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Languages of Southeast Asia

Which languages are spoken in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam

Entire books have been written on the subject of languages of Southeast Asia so we’re limiting our post to the above countries and only including languages that are still spoken by at least significant-sized minorities in each country.

With a few well-known exceptions – Basque, Sami and Hungarian spring to mind – all modern European languages belong to the Indo-European linguistic family and all are, at least distantly, related. Although covering a much narrower geographical range, Southeast Asia is far more complex and includes several distinct and completely unrelated language groups.

We’ll do a country-by-country rundown on commonly spoken languages of Southeast Asia, as well as answering one of our frequently asked questions; ‘…is English widely spoken in Thailand, Vietnam etc?’ Firstly then, the principal linguistic groups are as follows:

Austro-Asiatic

This group includes Mon-Khmer languages and is historically the most widespread language family in mainland Southeast Asia. It has been displaced in many areas, in relatively recent times, by Tai-Kadai (which includes modern Thai) and Austronesian, (Malay) but is still the principal language spoken in Cambodia while Vietnamese is also considered part of the Austro-Asiatic family. Elsewhere, minorities speaking Mon-Khmer languages are found from the far north of Thailand and Burma’s Shan State, (Wa and Palaung), all the way to the Aslian-speaking Orang Asli tribes of Peninsula Malaysia.

Tai-Kadai

Tai-Kadai languages originate from what is today southern China and were traditionally spoken in a wide swathe of mountains from northern Vietnam, across Laos and Burma’s Shan State into northeastern India. The migration of Tai-speaking groups into mainland Southeast Asia from the 13th century onwards means that today Thai is spoken as far south as northern Malaysia. Note Tai is the broader linguistic/ethnic group while Thai refers to a specific nationality and language. The former thus includes Shan, Lao and the various dialects found in northern Vietnam as well as modern Thai.

Austronesian

Austronesian languages are now considered by many linguists to have originated on the island of Taiwan, (formerly Formosa) before spreading to much of what are today the nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. This includes; Bahasa Melayu, (Malay), Javanese, Sundanese and Tagalog as well as Cham, which is still widely spoken in parts of Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

Sino-Tibetan

The fourth major group of languages of Southeast Asia is a vast and highly complicated linguistic family comprising no less than 400 separate languages. Sinitic languages, which include modern Chinese dialects, are a branch of this group but as regards languages of Southeast Asia, we’re primarily referring to minority, mainly mountain-dwelling peoples, of northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand which include the Hmong, (H’mong), Karen, Yao, (Dzao), Lisu, Akha etc.

Sapa Market, Vietnam
Hmong and Dzao people – seen here in Sapa market – speak Sino-Tibetan languages
Which languages are spoken in Cambodia?

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. Obvious similarities with Thai are purely due to the large number of Sanskrit and Pali loan words present in both and the two languages are unrelated. (Both Thai and Khmer are mono-syllabic languages and multi-syllabic words are generally borrowed from Indic languages. Unlike Thai, Khmer is a non-tonal language and a few words are easily picked up.) Ethnic Cham people comprise between 5 and 10% of the population, follow the Islamic religion and speak Cham as well as Khmer. (They are concentrated in the south – Kampot, Takeo – as well as areas bordering the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers.) Thai is often understood by residents of western Provinces, such as Battambang, while the country has large Vietnamese minorities in the east as well as the capital Phnom Penh and around the Tonle Sap Lake.

English is taught in some schools and basic English may be spoken in large cities and tourist hubs such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. French is no longer widely spoken and Chinese, (Mandarin), would be the third choice language today.

Which languages are spoken in Laos?

The official language is Lao – a Tai-Kadai language closely related to modern Thai. (So closely that some still argue as to whether it is a separate language or merely a dialect.) Thai cultural influences are strong – e.g. modern music, TV soaps etc – so the majority of Lao people understand standard Thai, although the reverse is not true. However, almost half the population speak first languages other than Lao. The Mon-Khmer Khmu is widely spoken while the country’s numerous hill-tribe minorities speak Sino-Tibetan languages such as Yao, Hmong, Akha, (Hani), etc.

