If you’ve ever assumed that all Chinese Malaysians speak “Chinese”, that’s not a thing. While “Chinese” often refers to the common-tongue Standard Mandarin, most of the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia actually speak a combination of dialects with a unique Malaysian twist.
The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia originally migrated from different parts of China and settled in the country according to their spoken dialect.
As a very general guide, most of the Chinese in KL speak Cantonese, those in Penang and Klang speak Hokkien, those in Kota Kinabalu speak Hakka, and those in Johor Bahru speak Teochew.
After that, the languages spoken became localized, which is why Penang Hokkien and Klang Hokkien are different too.
Among the ethnic Chinese that speak different dialects, they often revert to Mandarin since the dialects vary and can be unintelligible to someone who doesn’t speak it.
Most Chinese Malaysians understand and communicate in Standard Mandarin, or the more colloquial Malaysian Mandarin.
Malaysian Mandarin is a variant of Standard Mandarin, but many consider it a dialect in its own right.
This is because Malaysian Mandarin uses many loanwords from English and Malay in daily conversations, which results in our well-loved “Rojak language”.
Malaysian Mandarin is also characterised by our use of glottal stops (the fancy word for ‘-lah‘ and other similar sounds) to bring significant meaning into the language.
All Malaysians will likely be able to understand the different meanings of our different -lahs, but it’s actually very unique to Malaysian culture!
Even Mandarin-speaking foreigners may struggle to understand our Malaysian Mandarin because of how different it is, in terms of pronunciations and the vocabulary used.
It’s similar to how even if you understand and speak in Malay, Kelantanese Malay can be unintelligible to the non-Kelantanese.
But regardless, if you’re ever in a pinch and need to communicate with a Chinese Malaysian, just revert to Bahasa Malaysia or English- most of us understand you just the same.
Anne is an advocate of sustainable living and the circular economy, and has managed to mum-nag the team into using reusable containers to tapau food. She is also a proud parent of 4 cats and 1 rabbit.