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Bahasa Melayu: Learning the Malay Language from Scratch

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Welcome to the Malay archipelago: a region of jam-packed cities and mega-diverse jungles, fast-growing economies and shopkeepers who you’ll call “auntie,” historic temples, soaring skyscrapers, powerful artwork, arcades you could get lost in, restaurants you would happily get lost in, and hundreds of languages and cultures living side-by-side – sometimes with friction, but mostly happily.

Malay is just two (yes, two!) of these languages. But whether you’re speaking bahasa Melayu or bahasa Indonesia, you’ll find that it unlocks smiles and lets you hold conversations with complete strangers through to friends’ families.

Before you start creating word lists and searching for tutors, let’s take a look at the Malay apps, courses, and textbooks you might like to use, as well as what sets the Malay language apart and how to create your study plan.

About the Malay Language

There were around 200–250 million speakers of Malay in 2009, according to the linguist James T. Collins’ research. And that figure has likely increased over the past 11 years, due to growing population sizes.

Yet if you disregard all the people who speak Malay as a second language, this number drops to just 77 million. And if you then remove Indonesian from the category, and look at just native speakers of bahasa Melayu, you’re left with just 19 million speakers spread across Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

Much like how millions of non-native speakers use English to communicate, people on the Malay peninsula use Malay to communicate with people from other communities and ethnic groups – even when it’s not the first language of anyone in the room.

It’s heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Arabic, while early modern colonialism introduced English and Dutch loanwords. And Tamil and Chinese traders also shaped Bazaar Malay or Baba Malay, a pidgin language that later evolved into modern-day Indonesian.

But wait, why do we keep talking about Indonesian?

Indonesian vs Malay: What’s the Difference?

Modern-day Malay can be separated into two variants: bahasa Melayu and bahasa Indonesia.

Bahasa Melayu is spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and to a lesser extent, Indonesia. In Malaysia, it’s called bahasa Malaysia (which is controversial, given that not all Malaysians speak it).

Bahasa Indonesia, on the other hand, is spoken only in Indonesia, where it’s the lingua franca for a country with over 300 ethnic groups and, or so it’s estimated, over 700 languages. That means that Malay Indonesians will speak bahasa Melayu at home but bahasa Indonesia with people from other communities.

Wondering why they all begin with “bahasa?” That’s because it means language.

These two Malay variants are considered mutually intelligible. Yet while most bahasa Indonesia speakers will get the gist of what you’re saying if you speak to them in bahasa Melayu, there are significant differences, especially in the spelling, pronunciation, and loan words.

Rather dangerously, there are also a few false friends, such as percuma, which means “free” in bahasa Melayu but “useless” in bahasa Indonesia. And a handful of R-rated ones could lead to even greater offence than if you were to accidentally describe someone’s generously given free help as useless.

To understand why these two languages are so close and yet so different, we need to look at the region’s colonial history.

For a grand part of their past, Indonesia and Malaysia were in the same empire or even kingdom. The Malacca Sultanate of the 14th to 16th century, for example, straddled the two islands. So too did the 16th–18th-century Aceh Sultanate.

However, as various European empires began colonizing the region, the two islands found themselves divided between different colonial powers: Indonesia ended up under Dutch rule, while what is today Malaysia and Singapore became part of the British Empire – although not until after the British and Dutch had squabbled over who ruled Singapore. Meanwhile, Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888.

The British and Dutch colonizers found themselves ruling over people who not only spoke an unfamiliar language but wrote it with a different script: jawi. In response, they both independently set about finding a way to write Malay with the Latin alphabet. This led to the spelling differences between bahasa Melayu and bahasa Indonesia.

They also imported different loanwords. Christmas, for example, is krismas in bahasa Melayu but Natal in bahasa Indonesia. Money is duit in bahasa Indonesia, from the copper Dutch coin, but wang in bahasa Melayu.

While these variations are equally valid and important, we’ve focused on resources for learning bahasa Melayu. This isn’t to disregard the existence of bahasa Indonesia, but rather a reflection of the differences and the fact that most language-learners describe it as Indonesian rather than Malay.