English is taught in schools in larger towns and, again, is relatively common in tourist areas such as Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng although will be little understood in smaller towns and rural areas. Older people occasionally speak French but Chinese, and Vietnamese – in the south in particular – are more widely spoken.

Languages of Southeast Asia
Cham and Khmer speaking trader in Kep’s Crab Market
Which languages are spoken in Malaysia?

Malaysia’s complex ethnic mix gives rise to a highly complicated linguistic mix and while Malay, (Bahasa Melayu), is the country’s official language its citizens have a wide range of alternative first languages. An estimated 650% of the population is ethnic Malay, some 24% Chinese and 7-8% Indian with minority peoples making up the remainder. The Malay population predominates in east coast states, (Kelantan and Terengganu), as well as rural areas and most smaller towns. The ethnic Chinese and Indian population – principally, although not exclusively, found in urban areas – include wide diasporas and languages so the latter comprises Hindi, Urdu, Tamil etc and the former includes numerous Hokkien and Hakka speakers as well as Cantonese.

While you’ll mainly hear Malay in smaller towns and villages – despite the government’s best efforts – English still functions as a lingua franca for many inhabitants in urban areas and competent, often fluent, English is widely spoken in larger towns and cities. (Sarawak still has English as a second official state language.) Malay uses a Latin alphabet, is largely phonetic and is non-tonal, making it probably the easiest Southeastern language to pick up.

Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown
Myriad languages will be heard in KL’s Chinatown but English is often the lingua franca
Which languages are spoken in Thailand?

If you’re arriving from Malaysia or Singapore then the level of English in Thailand may come as something of a shock. You’re ok in Khao San Road or Koh Samui but outside of tourist areas – and if you’re lucky, larger cities – English is not widely understood. The official language is Thai, a complex language possessing 5 different tones and requiring very precise pronunciation. You’re not going to learn much of it in 2 or 3 weeks.

Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by hill-tribe minorities in northern Thailand while Lao is the first language in Isan or northeastern Thailand. (As we’ve said before it is closely related to, but not the same as, standard Thai.) It’s often said that there are more Lao speakers in Thailand than in Laos. Additionally, Khmer is the first language for some 1.5 million inhabitants in lower Isan – the southern halves of Buriram, Sisaket and Surin provinces – while an equivalent number of people in Thailand’s far south, (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat), speak Yawi – a form of Malay.

Chiang Mai Chinatown
Chiang Mai’s Chinatown

Large proportions of the populations of bigger cities – e.g. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket – are originally ethnic Chinese however, despite this proliferation of groups and languages, the country is relatively well integrated and the vast majority of its inhabitants speak fluent Thai. (You’ll hear some Mandarin or Hokkien spoken in Bangkok’s Chinatown but nowhere near to the same extent as in KL for instance.)

Which languages are spoken in Vietnam?

As with Thailand, you’ll hear a wide range of languages spoken in Vietnam but the vast majority of its disparate population will also speak standard Vietnamese. The national language is officially part of the Mon-Khmer linguistic family although historically is heavily influenced by Chinese and also has a complex tonal system. Good luck learning more than a few basics!

Minority languages include Sino-Tibetan variations in the north – Hmong, (H’mong in Vietnam), Dzao etc – while Tai, (usually erroneously referred to as Thai in Vietnam), dialects are also common in the northwest, particularly around Dien Bien Phu, Son La and Mai Chau. Cham and Khmer are both still spoken in parts of the Mekong Delta as are Mon-Khmer languages among tribal groups of the Central Highlands.

English is today taught in many schools although experience of foreign languages depends to some extent on the age of the person – reflecting the politics of the times. Older people do occasionally speak French, (to varying degrees); middle-aged ones sometimes Russian, while the younger generation favours English.

Don Khone school, South Laos
Lao kids in a village school. Regrettably, as in much of Southeast Asia, schools in rural areas are unable to teach English due to a lack of competent teachers.

With all Southeast Asian countries, except Malaysia, English language skills generally relate to the volume of foreign visitors that any given destination sees. Additionally urban as opposed to rural regions will generally see higher percentages of more affluent residents with consequent better access to better education. (Rural schools can not afford competent English teachers.) Wherever you are going though, do try and learn at least a few basics and if you do consider yourself linguistically challenged, (rather than just lazy!); remember a smile goes a long way.