Learning to speak Malay is one thing, but you’re probably asking yourself, “Why would I want to learn Malay? What benefit will it give me?” You’re probably comparing it to English, Mandarin or French with their wider reach and larger population of native speakers. While Malay is no way comparable in scope, there may be several reasons why you’d want to learn it.
Malay may not have the same scope as the Top 3 most spoken language in the world, but according to Ethnologue, 18th Edition, Malay is the 9th most spoken language in the world with 77 million native speakers and 173 million L2 speakers. Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (as Bahasa Indonesia) and Brunei. Even Singapore’s national anthem remains in Malay despite the heavy dominance of English in everyday conversations. Other than these countries, Malay is spoken widely in the Cocos Island, Christmas Island, parts of Thailand (specifically Southern Thailand), as well as Palawan Islands in the Philippines and at smaller scale in Madagascar. The Malay used in Cocos Islands and Christmas Island is pretty much the same as the Malay used in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Speakers of Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia can easily understand each other.
The term Malay in essence is an umbrella term for all dialects of Malay in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand. Malay is represented by the Standard Malay taught in all schools located in Malaysia and is also used in Singapore. In Malaysia, different states may have various dialects that differ in vocabulary and pronunciation. The Malay spoken in Sabah and Sarawak are closer to Bruneian Malay, but differ from the local dialects of the states in Peninsular Malaysia. Even among Malays, the local dialects of states like Kelantan, Terengganu or the Southern Thailand regions may be hard to grasp at first. Due to the nature of these local dialects, Standard Malay was designed to be the unifying language where every speakers of Malay in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore can communicate easily.
Malay grammar is simpler than English, French and Mandarin, and has no noun case. It has a simple SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence structure.For example: Dia (subject) tulis (verb) surat (object) which means ‘He/she writes a letter’. In Malay, modifying a noun involves adding a word after a noun. For example: kereta (noun) laju (modifier) which literally means ‘fast car’. As evidenced in the above example, Malay does not make use of grammatical gender. ‘He’ and ‘she’ uses the same word ‘dia’. Prepositions in Malay are very straightforward in Malay. For example: Saya dari Melaka (I am from Melaka). Malay is an agglutinative language, which means new words are formed by adding affixes to the root word, creation of compound word from two words or more or the repetition of words or parts of words.
There are no verb conjugations in Malay, all verbs stays the same regardless of when in time they happen. For example; For ‘to walk’, the verb is ‘jalan’ regardless of whether it happened in the past, is presently happening or will happen in the future. Tenses are determined by adding a word representing the time or an adverb before the verb. Malay makes extensive use of prefixes (front addition), suffixes (rear addition) and circumfixes (both front and rear addition). There is also no grammatical plural in Malay, you indicate plural with either a number, a countable noun, or by repeating the same word.
Malay is one of the easiest language to pronounce having simple phonetic (unlike English and French). It has no tonal distinction to make the same word has different meanings depending on the tone used in pronouncing unlike Cantonese and Mandarin. The only issue is in the E sound, where depending on the word, it can be pronounced as either the E from ‘tear’ or from ‘learn’. Malay has less consonant (19 consonants according to linguists) and vowel sounds (6 vowels with the letter E having two different sounds).
Apart from all those, the grammar of Malay has been mostly unchanged among its descendant dialects. The current form of Malay is quite similar to the Classical Malay of the 15th century. If you were to meet a person from the golden age of Malacca Sultanate, you should be able to communicate with a little difficulty mostly due to vocabulary. Modern Malay speakers can still read Classical Malay literatures in its original form such as Undang-undang Melaka (Law of Melaka), Sulalatus Salatin (The Malay Annals) and Hikayat Amir Hamzah all from the 16th century.