not work. Some variants of Chinese such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin are also spoken in Malaysia
The basics of the Malay language are actually not that hard to pick up according to many expats. We have put a video and table down below of some of the basic phrases which may come in useful on your travels.
Basic Malay Phrases
|Hello||Hi||Hi (as in English)|
|How are you?||Apa Khabar?||Appa Khabhar?|
|Good morning||Selamat Pagi||Selamat pagee|
|Good day||Selamat Tengah Hari||Selamat tenga haree|
|Good afternoon||Selamat Petang||Selamat petang|
|Good evening||Selamat Malam||Selamat melam|
|Welcome||Selamat Datang||Selamat Datang|
|Goodbye (leaving)||Selamat Tinggal||Selamat tingal|
|Goodbye (staying)||Selamat Jalan||Selamat Jalan|
|My name is...||Nama saya....||Nama sigh-ya.....|
|I am from......||Saya dari......||Sigh-ya daree.....|
|Thank you||Terima Kasih||Tereema Kasay|
|Do you speak English?||Awak cakap bahasa inggeris ke?||Awa chakap bahasa Ingress kir?|
|How much is this?||Berapa banyak ini?||Berapa banya inee?|
|Where is the WC/bathroom?||Mana tandas?||Mana tandas?|
Here are some useful things to note about Malay:
- As you can see from the table, the pronunciation of many words is pretty much as you see them written, which makes them easier to learn.
- For proper nouns (eg. places like London, New York etc), the Malay words are so similar to English that you can just use the English word and you’ll be understood.
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Travel Essentials For Visiting Malaysia
- Essential stats on Malaysia:
- Population: 32 million
- Time zone: EST +12 hours; GMT +7 hours.
- Currency: Ringgit ($1 = 4.63 Ringgit; £1=5.47 Ringgit at time of writing)
- International calling code: +60 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the left
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Malaysian Ringgit) and spend for free on your card.
- SIM Cards – If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.