Difficulties Communicating in English in Malaysian Workplace


The use of English as the global language or lingua franca in both multinational and local companies in Malaysia has increased dramatically. The English language is without a doubt being used broadly in Malaysia, be it in business or social settings, formal or casual occasions, in business exchanges, online correspondence, advertisements or in the media industry. The English language that is spoken in Malaysia has been shaped by historical, political and cultural forces and, today, consists of features from other local languages and dialects (Hashim & Ee Ling, 2012). Nevertheless, English is still a second language to many of us in Malaysia.

Speaking fluently in English is the most essential skill that businesses search for in their employees. Within the work environment settings, employees require oral and written communication skills in English language to be effective in their jobs as they must carry out diverse communicative tasks such as presentation, meetings and negotiations. However, there are still many difficulties in communicating in English in the workplace faced by many Malaysians especially when it comes to business-related matters. This applies to both oral and written communication but the difficulties on the oral part of the communication is more noticeable as they need to instantly reply during the communication, as compared to written communication where they would still have time to check on the spelling and grammar mistaken before hand.

Here are some of my findings on the communication problems that I have identified:

  1. Over-use of Mother Tongue;
  2. Pronunciation;
  3. Broken English; and
  4. Poor Management.


Communicating in a language that is not one’s own mother tongue can be very difficult. Too many of us are still not used to speaking in english as a communication language, especially in a working environment because English language is still foreign to the majority of us. In Malaysia, we are still communicating in our own mother tongue or with a mix of other common local languages (John Albury, 2017). This can be confusing for those who are not local.

From studying to a working environment, even for a university graduate, they still are not confident to use the English language as they are afraid of making mistakes. They lack confidence and prefer to hang out with colleagues who speak their mother tongue. Even though the formal medium of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia (Malay Language), this should not curb reading or speaking in English.

As English is not the first language among Malaysian, we intend to translate directly word by word from our mother tongue to English. This will bring another level of confusion to the listener who are not used to our local languages and of course the confusion will be more obvious to the colleagues who are not from Malaysia. Below are some of the example of the said direct translation:

Example 1:

In Malay: Buku-buku teks yang baru itu sangat tebal – mungkin ia sangat mahal.

Direct translation: Books text are new those very thick – probably it is very costly.

‘Those new text books are very thick – they are probably very costly.’

Example 2:

In Malay: Sim Yen mempunyai tiga ekor kucing. Ia semua berwarna putih.

Direct translation: Sim Yen has three cats. It all coloured white.

‘Sim Yen has three cats. They are all white.’

Differences in background or experience also may cause barriers between some employees. Without some common ground, employees may find relating to or understand what other staff members are talking about difficult. Cultural differences may also cause confusions in verbal communications, causing mixed messages.


A positive attitude and a high motivation to learn the language can enhance proficiency.

Everyone in the firm should show initiative such as organising internal activities and taking part in English speaking programmes or training. These activities provide a platform to improve their writing, speaking and communication skills.

The employer and of course the employee also must have an initiative to communicate among themselves in English regardless their backgrounds. If everyone are engaged in communication in English regularly and in an effective manner they will naturally improve their use of English language and will feel more comfortable and confident towards their work and to their customers.


English is spoken by Malaysians of different social and ethnic backgrounds, and there are sub-varieties of ethnic especially in East Malaysia. Generally, English spoken by Malaysian it can be understood by most native English speakers as it generally follows standard and proper English.

The pronunciation of English among Malaysian is by no means standard across the country (Abdul Rahim & Abdul Manan, 2014). It should first be noted that usually there are some variations which are influenced by the regional differences. Generally speaking, the varieties of English used in East Malaysia as well as in some of the Northern states of Peninsular Malaysia differ slightly from the variety used in the central and southern parts of Peninsular Malaysia.

Some words in English if not pronounced properly can be a drawback. It can be a different meaning from what the speaker is trying to say. Here are some examples:


Some words have also been simplified by non-native English speakers due to the non-existent phonemes within the language of their mother tongue. For example:

For the Malaysian Malay English speakers

/f/ would be approximated as /p/, /v/ as /b/

as fan /fæn/ would be pronounced as pen /pæn/

as very would be pronounced as berry

as vitamin would be pronounced as  bit-tah-min

For the Malaysian Chinese English speakers

/r/ as /l/, /z/ as /dʒ/

as ready /redɪ/ would be pronounced as lay-dee /ledɪ/.

as zebra /zɪbrə/ would be pronounced as gee-bra /dʒɪbra:/

For the Malaysian Indian English speakers

/v/ as /w/, as never /nevə/ pronounced as newe /newə/

Deletion of /h/ like hotel /həʊˈtɛl/ pronounced as o-tell /juːˈtɛl/

(Mesthrie, 2008)

For this reason, many Malaysians refuse to use and some of us have the fear to communication or even try to speak in English.  


Non-native English speakers that have issues in pronunciation can be taught and corrected through training and classes which provide a clear picture to recognise, separate, and also understand the mistakes that they made. After repetition and practice, they would be able to master the pronunciation and apply them in everyday conversation with confidence. Pronunciation is more critical than grammar when it comes to understanding someone. Subsequently, pronunciation ought be well-taught so that the non-native speakers in Malaysia would have no issues in pronouncing and would be able to distinguish between them.


The status of English as a strong second language means that meetings, conferences and any such liaison with an international audience would demand the use of English as the official language.

In Malaysia, the recognition of Malaysian English owes much to its co-existence with other local languages and dialects. With the various official statuses accorded to the four basic languages in the country (Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese-Mandarin and Tamil) along with other diverse range of languages in use amongst Malaysian, it is unsurprising that many of us Malaysian is at least bilingual, if not conversant in three or more languages (Mesthrie, 2008).