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Extract from the Malay-language record of the 1805 sale of an indigenous Batak female slave called Dima to Mr. Peter Clark under British imperialist rule. Public Domain.

Jawi and Rumi: The Two Writing Scripts of Malay

Today, most people write Malay in Rumi, which is the same Latin script we use in English. But in certain places, especially in Brunei and rural Malaysia, you’ll come across signs saying تريما کاسيه instead of terima kasih, or “thank you.”

Malay was originally written in a variety of scripts. There was Pallava, which originates from Southern India and has since evolved into Khmer, Thai, Lao and many more Southeast Asian scripts. There was also Devanāgarī, an Indian script that was also used to write Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathia, and more. Kawi and Rencong, both of which originate in Indonesia, were also common.

Yet with the peaceful spread of Islam across the region, these alphabets fell out of fashion and were replaced with Arabic. Over time, a new script, Jawi, developed that included the characters ڽ ڬ ﭪ ڠڠ . These were needed to represent phonemes found in Malay and other Southeast Asian languages.

The earliest discovered evidence of Jawi dates to the beginning of the 14th century, and the writing system is still in use today. It is a co-official script in Brunei, where both Malay and English are official languages.

There is also a government drive to increase its use across Malaysia. However, not all are in favour of this, especially given Malaysia’s multilingualism and Jawi’s close association with Islam. When the government tried to make studying khat, Jawi calligraphy, mandatory in primary education, it had to back down after fierce opposition – especially among Chinese and Tamil schools.

Meanwhile, in Singapore and Indonesia, the Latin alphabet is the official one.

You won’t need to learn Jawi to communicate in Malay, but you might like to, especially if you plan to live or travel in Brunei or Malaysia. We’ve included resources for how to learn it below, so keep reading.

How Difficult Is Malay?

Relax. Compared to other Southeast Asian languages, Malay is a fairly accessible language. The US Foreign Service Institute considers it one of the 15 easiest languages for English speakers to pick up, putting it roughly in line with German.

Saying it’s like German, however, is a tad misleading: for English speakers, German has a more complex grammar system but similar vocabulary. Malay, however, has completely different vocabulary but a more straightforward grammar system.

Of course, this is relative and will depend on what you’ve studied before. But let’s look at some characteristics of Malay: like English, there are no noun cases and it’s not a tonal language. Unlike English, the pronunciation is fairly regular.

There is no grammatical gender. You can say “she studies Malay in school,” but neither Malay nor the school is feminine or masculine.

There is normally no copula, i.e. “to be,” something that will seem familiar to Japanese and Russian students. Saya means “I,” pelajar means “student,” and saya pelajar means “I am a student.”

Talking about plural things, e.g. “chairs” rather than “a chair?” You can either keep it ambiguous and use the same word (a chair, kerusi), specify how many (five chairs, lima kerusi), or just make it clear that there’s more than one by repeating the word (kerusi-kerusi), depending on how precise you want to be. Either way, you won’t need to learn new vocabulary or rules about pluralizing adjectives.

You probably also noticed that “a chair” is two words in English but one in Malay. That’s because there’s no definite or indefinite article (the, a, an). There are demonstrative pronouns (that, this, those, these…) but only two of them, ini and itu.

On the other hand, counting is a little more difficult due to the use of classifiers. Five chairs might be “lima kerusi” but five cats are lima ekor kucing or “five – animal counter – cat” and five oranges are lima biji oren or “five – small, round object counter – orange.” Yet while this might seem novel to begin with, it won’t take long to pick it up.

Verb conjugation is much easier, with the past, present, and future indicated not by changes to the word’s spelling and pronunciation but by adverbs and modal verbs – the equivalent of “will,” “later,” and “already.” Instead of memorizing conjugation tables and irregular verbs, you’ll just need to master a handful of words to begin differentiating between what you did at the weekend and what you’ll do next weekend.

Malay also makes heavy use of affixes, which means you can expand your vocabulary pretty quickly. Plus, it will help you out with your listening and reading: once you’ve learned to recognize the affixes, you won’t have to keep reaching for a dictionary.

