Language is the soul of a nation. As a multiracial nation, Malaysia has speakers of over 137 living languages with 41 of them are found in Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia practices the freedom of languages. We have Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Dusunic or Kadazan languages, and our official language is the Malay language.

Over the decades, languages have evolved so much. Technology terminology made their way into some languages, enriching it further. However, some are facing extinction as speakers of the native languages prefer to use other main languages. In fact, Etnologue Report, a database of the world’s 7,000-plus languages claimed some 80 percent of 137 languages in Malaysia are considered “endangered” in which the speakers are mainly the elderly people.

Lost In Words

My niece couldn’t speak any Chinese dialect. Like most Chinese Malaysian children today, she was raised to communicate in Mandarin and English although Cantonese is my brother’s mother tongue. The declining state of Chinese dialects as mother tongue, like Penang Hokkien is not surprising. Chinese independent schools emphasise on Mandarin over other dialects while national schools focus on Malay and English language.

The state of ethnic languages in other parts of Malaysia also saw a decline. For the Melaka’s Portuguese Eurasian community, those aged below 45 are less fluent in their Cristang or Creole language.. And most younger generation of Lun Dayeh, a minority ethnic group in north-eastern Sabah and Lun Bawang, Sarawak speak Malay at home because of mixed marriages and school.

I remember my grandma used to speak Toi Shanese language, which originated from Taishan, the city in south-west of Guangdong, China. The Toi Shan community used to be a close-knit community in King Street, George Town, Penang. Today, this dialect is less spoken among the community.

On a brighter note, linguists have recently found a language, Jedek which is spoken by about 280 people of the community which once foraged along the Pergau River. Jedek speakers now live in resettlement area in Northern Malaysia. The language was recognised as unique by Swedish linguists from Lund University.

Malaysian English is perhaps the most widely spoken among Malaysians. We sometimes call it “Bahasa Rojak” because the English language mixes with other languages, from Malay, Chinese to Indian languages. Talk to any Malaysian, and you will bound to come across the word “lah” spoken along with many sentences. For instance, “I have eaten lah” or “gostan” to be “go astern”.

Promoting Languages

Realising their languages are in the decline, some communities have stepped up efforts to promote their languages. This include the making of Malaysia’s first Penang Hokkien language movie, “You Mean the World to Me” which has received rave reviews and set the pace to more ethnic language movies.

Dictionaries of their mother tongue languages like Penang Hokkien, Cristang and Lun Dayah were published by individuals and associations. Some have even created tutorials and podcasts of these languages or a website like All in all, we should preserve our languages. After all, the more languages you know, the more you will be in demand.

Text and photos by Francis Yip

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