Common word choice differences between English of the US and Malaysia

I’ve been traveling to Malaysia frequently for the past few years and have compiled a short list of some of the most common differences in words and phrases between that of non-native speakers of English (mostly ethnic Chinese) and native speakers of the United States. I recently read the list off to a Malaysian friend of mine. He and I had a good laugh about it, and he seemed to think they were accurate.

I will point out that I have noticed many (or all) of these differences in other countries of the ASEAN community (Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, for example) – also predominantly from ethnic Chinese. However, as I have spent more time in Malaysia than the others, I will say that I can’t confirm if the differences in the list below are true for all countries outside Malaysia (even among ethnic Chinese).

Lastly, the reason I mention that I’ve noticed these word differences among primarily ethnic Chinese is that had I spent the majority of my time with the ethnic Malays instead, for example, I would likely be hearing different word choices in their spoken English. In other words, the Bahasa Malaysia language is structured one way, and Chinese dialects are structured in their own respective ways. This affects how foreign languages (English, in this case) are spoken and the common mistakes that are made.

I asked Nick Cogan of The Chirco Group to provide some insight on the various Chinese dialects and how this affects how English is spoken as a foreign language. Nick is an old friend of mine. He holds an MA in linguistics, is fluent in Mandarin and has spent more than 6 years in China. This was his reply:

Some [Chinese] dialects are actually different languages; some are just dialects but different enough that each group can, in fact, have different difficulties in English language pronunciation. For example, F and H sounds are understood as interchangeable in one dialect and L and N are interchangeable in another.

Now I will explain how the first language affects which mistakes are made in foreign languages by using Spanish and Portuguese. When native speakers of Spanish are speaking English, they often say things like, “Would you like to take a coffee?”. By contrast, native speakers of English say “have” or “drink” in lieu of “take.” The reason for this common mistake is that for drinking coffee and alcohol, Spanish uses the verb “tomar” (to take) instead of “beber” (to drink). So the verb “take” is often used since the Spanish speaker is doing a literal interpretation from Spanish to English. To throw in yet another twist, Brazilian Portuguese uses tomar and beber more loosely than Spanish does. So a Brazilian would likely ask someone in Portuguese “Você bebe?” (instead of “Você toma?”) to ask someone if they drink alcohol. So when a Brazilian is speaking English and asks someone the same question, s/he might correctly say “Do you drink?” (instead of “Do you take?”) since the literal interpretation from Brazilian Portuguese is closer to English than Spanish.

Much of Peninsular Malaysia was a part of British Malaya so it can only be expected that many of the words would be closer to British than to American English. I showed the table below to Dr. Richard Rhodes, a University of California, Berkeley professor of linguistics, and he confirmed this. He pointed out that

some of these usages are straight British, like petrol, lift, car park, holiday, and, of course, napkin means something quite different, too. The rest are the kinds of things that arise in language contact situations.

I hope you enjoy the list. I enjoyed compiling them through my many conversations in Malaysia.

Malaysia United States
Petrol Gas
I need to put petrol in the car. I need to put gas in the car.
Lift Elevator
Take the lift to the second floor. Take the elevator to the second floor.
(In American English, the word “lift” is perfectly acceptable in place of elevator. The point I intend to stress here is that “elevator” doesn’t appear to be used at all, but everyone understands it).
Car park Parking lot
The car is in the car park. The car is in the parking lot.
Take Eat/drink
Did you take your breakfast?
Did you take your coffee?
Did you eat your breakfast?
Did you drink your coffee?
Is it? Oh yeah? / Really? 
(This is usually used to confirm that something that the other speaker has said is true).
Can. Yes / No problem / It’s OK. / [I/you/we, etc.] can/may. 
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
Yes, we can. No problem.
…for holiday …on/for vacation
Did you go to Japan for holiday? Did you go to Japan on/for vacation?
 Meat Beef 
(Meat in this sense refers specifically to beef. In American English, chicken can be meat; pork can be meat, etc. I have also noticed that native speakers of various languages of the Middle East refer to beef as “meat”).
Last time Before
Last time I sell you these goods, I need your signature. Before I sell you these goods, I need your signature.
Tissue Napkin 
(Even at the dinner table in Malaysia, napkins are referred to as “tissues”). (In American English, “tissues” usually refer to something you blow your nose with).
Never mind It’s alright / It’s OK / That’s OK, etc.
[In response to a “thank you,” for example…] Never mind. You’re welcome! [In response to a “thank you,” for example..] It’s alright. You’re welcome!
Name card Business card
Here is my name card. Here is my business card.
Intercom  Phone
I called you on the intercom. I called you on the phone.
Aircon Air conditioning
We can turn on the aircon if you are hot. We can turn on the air conditioning if you are hot.
Specs Glasses
You need specs to help you see.
(This borrows from the word “spectacles.”)
You need glasses to help you see.
Because why… Because… / And that’s why…
We decided not to buy because why the price is too high.
The price is too high because why we decided not to buy.
We decided not to buy because the price is too high.
The price is too high, and that’s why we decided not to buy.
I don’t think so… I don’t think…
I don’t think so the mailman came today I don’t think the mailman came today.


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