Do they speak English in Kuala Lumpur?

English is widely spoken in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia is famous for its beautiful beaches, large rainforest, huge and ample shopping malls and delicious food.

The capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (“KL”) is a vibrant city which is easy for tourists to get around.

Most parts of Kuala Lumpur are connected by railways and there are free buses provided around the centre of the city.

If you’re wondering if you’ll be able to survive in Kuala Lumpur using only English, the answer is that you’ll be just fine.

Read on for more details..

Is English adequate to get around in Kuala Lumpur ?

Knowing only English is definitely enough to get around in Kuala Lumpur if you’re planning on visiting.

You don’t need to worry about not understanding the language as most of the signs, menus and food labels are all in English.

You can also put away that language translation device as almost everyone in the street understands and speaks Engish surprisingly well.

Even taxi drivers, hotel staff and mall operators speak English, but sometimes they don’t have perfect grammar.

But then again, neither do I!

Do Malaysians have a strong command of English?

Generally speaking, yes Malaysians do have a strong command of English, particularly in KL.

However, due to the various languages spoken here, English words are often jumbled up with Malay, Chinese dialects and Tamil.

This might cause some confusion for visitors who may wonder if they are hearing English or not. Fret not though as Malaysians will usually use standard English words when conversing with western travelers.

You might only hear examples of this in conversations between Malaysians in private settings. As standard English is normally used in the office and business settings. If their level of English is very low, they might use the Malay language or a Chinese dialect to speak amongst themselves.

It’s worth mentioning that if you venture outside of KL the number of people that you encounter who don’t have a great command of English will be higher than inside the city.

You’ll still be able to get by, but you may have some communication difficulties from time to time.

Is English widely spoken in Malaysia?

Malaysia map
Malaysia is broken into the Peninsula and East Malaysia.

Malaysia is divided into Peninsular (West) Malaysia and East Malaysia, the proficiency of spoken English differs according to the different regions.

You’ll find higher standards of English in Kuala Lumpur than you will in a remote region that doesn’t have many tourists visiting.

Peninsular Malaysia

English is widely spoken in urban areas where Malaysians are mostly educated and there is an emphasis on English.

Malaysians here use English in their daily life, from receiving calls to ordering food in restaurants.

Road signs in the city area are mostly labelled in both English and Malay. Don’t worry about not understanding the road signs if you ever get lost – driving in Malaysia is quite similar to driving in Australia in my experience.

Speaking of which, don’t be shy to ask for directions as most Malaysians understand the English language and will be glad to give a helping hand.

Youngsters in KL definitely understand English and some of them are completely fluent to the point where they actually can’t speak Malay or Chinese very well.

The minorities that don’t understand English will still be able to converse with broken phrases and some common words as English is literally everywhere in Kuala Lumpur.

As for the senior citizens, most of them aren’t fluent in English, but they do understand basic English.

However, if you are expecting to deal with civil servants and are required to visit a government office.

Be prepared, as most of the civil servants aren’t fluent in English. Ask a Malaysian friend to help or bring a language translation device along with you.

East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia

Along the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and in East Malaysia, English is rarely spoken.

In rural areas, most of the residents don’t speak or understand English and English isn’t widely used there.

The younger generations will usually be able to understand English if it is spoken at a slower pace. This is because English is taught in school and is considered a fairly important subject.

However, they don’t use it in daily conservations so their English might be quite poor.

Unfortunately, the older generations aren’t usually literate in English as most of them weren’t educated and English isn’t widely used in rural areas.

If you’re considering traveling to rural areas, picking up some basic Malay language will come in handy.

What percentage of Malaysians speak English?

Malaysians waving using the Jalur Gemilang
Malaysians during the national day celebration

In urban areas, especially Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Johor and Penang, the vast majority of Malaysians speak English.

However, English is usually spoken between different races and during business settings. When conversing amongst their own race they generally prefer to use their mother tongue.

According to the New York Times, around 50% of Malaysians are literate in English which I would say seems true.

In the cities, almost all Malaysians understand and speak English although some of them may not be very good at it.

As you move further towards the countryside, by the East Coast of the Peninsular Malaysia and the West Malaysia, the percentage of Malaysians who understand the English language drops significantly. Some of them understand basic English, but most don’t speak it very well.

Is English a foreign language in Malaysia?

English may be a foreign language in Malaysia, but it is understood by most Malaysians.

English has always been around, since the late 18th century during the British colonisation of Malaya (modern day Malaysia).

English may be a foreign language, but it is a familiar language that is used everywhere in Kuala Lumpur and many other regions of Malaysia.

Malaysians have been learning English ever since they were young and residents of Kuala Lumpur have a higher level of English proficiency than what you will find in neighboring countries – Thailand and Indonesia, but probably not as good as what you’ll find in Singapore.

Malaysians study English from as early as preschool and it’s a compulsory subject for school students. Besides being the national lingua franca language, English is also used in business settings and is used by lecturers in universities.

In my opinion, English might be a foreign language in Malaysia, however, it could also be considered as a second language for many Malaysians.

What is the first language in Malaysia?

The first language in Malaysia is definitely the national language which is Bahasa Melayu or the Malay language.

Malay language is also spoken in Singapore, Brunei and parts of the border region shared with Thailand.

Foreigners often confuse the Malay language and Indonesian language as the same. Although there are many similarities between them, there are also many differences.

The same words might share different meanings.

The relationship between the Malay and Indonesian language is similar to the relationship between the Spanish and Italian languages.

Other languages spoken in Malaysia

Research shows that in 2016 about 65.6% of people born in Malaysia speak another language besides English.

These languages include Bahasa Malayu, Chinese dialects and Indian dialects.

The Chinese dialects are usually spoken by the Chinese community and the Indian dialects are spoken by the Indian Community.

Everyone born in Malaysia will have some level of proficiency in Bahasa Melayu, regardless of their race.

Actually, it’s quite common to meet people in Malaysia that speak 3 or more languages.

Chinese dialects commonly spoken in KL:

  • Mandarin
  • Hokkein
  • Cantonese
  • Hakka
  • Foochow

Indian Dialects commonly spoken in KL:

  • Punjabi
  • Malayalam
  • Hindi

Unfortunately, dialects seem to be dying out as most parents don’t teach their children dialects these days.

Dialects aren’t taught at school as they aren’t considered an important subject because there isn’t much economic value in knowing them.

Summary of using English in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia more broadly is a great place to travel and the people here speak all kinds of languages, including English.

Other commonly spoken languages in Malaysia are Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tamil and others.

You won’t have any problems communicating with the locals and navigating your way around the country if you can only speak English.

Don’t forget to try the local food while you’re here. You will be spoilt for food choices in Malaysia. Due to the different cultures in Malaysia, there are all kinds of food.

From street food along Chinatown to the luxurious restaurants in KL, you should expect to put on a few kilos.

But, there’s absolutely no need to worry about communicating using only English – you’ll find it very easy to get around Kuala Lumpur without any knowledge of other languages.

Safe travels ✌

Marty Spargo

I first visited Malaysia as a tourist in 2004 and frequently returned for short visits over the next decade or more before moving to Kuala Lumpur to live in 2018. I live and work in KL, but remember what it's like to see the city for the first time as a tourist, so I try to create helpful articles with that in mind. You can read my full bio here.

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