Bahasa Melayu & its Dialects 

  • The term bahasa Melayu is used in several countries where Malay is spoken such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia (Sumatera) and Thailand (southern part). However, the government of Malaysia rebranded the language into Bahasa Malaysia. At this time, in Malaysia, both bahasa Melayu and bahasa Malaysia are still used interchangeably.
  • There are many different dialects that were born due to the different empires that existed many years ago. Therefore, if you travel across Malaysia, you will find that the language sounds different in different states. The dialect that has been considered the standard version of the language is the Johor-Riau dialect, which is spoken in Johor, Selangor (as well as Kuala Lumpur) and Singapore. There are no perfect boundaries that separate these different dialects, therefore you will find states that have a mixture of different dialects. The dialects that you may find very different-sounding are the northern dialect (of the state of Kedah, Pulau Pinang or Penang, and Perlis) and also the dialects spoken in Kelantan, Terengganu and Sarawak that are also difficult to understand even for native Malay speakers.
  • We encourage learning the standard Johor-Riau dialect due to it being the standard version of the language. You can use this when you travel to many places in the Malay archipelago region. In addition, if you decide to pursue learning formal Malay, the Johor-Riau dialect is the closest in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary.
“Where are you going?” in different dialects

Standard: Awak/Kau nak pergi mana?


Terengganu: Mung nok gi mane?Kelantan: Mu nok gi mano?Northern: Hang nak pi mana?


Sarawak: Kitak nak gi sine?Sabah: Kau mau pigi mana?

Spoken Malay is much easier!
  • less grammar points
  • narrower vocabulary range

Sample comparison of Standard vs Formal Malay

English: Excuse me, how do I get to the library from here?

Formal: Tumpang tanya, bagaimanakah kami boleh pergi ke perpustakaan dari sini?

Spoken: Tumpang tanya, macam mana pergi perpustakaan dari sini?

Standard vs Spoken

Textbook Malay and Spoken Malay are two distinct approaches to learning and using the Malay language, each serving different purposes and contexts.

Textbook Malay:

  • Formal Structure: Textbook Malay is the standardized and structured form of the language commonly found in educational materials and literature. It adheres to grammatical rules and conventions, making it suitable for formal writing and official communication.
  • Rich Vocabulary: Textbook Malay often includes a wider range of vocabulary, including complex and technical terms, making it suitable for discussing academic or specialized topics.
  • Grammatical Precision: Textbook Malay emphasizes correct grammar and syntax, which is important for clear and precise communication.
  • Written Focus: This form of Malay is primarily used for writing, official documents, and formal speeches. It may feel less natural in casual conversations due to its formal nature.

Spoken Malay:

  • Everyday Usage: Spoken Malay is the version of the language used in everyday conversations, interactions, and informal settings. It may deviate from strict grammar rules in favor of natural flow and ease of communication.
  • Colloquial Expressions: Spoken Malay incorporates idiomatic expressions, slang, and colloquialisms that reflect the language as it is commonly used among native speakers.
  • Cultural Insights: Learning Spoken Malay provides insights into cultural nuances, humor, and social interactions, fostering genuine connections with native speakers.
  • Conversational Fluency: While not adhering strictly to textbook rules, Spoken Malay enables learners to communicate comfortably and effectively in informal contexts.

In essence, Textbook Malay is suitable for formal writing and academic pursuits, while Spoken Malay is essential for genuine interactions and understanding cultural nuances. A balanced approach that incorporates both forms can lead to a well-rounded mastery of the language.