For example, a pe or pen prefix turns a verb or noun into a person, e.g. a penjual is a vendor, someone who sells (jual) things. Meanwhile, kedai means shop and pekedai is a shopkeeper. Alternatively, combining the prefix “ke” and the suffix “ken” converts nouns into adjectives, and the ter prefix makes an adjective superlative, e.g. termahal means the most expensive (mahal).

However, there is one thing that can catch Malay language-learners out: the different dialects and slang. In Malaysia alone, there are 137 different languages and 30 native tribes, which results in variations on the standard bahasa Malaysia. Switching between them can add layers of additional meaning.

Don’t worry too much, because you’ll always be understood by native speakers – but as a learner, you might find yourself saying saya tidak faham, “I don’t understand,” when you first meet people from other regions.

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How to Learn Malay

The best way to learn Malay will depend on you. What are your goals? What do you like to do? How much time do you have?

Once you’ve worked that out, you can start creating a study plan – one that hopefully gives you time to work on reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, and grammar.

Given the large number of dialects and variants, you’ll also want to decide which type of Malay you’re going to learn. Most apps, courses, and textbooks will teach you standard bahasa Melayu, and for travelers and businesspeople, this might be the best option. However, if you’re planning a move to a specific location, such as Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, or Penang, you might want to also practice with vloggers, podcasts, and language exchanges with people from that area. This will help you get used to the local dialect quicker.

Malay’s accessible grammar system means it won’t take you too long to be able to create your own sentences. Start journaling to expand your vocabulary, improve your word recall, and reinforce the grammatical structures you’re learning.

Memorize vocabulary and affixes with flashcards and quizzes. While there are plenty of word lists online (and in our resources section below), consider creating additional ones about your interests, work, and experiences. After all, that’s probably what you’ll talk about in the most detail.

Radio, music, podcasts, TV… there are numerous ways to work on your listening. We’ve given a few recommendations in our resource sections, as well as ideas for reading in Malay.

As for speaking, this will be pretty easy if you live in a Malay-speaking area but might be challenging if you’re studying it as a foreign language. Check out our tips for finding online tutors and language exchanges below, and in the worst of cases, record yourself speaking at home. It might not help with your response time, but it will improve your spoken fluency and word recall.

Try to study frequently. A little every day is far more effective than three hours every Sunday.

Above all, have patience with yourself. Learning a language, even one that’s considered relatively easy, takes time and can be frustrating. Progress might feel invisible, while it’s easy to forget words you knew last month. Yet as long as you keep studying, you will improve.

And if you ever get too demotivated, just go back to a task you did a few months earlier. You’ll be surprised by how easy it suddenly seems.

Resources for Learning Malay

From apps to textbooks and podcasts to poetry, there are plenty of ways to teach yourself Malay.

Learn Jawi Through Apps, YouTube, and Tracing Paper

Mastering the Jawi script won’t take you too long, but it can be a struggle to find resources. Omniglot has a good introduction to the Jawi alphabet, and this blog post dives into the pronunciation. Meanwhile, Malay-language YouTube video Bacaan Jawi Mudah Ringkas will help you distinguish between similar Jawi characters.

The apps Mari Belajar Jawi and Belajar Huruf Jawi Alif Ba Ta will help you learn it through gamification, and Cari Kata Jawi uses word searches to familiarize yourself with the characters.

Although not specifically about Jawi, you might find reading through Arabic Quick! a useful way to pick up general information about writing in Arabic scripts.

Sooner or later, you’ll want to not just recognize Jawi but also write with it. As well as opening up new ways to communicate, it’ll speed up the process of memorizing the different glyphs. If you live in a Malay neighborhood, you might be able to buy a workbook from a local store.

If not, you’ll probably need to create your own: you’ll be lucky to find something on Amazon. We recommend printing out the alphabet and picking up some tracing paper. Begin by tracing the glyphs to familiarize yourself with their forms and flow. Then, write them out yourself while looking at the originals. And finally, cover the originals while you do it. Don’t forget to mix up the order now and then so that you remember the meaning of the characters and not just what comes after ڠ on your worksheet.