Many of Malaysian will use formal English while communicating with a non-Malaysian and then switch to Malaysian English while speaking to friends or family. The way of speaking English by mixing english with local languages or dialects is often termed as Broken English. This has also been accepted by mass media in Malaysia. This is attested to by titles like the following which appear frequently in articles and editorials in the local English newspaper: “Our special way of talking; The Malaysian ‘lah’ is here to stay”; “We all talk like machine-gun aa?”; “Our own lingo-lah” and “Malaysian English dictionary on the way”.

In Malaysia, anyone who speaks in English language either on an official matter or in a casual occasion, there is this perception that you are being “Sombong” (meaning proud, arrogant, cocky or pompous) and are unable to speak in a local language. This phenomenon is known as “language shaming”. This can also indirectly contribute to broken english or Manglish. This does not just happen to the Malay community, but also to the Chinese community who created the term “Bananarism” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) and to just about every other major ethnicity in Malaysia, shaming English-speaking for being stuck-up and ungrateful of one’s family culture. English language-shaming has been prevalent in our country for generations.


We acknowledge that Bahasa Malaysia is the national language and that it is fine if we use Manglish on the streets. But there is nothing wrong with using proper English. We can start off by practising proper English in the working environment and try to avoid using broken english at all times. We as Malaysian must also avoid misconception towards the English language is rooted in out struggles against our former British masters. We can take speaking English as a chance to learn new language and should be proud that you can speak other languages other than your mother tongue.


Regardless of whether it needs to do with lack of appropriate training or the absence of confidence, one of the fundamental reason can be attributed is an absence of professionalism (Minton-Eversole, 2013).

Numerous things can cause poor communication in the working environment. From individual conflict to low morale and lack of motivation, poor communication will frequently follow. If you look at the personalities of the people and the working environment connections between them, usually it is obvious to see where the issues may lay. For instance:

  • On the off chance that there are people who have a superiority complex this may attribute to a poor communication.
  • On the off chance that there is an ineffective exchange of information, at that point there will be a breakdown in communication.

Typically, poor communication (in the case of writing or just a simple oral correspondence) is something that begins on the executive level. If there is a break in communication on the executive level, at that point there will definitely be a break in communication on the administrative level as well.

With regard to the fundamental reasons for poor correspondence, people need to break down the entire situation or the overall picture. Poor communication and writing in the work environment, for example, poor email or letter writing does not cause themselves be that as it may whenever left unattended the impacts may adverse.

The following are a few reasons of overall poor communication in the working environment:

i.          Bad Management

If you have terrible managers then regularly you may experience from poor communication and writing abilities. Bad supervisors do not enable their employees to communicate adequately in the work environment. A bad manager would much rather micromanage their employees and over apply control since they don’t have the self control to manage efficiently. Thus they release their frustration on their workers (Kay, 2013). If the manager and the executive level staff have a poor communication skills, chances are by association that you too will experience the ill effect of poor communication .

ii.         Lack of proper training

Knowledge is power, and without the best possible training you won’t have the capacity to push ahead in your career. With the end goal to focus on great communication and good writing skills, taking additional seminars may be the best way to improve and have better communication in the working environment. In short, training is essential. 

iii.        Lack of motivation

            Lack of motivation and lack of enthusiasm are two of the main reasons for failure. If you are not motivated or do not to expand your communication abilities and writing skills, then we are unable to improve it in the work environment.


While the reasons for poor communication can be overwhelming, there are a lot of solutions that can help mitigate the issue.

Training is vital and must be done persistently in order for poor communication to stop. Regardless of whether in the form of trainings, workshops or courses, it is critical to have a fortress on the poor communication issue before it causes cataclysmic impacts in the working environment (Bloom & Gascoigne, 2017).

Constant uplifting reinforcement among management and employees is essential and could be an instant cure of the poor communication issue.


Within the work environment settings, employees require oral and written communication skills in English language to be effective in their jobs as they must carry out diverse communicative tasks such as presentation, meetings and negotiations. This applies to both oral and written communication, everyone needs to play a role in improving the communication in the working environment. Trainings, seminars and workshops are essential to eliminate the communication breakdown among the employers and employees as communication is exceptionally important to acquire knowledge, circulate information and persuade individuals to understand what you think.

Good communication helps in creating goodwill and supporting harmonious relationships with others at work, and is the point at which we tune in to what we hear with comprehension. It ought to be the same procedure with listeners when you speak in English at your working environment.



Hashim, A., & Ee Ling, L. (2012). English in Southeast Asia : Features, Policy and Language in Use. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Minton-Eversole, T. (2013). Skills Gaps Often Very Basic: English, Critical Thinking, Solving Problems. HR Magazine, 20.

Kay, A. (2013). This Is How to Get Your Next Job : An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want. New York: AMACOM.

Bloom, M., & Gascoigne, C. (2017). Creating Experiential Learning Opportunities for Language Learners : Acting Locally While Thinking Globally. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mesthrie, R. (2008). Varieties of English – Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Open University Malaysia. (2012). OUMH2203 – English for Workplace Communication. Open University Malaysia (OUM).

Abdul Rahim , H., & Abdul Manan, S. (2014). The Monophthongs and Diphthongs of Malaysian English: An Instrumental Analysis . English in Malaysia, 55-85.

John Albury, N. (2017, June 07). Mother tongues and languaging in Malaysia: Critical linguistics under critical examination. Language in Society, pp. 567-589.

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *