LTL DISCUSSION: Manglish: can or not?

Early in 2015 I lead some workshops on English for public speaking. In most cases, the participants were attending because they had to; not, necessarily because they wanted to. There was a lot of useful content for those who were interested, but the thing that stands out in my memory was the colleague who came on board during the second workshop to demonstrate the value of PowerPoint for public speakers – without using … er … PowerPoint. It was pretty hilarious in a tragic kind of way.

So while I was having a good old laugh at my colleague’s omission recently, I realised that my workshop activities were also missing something important.

Is it OK to use Manglish at English language events in Malaysia? Can or not? As they say.


Manglish, of course, is a combination of Malaysian + English and it is used to describe the type of non-standard English you commonly hear in Malaysia. You will also find Singlish in Singapore, Japlish in Japan and Wenglish in Wales. There are lots of others, too (Konglish, Spanglish, Swenglish, Taglish etc.).

I don’t like the term Manglish, because it sounds (to me) like an abbreviation of ‘mangled’ English. If something is ‘mangled’ it is broken beyond repair and cannot be used. Malaysian English is neither broken beyond repair, nor unusable. It is OK to speak English and sound like a Malaysian person, just as it is OK to speak English and sound like a Scot or South African. It’s not the idea of Manglish that I don’t like – it’s the nickname, so I prefer to use the term ‘Malaysian English’.

But is it OK to use Malaysian English in an educational, government or business setting where English is used as the common language?

If you are Malaysian, and you are in Malaysia speaking to other Malaysians why wouldn’t you use Malaysian English? The main reasons you would choose a form closer to Standard English would be clarity and appropriateness.

Clarity: Not everyone uses Malaysian English in the same way. Malaysia is made up of first language speakers from Indigenous or Asli groups, Mandarin or Hokkien, English, Tamil, and Malay communities – that’s a lot of language varieties to throw into the mix. Clarity involves using forms that are common to most communities and don’t cause too much distraction when thrown into the debate. Though it must be said that second language speakers deal with uncommon usages much better than first language speakers do.

Appropriateness: The way we speak around the breakfast table is not the way we speak around the meeting room table. If you want to describe the timeline for rolling out the new policy implementation, it is probably better to use a Standard version of English. This is not because Standard English has more flexibility or accuracy than other forms (it doesn’t), it’s because standard business English hits a more appropriate ‘register’ than other kinds of English.

BFM, a Malaysian business radio station, plays a hilarious advertisement for their weekly Market Watch programme where we hear two women gossiping across the fence in their native style of Malaysian English. It is very funny, because the two speakers are intelligently discussing the finer points of money markets – and it just sounds odd. If the way you are saying things becomes more noticeable than what you are saying, you need to adjust your register to something more suitable.

This does not mean that only the standard version of a language has the flexibility to describe complex ideas, but good English language presenters look for the most easily understood terms, and they avoid using their home dialect when talking to a wider audience. Whether you’re from Yorkshire, Texas or Kelantan, it is best to stay close to the standard form in order to include as many of your listeners as possible.

As well as staying close to the standard form, you also need to stay close to your listeners.

A good speaker knows how to connect with an audience. We want to share our experiences as well as our information. There are times when it is appropriate to step away from our professional image and step into a friendlier, more welcoming style of presentation. In the Malaysian context, eating together is very important, so using local English expressions to invite the audience to break for makan-makan can be both friendly and appropriate. Malaysian English can also be a non-threatening way to encourage an audience to step up and contribute their own experience or join in with an impromptu Q&A session at the end of your report or presentation.

So, for a good rule of thumb, stay close to Standard English when discussing facts and figures, but use Malaysian English when you want to make a personal connection with your audience.


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