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Languages of Brunei

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Title: Languages of Brunei  
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Subject: Languages of Asia, Bruneian Malay people, Brunei, Languages of Kazakhstan, LGBT history in Brunei
Collection: Languages of Brunei
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Languages of Brunei

There are a number of languages spoken in Brunei.[1] The official language of the state of Brunei is standard Malay, the same Malaccan dialect that is the basis for the standards in Malaysia and Indonesia.[2] This came into force on 29 September 1959, with the signing of Brunei 1959 Constitution.[3]


  • Standard Malay 1
  • English 2
  • Chinese languages 3
  • Minority languages 4
  • Brunei Malay 5
  • Arabic 6
  • Indian languages 7
  • Nepali languages 8
  • Expatriate languages 9
  • Notes 10

Standard Malay

"The Malay Language: The Public Language of the Country" in two different scripts (Jawi and Roman) on a road-side sign promoting the use of Malay in BSB, Brunei.

The Malay language is the standard language for many of the peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia and is spoken as a lingua franca in Brunei. The official standard for the language, has been defined and agreed upon by the Language and Literature Bureaus of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Standard Malay is also accepted in the printed form and is used in all official Brunei government media.


"Protected Place" in three languages in Brunei. The first two lines are Malay in Roman script and then in Jawi script. Next is Mandarin Chinese. Finally, English.

English is widely used as a business and official language and it is spoken by a majority of the population in Brunei. There are two daily English language newspapers, Borneo Bulletin and The Brunei Times, but only one daily newspaper in Malay, Media Permata, which is published six times a week (as there is no Sunday edition).

The bilingual system of education was introduced in 1985, with the first three years taught in Malay while English was the medium of instruction for most subjects from the fourth year of primary school onward,[4] so all school children have had substantial exposure to English since then. In 2008, the new SPN21 education system was introduced, and from then on, maths and science have been taught in English from the start of primary school, so the role of English is even more firmly established.[5]

One result of the promotion of both English and Malay in Brunei is that minority languages, such as Tutong and Dusun, tend to get squeezed out. Noor Azam has described the situation using the Malay proverb: Gajah berperang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah. ('When elephants fight, the mouse-deer between them dies.')[6] Some features of the pronunciation of English in Brunei are: the TH sound at the start of words such as thin and think tends to be pronounced as [t];[7] vowel reduction is mostly avoided in function words such as of and that;[8] and there seems to be an increasing incidence of rhoticity.[9]

Chinese languages

The Chinese minority in Brunei speak a number of Chinese languages and dialects.[10] The Hokkien (Min Nan) tongue predominates in the Brunei-Muara and Temburong districts, while Cantonese and Hakka speakers are mostly concentrated in the Seria and Kuala Belait areas of the Belait district. Other versions of Chinese spoken in Brunei include Hoisan, Fuchow and Hainanese.

Mandarin is the language of instruction at the primary level in the private Chinese schools, and is taught as a subject at the secondary level. Mandarin is also used as the lingua franca among the Chinese community.

Minority languages

There are five minority peoples native to Brunei, each with their own language: Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Bisaya, and Lun Bawang ('Murut'). They are less than 40% cognate with Brunei Malay, and are being replaced with it through intermarriage and conversion to Islam.

Iban, Penan, and Melanau are spoken by immigrants from Sarawak.

Brunei Malay

The local dialect, Melayu Brunei (Brunei Malay), is the most widely spoken language.[2] It is spoken by about 266,000 people.[11] About 84% of its words are cognate with Standard Malay, while 94% are reported to be cognate with Kedayan.[12]

Brunei Malay is also spoken as a lingua franca in some parts of East Malaysia such as the Federal Territory of Labuan, the districts of Limbang and Lawas (Sarawak) and the districts of Sipitang, Beaufort, Kuala Penyu and Papar (Sabah). It is expanding at the expense of the indigenous minority languages.

Although its lexis is 84% cognate with Standard Malay, Brunei Malay is mostly mutually unintelligible with other dialects of Malay.


Arabic is the language of the Quran and is used by Islamic scholars in Brunei. The official religion of Brunei is Islam[13] and as such, all adherents of the faith possess some proficiency in reading and speaking Arabic.

Arabic is taught in schools, particularly religious schools, and also in institutes of higher learning.[14] As of 2004, there are six Arabic schools and one religious teachers' college in Brunei.[15]

Indian languages

The Indian minority in Brunei originates mostly from southern India. They are joined by a relatively large expatriate community, estimated at about 7500, from India.[16] Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi are some of the Indian languages spoken in Brunei.

Nepali languages

There is also a contingent of Nepali soldiers of the Gurkha Reserve Unit in Sungai Akar camp and 1st and 2nd Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles stationed in Seria, Brunei. The language spoken by most of these soldiers is Gurkhali. There are Gurkhali languages services provided by Radio Television Brunei[17] and the British Forces Broadcasting Service.[18]

Expatriate languages

Besides the expatriate Indians, Brunei also has a large expatriate community of Filipino,[19] Indonesian and English-speaking[20] origins.


  1. ^ Martin, P. W., & Poedjosoedarmo, G. (1996). An overview of the language situation in Brunei Darussalam. In P. W. Martin, C. Ozog & G. Poedjosoedarmo (Eds.), Language use & language change in Brunei Darussalam (pp. 1-23). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
  2. ^ a b Gallop, 2006. "Brunei Darussalam: Language Situation". In  
  3. ^ Language and Literature Bureau Brief History - retrieved 20-04-2007
  4. ^ Jones, G. (1996). The Brunei education policy in Brunei Darussalam. In P. W. Martin, A. C. K. Ozog & G. Poedjoesoedarmo (eds.), Language Use and Language Change in Brunei Darussalam (123-132). Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
  5. ^ Deterding, D., & Salbrina S. (2013). Brunei English: A New Variety in a Multilingual Society. Dordrecht: Springer.
  6. ^ Noor Azam (2012). It's not always English: "Duelling Aunties" in Brunei Darussalam. In V. Rapatahana & P. Bunce (eds.), English Language as Hydra. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  7. ^ Mossop, J. (1996). Some phonological features of Brunei English. In P. W. Martin, A. C. K. Ozog & G. Poedjoesoedarmo (eds.), Language Use and Language Change in Brunei Darussalam (189-208). Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
  8. ^ Deterding, D., & Salbrina S. (2013). Brunei English: A New Variety in a Multilingual Society. Dordrecht: Springer.
  9. ^ Salbrina, S., & Deterding, D. (2010). Rhoticity in Brunei English. English World-Wide 31: 121-137
  10. ^ Brunei at a Glance BruDirect - retrieved 20-04-2007
  11. ^ Ethnologue report for language code: kxd
  12. ^ Martin, P. W., & Poedjosoedarmo, G. (1996). An overview of the language situation in Brunei Darussalam. In P. W. Martin, C. Ozog & G. Poedjosoedarmo (eds.), Language Use & Language Change in Brunei Darussalam (1-23). Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
  13. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica - retrieved 22-04-2007
  14. ^ Brunei Economic Development Board - retrieved 22-04-2007
  15. ^ Ministry of Education Statistics 2004 - retrieved 22-04-2007
  16. ^ Indian Community in Brunei - High Commission of India to Brunei - retrieved 20-04-2007
  17. ^ Pilihan Radio, Radio Television Brunei - retrieved 20-04-2007
  18. ^ BFBS Global Locations - retrieved 20-04-2007
  19. ^ Filipino Organisations in Brunei, Philippines Embassy - retrieved 20-04-2007
  20. ^ Centre for British Teachers in Brunei - retrieved 20-04-2007
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