Malaysia’s only official language is Malay (officially Bahasa Malaysia, sometimes known as Bahasa Melayu). The Indonesian language spoken across the border in Indonesia is similar to Malay, and speakers of both languages can generally understand each other. In some parts of Malaysia near the Thai border, especially in Kelantan, there are dialects of Malay that are almost incomprehensible to speakers of Standard Malay, although most people in these areas are able to converse in Standard Malay when necessary.
English is compulsory in all schools and is widely spoken in the larger cities, among the educated upper classes and near the main tourist attractions, although a little Malay is very useful in rural areas. There is also a colloquial form of English spoken among Malaysians in urban areas, not inappropriately known as Manglish, which involves switching between English, Malay and/or other languages. Note that almost all Malaysians do not pronounce the letter “h”, e.g. “three” and “tree” is pronounced as “tree”. Malaysians will almost always try to speak “standard English” (British) when approached by Western travellers. Police stations and government offices usually have English-speaking staff on duty.
Arabic is taught to those who attend Islamic religious schools, and many clerics as well as other very observant Muslims have a good command of the Arabic language. However, it is not widely spoken, although the Malay language has a large number of loanwords from Arabic. You will also see some examples of Malay with Arabic letters. This is called Jawi and is still used for religious publications and inscriptions, especially in states like Kelantan, although the Latin alphabet is much more commonly used throughout the country.
The Chinese community in Malaysia speaks a variety of Chinese dialects, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Teo-Kau, Hakka, Hainanese, Hok-Kau and Hokkien. Mandarin is taught in most Chinese schools, while Cantonese is commonly heard in the mass media due to the popularity of Hong Kong TVB series, so many know both languages in addition to their native dialect. The most commonly spoken Indian language is Tamil, others are Malayalam, Punjabi and Telugu.
In the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia, which border Thailand, there are several ethnic Thai communities known locally as Orang Siamese, who speak different dialects of Thai. Malacca in the south is also home to a Portuguese community that speaks a Portuguese-based Creole. The remote forest areas of Peninsular Malaysia are also home to several tribal peoples, the Orang Asli, who speak various indigenous languages such as Semelai, Temuan and many others. In East Malaysia, several indigenous languages are also spoken, especially Iban and Kadazan.
Films and television programmes are usually shown in their original language with Malay subtitles. Some children’s programmes are dubbed into Malay.