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The Difference Between Malay and English

Updated on April 1, 2016

A Malay Girl

A typical Malay girl -- all smiles.
A typical Malay girl -- all smiles. | Source

Learning Malay is Simple. English? Not So.

While many Malays find it flattering that some English speakers manage to learn Malay so fast, I don't find it amusing at all.

Given how simple the Malay language is -- the lack of tenses, subject-verb agreement and singular-plural problems, a dedicated foreigner staying in a Malay state like Melaka could learn the language in month -- less if he or she spends some time learning the language with a native.

The only reason why most foreigners do not pick the language is practicality. In a country where many people speak understandable English, there's little motivation to know the native language.

But as I will show later, a Malay language speaker will find it hard to learn English because the language has many complexities that do not exist in Malay.

As such, it is best for a Malay to enroll in an English class (Kelas Bahasa Inggeris) that is taught by a native Malay who understands the difference between the two.

The Belacan & Paku - two Ex English Teacher Who Managed to Learn Malay

1. Malays Have No Tenses

The major reason why the Malays find it difficult to learn English is because of the tenses.

In Malay, there is no such thing as tenses.

So, if in English you say things like "I go to school" and "I went to school" to denote different times, in Malay you simply say "Saya pergi ke sekolah" for both. Time makes no difference at all.

Inaccurate? Yes. Simple? You bet.

In Malay, the notion of time is not as important as in English and it doesn't alter the verb in any way. If you want to use "had", just use the word "sudah" and you're done. There's no need to worry about the state of your verb.

2. Malays Do Not Care About Subject Verb Agreement

The English language puts a particular emphasize on the subject-verb agreement. In fact, in some schools you spend weeks learning this.

The reason why Malay speakers often make the subject-verb agreement errors is simple -- because such thing doesn't exist in Malay.

So if you say "The student sings" but "Your kids sing" -- where a single noun has a single verb and plural noun has a plural verb, you could simply say "Pelajar itu menyanyi" and "Anak anda menyanyi".

And like I mentioned above, the verb stays the same even when it is past tense -- " Your kids sang" still is "Anak anda menyanyi"

Because of this simplicity, Malay language students find it difficult to learn English, especially from someone who is not a bilingual.

3. Malays Do Not Care About The Number of Speaker

In English, you say "I am", or "she is" or "they are" -- which means, who and the number of people doing the action is important.

In Malay, there's no such thing. All the "verb be" above can be substituted as "adalah".

So :

  • I am = Saya adalah
  • She is = Dia adalah
  • They are = Mereka adalah

If you think that that is simple, here's another shocker. You could also eliminate the verb to be altogether.

So :

  • "I am a student" could be just "I student" -- translated as "Saya pelajar".
  • "She is a student" becomes "She student" -- "Dia pelajar"
  • "They are students becomes "They student" -- "Mereka pelajar"

Look! No am, is or are at all.

4. Malays Do Not Have Confusing Singular-Plural Forms

The English language puts a great deal of emphasize of the singular or plurality of the noun. You turn most singular nouns into plural simply by adding 's' to the end.

That is fine, until you get to certain nouns where things do not turn out to be that simple :-

I am not only talking about nouns such :-

  • baby -- becomes babies
  • hoof -- becomes hooves
  • axis -- becomes axes

But I am also talking about other nouns like :-

  • news - looks plural but is always singular as in "The news is depressing"
  • information - the plural and singular is the same.

This really confuses the Malays. Being simple people, here's how the Malay language treats the singular and plural problem.

We just double the word.

For example :-

  • news - Singular is "berita". Plural is "berita-berita"
  • baby - Singular is "bayi". Plural is "bayi-bayi"
  • potato - Singular is "kentang". Plural is "kentang-kentang"

It is dead simple. No wonder why Malays find English hard.

English Speakers Find It Easy To Speak Malay

Do You Know More?

I've just highlighted a few key differences between the two languages that an English speaking teacher should know before he or she starts teaching in Malaysia.

If you know more, please add in the comment box below.


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      2 months ago

      Stupid post.

      First of all, the simplicity of a language has nothing to do with the character of the people who speak it. Many languages tend to be simpler because they are used as a lingua franca. Some of the technologically simplest people in the past have some of the most complex languages (e.g. some Native American Indians)

      Secondly, the affixes in Malay make it extremely complicated for non-Natives to learn. I should know, since I'm a native English speaker who is going crazy trying to learn all the rules.

      Thirdly, as someone mentioned, you are focusing on Melayu Pasar, which tends to be much simpler than the formal language.

      Saying that, I love the fact Bahasa Melayu has none of the gendered nouns and all the other useless grammatical nonsense that some languages have. I like my languages stripped and useful (which is why it was a shock to discover how complicated the language really is when you delve deeper into it)

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      3 years ago

      it seems simple if this is for verbal or non formal usage. As in English, no one really check whether you are grammatically correct or whether you sentence is poorly constructed. Your sample above mostly talking about "bahasa pasar". Try listen to some speech or read some news in Malay, it is one difficult language

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      very informational read, but I must say that some of the Malay constituents are actually more intricate than what you suggested (which is to say how lazy Malays are)

      for example for singular-plural, the Malay language actually has more to it than just doubling the word like kata ganda seluruh, kata ganda separa, kata ganda berentak/berima, kata ganda berimbuhan

      good post, but I'd suggest you do a bit more research on the subject matter at hand


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