I spoke 4 languages: Hokkien, Indonesian, English, and Mandarin on my recent trip to Penang. There was no communication barrier since the Penangnites are mostly multilingual too, at least, they know a bit of each language. They are also familiar with the Indonesian language because of the many tourists from Indonesia, either for tourism or medical checkups. I had learnt Tamil before but it was not enough for me to have a conversation yet. I will learn Tamil more seriously from now on, so I can use it on my next trip to Penang.
The way I decide which language to use can be categorized based on who the person is talking to me. I spoke Indonesian to the Malay people, Hokkien to the elder Chinese people, Mandarin to the Chinese youngsters, and English to the Indian people and Western-looking people. These people are all local people living in Penang. They are not foreigners who come to make a living in Penang!
Penang is a state in Malaysia that is known for its cultural diversity and linguistic vitality. Penang has a population of about 1.8 million people, who belong to different ethnic groups and speak different languages. The main ethnic groups in Penang are the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Eurasians.
The official language of Penang is Malay, which is also the national language of Malaysia. Malay is used for administration, education, and media in Penang. However, Malay is not the only language spoken in Penang. According to a survey conducted by the Penang Institute in 2016, only 36% of Penangites speak Malay as their first language, while 43% speak Chinese dialects, 10% speak English, and 10% speak other languages.
The Chinese dialects spoken in Penang include Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and Hainanese. Hokkien is the most dominant dialect among the Chinese community in Penang, as it is spoken by about 80% of them. Hokkien is also used as a lingua franca among different ethnic groups in Penang, especially in the urban areas. Hokkien has a unique variety in Penang, as it has been influenced by Malay, English, Tamil, and other languages.
The other languages spoken in Penang include Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Malayalam, Urdu, Arabic, Thai, and Portuguese Creole. Tamil is the main language of the Indian community in Penang, as it is spoken by about 90% of them. Tamil is also used for religious and cultural purposes by the Hindus and Sikhs in Penang. Punjabi, Telugu, Malayalam, and Urdu are spoken by smaller groups of Indians in Penang. Arabic is spoken by some Muslims in Penang, especially those who have studied or worked in the Middle East. Thai is spoken by some Malays in Penang who have ancestral ties with Thailand. Portuguese Creole is spoken by some Eurasians in Penang who have Portuguese ancestry.
Penang is a multilingual society where people often use more than one language depending on the context and the audience. Penangites are generally proud of their linguistic diversity and heritage, as they see it as a source of identity and unity. However, some of the languages in Penang are endangered and face the risk of extinction due to various factors such as urbanization, globalization, and education policies. Therefore, there is a need to promote and preserve the linguistic diversity and vitality of Penang for future generations.
Have you traveled to Penang? You can share your stories with us in the comment box.