You can also practice writing in Jawi and ask for feedback in this Jawi subreddit. Use this Rumi-Jawi converter or Rumi-to-Jawi to look things up and double-check your writing before you post.

As for typing online, try using the Lexilogos Jawi keyboard. Don’t forget to also download a Jawi keyboard for your phone.

Malay Online Language Courses and Classes

Although Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and other well-known brands don’t have Malay courses, there are still plenty of language courses for you to choose from.

Mango Languages will take you through beginner and lower-intermediate Malay. It’s mainly focused on listening and speaking, with a little bit of reading practice. You can also record yourself and then play the audio over that of the native speaker, helping you refine your pronunciation. We think it does a good job at improving word recall and getting you used to building sentences and phrases, although you’ll want to balance it out with writing practice.

The World at Your Fingertips/pgo13 is a free 64-class course that contains vocabulary, grammar, and listening exercises. There are detailed English-language explanations as well as comparisons with Indonesian. It doesn’t contain drills or practice opportunities, however, so you’ll have to create your own.

Subscription-based Living Language course will teach you grammar, vocabulary, and phrases through a wide range of games. However, it’s let down by occasional poor translations and games in which it’s too easy to guess the answers without understanding the material.

17 Minute Languages offers a “Malaysian” course. In our experience, however, the translations are often incorrect and it’s full of bugs.

Cudoo promises to teach you Malay and even business-specific Malay. But even if you regularly work with Malay-speaking clients, suppliers, or coworkers, we don’t recommend their courses. Not only do they fail to cover all the topics listed in the course description, but they have no explanations, don’t teach individual words and phrases, use phrases that sound translated, lack opportunities to practice and review, and contain extremely dull teaching presentations.

If you struggle with solitary or self-study, you can also turn to iTalki to find private tutors and language exchange partners, as well as get feedback on your writing. We’ve reviewed it in detail to help you understand if it’s the right option for you.

Malay Word Lists and Vocabulary Builders

Studying vocabulary lists won’t help you build sentences and can’t replace courses. However, when used as a supplementary tool, they’ll allow you to talk about a wider range of topics, give more detailed opinions, and communicate with greater precision.

Transparent Language is marketed as a course, but since you won’t learn any grammar or phrases, we consider it more of a vocabulary builder. It drills you on lengthy word lists, but if we’re honest, we found it repetitive, pedagogically questionable, and expensive.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of free alternatives. iLanguages will help you memorize vocabulary through word lists, audio files, and flashcards, while Polymath covers grammar as well as vocabulary but doesn’t have audio files.

101Languages covers everything from numbers to slang. You’ll have to find your own way to drill the phrases, but it’s a good starting point for your study sessions. The website also claims to teach you grammar, but we would look elsewhere for that: this section is sparse, simplistic, and devoid of examples.

MyLanguages has several word lists structured by grammatical function. In theory, it should also help you pick up grammar structures, but we felt the vocabulary selection was too sloppily organized to really work. The patterns aren’t always as visible as they could be. Use it to pick up new vocabulary but turn to a different resource for grammar and sentence-building.

You’ll find some basic Malay phrases here. Although it’s a brief list, we like the audio files and information on pronouns.

This flashcard-based quizlet set will also help you memorize new vocabulary, but be warned: the phrases can seem disorganized.

You’ll also come across some good vocabulary and flashcard options in our list of apps.

Apps for Learning the Malay Language

Many of the online courses we’ve listed, such as Mango Languages and iTalki, come with their own app. But there are also plenty of other options to choose from.

Memrise has a large range of community-made Malay courses on everything from numbers to phrases related to real estate. As unofficial courses, they can be hit or miss. We suggest trying a few out until you find one that works for you.

Ling uses example dialogues, quizzes, and spaced repetition to teach you everything from basic introductions through to making wishes and going to court.

