The Different Major Languages of Southeast Asia

'When people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison'

Languages are the grandiloquence of nations. They define the religions, ethnicities, and beliefs of a group of people. The countries of Southeast Asia are no less. They have a plethora of different, and yet, the same origin of languages. 

Here is a brief guide to the languages of Southeast Asia -

1. Bahasa Indonesia - Indonesia

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Indonesia is the second-largest multilingual population in the world, with over 700 languages. The official language of the country is Bahasa Indonesia. It is used in administration, media, judiciary, and formal education, and almost everyone in Indonesia knows how to communicate in Bahasa, as it is commonly called. This language belongs to the Austronesian group and is influenced by regional languages like Javanese, Sundanese, and Minangkabau, as well as from Dutch, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Arabic, and more recently English.

The languages in Indonesia are divided into ten categories, a few of them being the national language, major indigenous languages, indigenous languages, foreign, and additional languages. Among the native speakers, Javanese is the most broadly spoken language.

2. Thai - Thailand

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Thailand has over 74 languages, including several dialects of Thai - the official language of the country. Spoken by over 80% of the population, Siamese Thai belongs to the Tai-Kadai family. It is heavily influenced by Lao, the official language of the bordering country - Laos. It also shows similarities to Chinese and Vietnamese and is mutually intelligible with languages like Isan, Lao, and other Southwestern Tai languages. The dialect of Bangkok is the most widely recognised of the Thai language. The script is written in the Thai alphabet, which has its origin from the Khmer script. It is divided into four different regional dialects- Northern Thai, Southern Thai, Northeastern Thai, and Siamese Thai.

3. Khmer - Cambodia

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Spoken by up to 16 million people, Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. It is an Austro-Asiatic language and is influenced greatly by Sanskrit and Pali, owing to Hinduism and Buddhism in the country. The first script of the language was written in the 7th century, using a script from South India. The country of Cambodia inhabits up to three dialects of the language, the most extensive being the Central Khmer. Central Khmer is spoken in the entire nation, except for the city of Phnom Penh and the Stung Treng province. Their regional accent is far apart enough to form a new dialect.

4. Vietnamese - Vietnam

Ancient Vietnamese Scriptures
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The national and official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, spoken by over 75 million people. It belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family. The language is divided into three dialects: Northern (spoken in and around Hanoi), Central (Hue), and Southern (Ho Chi Minh City). It is heavily influenced by Chinese and English and is the native language of the Vietnamese people. It is also the second language of various ethnic groups in the country, along with Tay, Cham, Khmer, and Muong.

5. Filipino and English - Philippines

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The Philippines has two official languages- Filipino and English. It has over 185 languages, most of them from the Malayo-Polynesian group. Although there are more speakers of Filipino than English, English is used majorly in government rulings and work. Filipino is spoken widely by various ethnic groups across the nation. It is an Austronesian language and is the first language for over two-thirds of the population. It is written greatly in Latin script because of the Spanish and American influence. Tagalog is another language that is widely spoken in the country and which also influences the elocution of Filipino.

6. Malaysia Malay - Malaysia

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Malay is one of the official languages of Malaysia, the other being English. Since Malay is a widely spoken language (with various dialects) in this region, in Malaysia, it’s called Malaysian Malay. The dialect of the language is Johore-Riau and is spoken by up to 80% of the population. It is termed as Bahasa Malaysia to recognize the languages and beliefs of the various ethnic groups in the nation. Fun fact- over 137 languages are spoken in Malaysia. English is also extensively spoken in the country, mostly for business and commercial purposes.

7. Malay - Singapore

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The national language of Singapore is Malay while English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil are the four official languages in Singapore. The most extensively spoken language in the country is English. It is used for business and government purposes, along with being the medium of instruction in school. Mixed with an asunder elocution, another popularly spoken language is Singlish. It is a colloquial form of traditional English, mixed with local expressions and slang, and far from the rules of grammar. Knowledge of Singlish is taken as a sign of being a true Singaporean. 

8. Burmese - Myanmar

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Myanmar’s official language is Burmese. It is a Sino-Tibetan language, spoken by the ethnic group of Bamar people. Myanmar has over 100 languages in the nation due to the presence of multiple ethnic groups. Most of these local languages are from three language groups- Tibeto Burman, Tai, and Mon-Khmer. Yet, Burmese is the first language of up to 33 million people. The country also has a history of English during the colonial period. Though English lost its candour post the military coup of 1962, elementary knowledge of the same is promoted.

9. Lao - Laos

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Lao is the official language of Laos. It is spoken in various dialects across the nation, including Southern Lao, Northern Lao, Central Lao, and the most extensively used, Vientiane Lao. Vientiane Lao forms the foundation of Lao vocabulary, accent, pronunciation, and expressions. It came to be the most understood dialect through the second half of the 20th century. All these dialects form a bridge language among a lot of others for 90% of the population. The people of Laos are also known to speak languages like Thai and Isan. These are all mutually intelligible languages, i.e., even if one is not educated in a language, he/she can understand it conveniently.

10. Malay and Brunei English - Brunei

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Although Brunei’s official language is Malay, Brunei English is extensively spoken in the country. It is called ‘Brunei English’ due to its distinct parameters regarding dialect, pronunciation, grammar, plurality, etc. This language is taught in schools as well, promoted through education and ethnicity. Brunei English is known and spoken by the majority of the country.

Malay is not far behind. It is a language from the Austronesian group, spoken by up to 290 million people across the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, and other small islands in the region. It is the staple language of the Malays, an Austronesian ethnic group. Malay in Brunei has two dialects- Malaccan and Melayu Brunei. Malaccan dialect is used in the Standard Malay, which was recognized by the constitution as an official language in 1959. The Melayu Brunei is the local dialect (language- Brunei Malay), with few differences from the Standard Malay. This language is also broadly spoken in the country.

11. Portuguese and Tetum - Timor-Leste

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Timor-Leste is a very linguistically, diverse nation. A legion of languages from the Austronesian and Papuan groups is accepted here. They have two official languages- Portuguese and Tetum. The dialect of Portuguese is not defined per se, since Portuguese in itself is a widely-spoken language of the world.

Timor-Leste was introduced to this language during the Portuguese rule of up to 2 centuries. Nevertheless, the people of the country did not lose their roots in the Tetum language, and it continued to be spoken by the locals. Since that time, it has had two dialects- Tetun Praska, and Tetun Terik.

Tetun Praska is influenced heavily by Portuguese, spoken widely in the capital city of Dili. Tetun Terik, on the contrary, is the aboriginal version the same with distinct word choice and minimal foreign influence. Tetum is spoken in the Indonesian West Timor and the borders of East Timor. The state also recognizes English and Indonesian (due to their rule) as working languages.


While you are likely to find many more languages and dialects being spoken by immigrant minorities, this guide comprehensively lists out the majoritarian languages being spoken in these eleven countries. These languages of southeast Asia have come about due to trade and immigration and the amalgamation of various cultures and scripts

This post was published by Pranjali Jain

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