L-Lingo Malay kicks off with some explanations of basic grammar before jumping into memory games. You’re shown a panel of six images and can listen to their pronunciation as well as seeing how they’re written and what they mean in English. You’re then tested on your ability to match the right image to the right phrase. It’s a good beginner-level tool for practicing listening and expanding your vocabulary, although we find it slightly too challenging for complete beginners.

LingQ offers Malay as a beta course, which hopefully will eventually become a fully supported one. It allows you to read and listen to Malay texts and even import your own. We find it a productive way to practice listening and reading but recommend using a different app for reviewing the words.

We’re a fan of the flashcard app Anki, which adapts to how difficult you find certain words. You can either create your own sets, which is useful if you want to create ones specific to your interests, or use a prebuilt deck. Tolemo Malay is a popular beginner-level one with audio files.

Alternatively, if you’re just going for a quick trip, you might prefer uTalk. This app doesn’t set out to teach you how the language works but instead help you memorize useful phrases. All the phrases are recorded by native speakers, plus you’ll get to practice speaking as well as listening. You can read all about our experience with it here.

Hoping for a language exchange partner? Or just a way to double check you’ve understood something? Apps such as Tandem, Speaky, and HelloTalk will allow you to chat with native and non-native speakers across the world, while HiNative will connect you with native speakers who can answer your questions. Check out our reviews (Tandem, Speaky, HelloTalk, HiNative) plus our HelloTalk and Tandem comparison to help you pick between them, or just go ahead and download them all.

Podcasts and Audio Courses for Learning the Malay Language

More of an aural learner? Or simply wishing you could make the most of your time spent commuting? Learn on the go with the 160 downloadable audio clips from Colloquial Malay, which is a complete course for beginner students.

When you’re ready for podcasts designed for fluent Malay speakers, you’ve got a few to choose from. Listen to horror stories on the professionally produced Malam Seram, complete with chilling sound effects. It’s frequently updated, with multiple new episodes published every week.

Sembang Kencang is irregularly updated but has a fair number of episodes to choose from. Topics range from movie reviews to current affairs and social issues.

Bila Larut Malam also explores current affairs, but it hasn’t been updated for a while. Still, you’ll find some interesting past episodes that are still relevant today.

Looking for something a bit more specific? EFM Podcasts is a business-oriented podcast with a mixture of Malay and English episodes, while you can listen to the New Testament in Malay with Bahasa Malayu Alkitab.

Malay Textbooks and Reference Books

With its clear explanations, Malay for Everyone is a good base for learning Malay grammar and vocabulary. Every chapter contains exercises, but there are only a few sample dialogues throughout the book.

Complete Malay: A Teach Yourself Guide is well-loved by language learners, although the audio files have some incompatibility issues with the Kindle app. We recommend purchasing the paperback copy.

If you like the Colloquial Malay audio course series in the Podcast section, try pairing it with the Routledge textbook.

Alternatively, Write Malayis dense but has plenty of examples and exercises to work through.

Skip Teach Yourself Malay: A Complete Course: it’s poorly structured and contains errors, which adds up to a frustrating experience. Meanwhile, you might find Malay Made Easy in a second-hand bookstore. The problem is that many of its editions are filled with incredibly dated language. Want an insight into colonial-era Malaysia? Give it a read. Otherwise, we suggest avoiding this one.

Malay Fiction Books and Poetry

Given the multilingualism of the Malay peninsular, it can sometimes be hard to find modern books that were originally written in Malay rather than English, Chinese, or one of the many other widely spoken languages in the region. Bernice Chauly, for example, is one of Malaysia’s award-winning and most influential contemporary writers, yet even her books and poems about her country are yet to be translated into Malay.

Yet while you have more limited choices, you can still find compelling Malay literature – whether you’re looking for an action-packed page-turner or a poignant novel that will change the way you view the world.

In Singapore, Malay authors often wrote in English to avoid being labeled as Malaysian and so denied their cultural identity. Yet Isa Kamari and Suratman Markasan have earned their place as leaders of the Malay-language Singaporean literary scene.

Although you’ll probably have to read his work in bahasa Indonesia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer is a must-read. He created his most celebrated novels, the Buru Quartet, as a political prisoner, narrating them to his fellow inmates who helped him record the story and smuggle it out. While this series focuses on the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, his books are also praised for their representations of women and Chinese Indonesian people.

Bruneian writers are less well-known, both in and outside of the country. However, the country continues to produce prize-worthy literature in English and Malay. Try Hajah Norsiah binti Haji Abdul Gapar, whose novels Pengabdian and Anji kepada Inah won awards. She also received the S.E.A. Write Award in 2009.

And if you’re looking for Malaysian Malay-language writers, you’ve got several to choose from. Ramlee Awang Murshid is a prolific author whose books have won awards and some have been made into movies. His novels tend to be fantasy, adventure, historical, or some blend of the three, and are often described as “thrilling.”

Emy Roberto’s novels focus on relationships: what happens when marriages are unhappy, or a pregnancy is unwanted? Her relationships-oriented novellas will teach you plenty of useful, modern vocabulary.

If you’re struggling to buy some of these books from abroad, you can read plenty of Malay Pantun, a traditional poetic form, online. You can find some here. And if poetry’s not to your taste, try reading these children’s books.

Learn the Malay Language Through YouTube and TV

You’ll find content suitable for complete beginners all the way through to fluent speakers on YouTube. Tina Amir’s channel has over 350 instructional videos, plus additional listening exercises. She covers everything from pronunciation to highly specific word lists and current affairs.

Speak Malay Like a Local by Sierra Lisse starts with the basics and is frequently updated. She has also uploaded some word lists for the videos on her website.

The channel Putori & Omak has both basic Malay instructional videos and regular Malay-language ones. We like how the instructional videos include clips from cartoons to illustrate the language and make the video more engaging.

The EasyMalay YouTube series is designed to help you pick up Malay by listening to basic interviews with native speakers. Most of them are filmed in Malaysia.

Ready for Malay-languages TV shows? Start off by watching the Upin & Ipin and Boboiboy cartoons. You’ll find plenty of episodes on YouTube.

When you’re ready for a bigger challenge, try watching Malay TV on the official TV3Malaysia YouTube channel or flicking through the movies, TV series, and live shows on TonTon. There’s also a wide range of Malay-language TED Talks.

Other Resources, From Malay Dictionaries to News Sites

Listening to Malay singers will help you pick up vocabulary. Pop-lovers could listen to Siti Nurhaliza, Yuna, and Ning, while Hujan is a popular indie rock band.

Stay up to date on current affairs and improve your Malay vocabulary at the same time by reading the news. For Malaysian news, try Berita Harian, Astro Awani, and Malaysia Kini. Alternatively, if you prefer the radio to a news site, try the All Malaysian Radios FM app.

Most Indonesian news sites are in bahasa Indonesia rather than bahasa Melayu, but the good news is that you have a lot of options. Try Jawa Pos and Kompas, which are some of the largest papers.

Berita Harian is a Malay-language Singaporean news site. For a Bruneian perspective, you’ll want to read Media Permata.

That being said, given the widespread self-censorship, harsh punishments, and generally limited press freedom in Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore, you might want to combine these sources with international news for a more balanced perspective. (Malaysia has historically had similarly poor press freedom, but there has been a dramatic decrease in journalist harassment and self-censorship over the past couple of years.)

Of course, with all this immersive reading and listening, you’re bound to come across unfamiliar words. Look them up in MalayCube, a Malay–English dictionary and thesaurus combined. You can also search for English words in the Cambridge English–Malay Dictionary, but you won’t be able to check the meaning of Malay ones.

Although Malay pronunciation is relatively straightforward, you can also use the pronunciation dictionary Forvo to check how to say specific words.

Just like how there are more Malay speakers than you might think, there are also far more resources available to you. And with its relatively accessible grammar and pronunciation, it’s a rewarding language to study.

So, what are you waiting for? Download some of the apps and podcasts, try out the courses and movies, and begin learning how to speak Malay. Boleh!

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