There are a number of languages spoken in Brunei. 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. This came into force on 29 September 1959, with the signing of Brunei 1959 Constitution.
Malay is specified as the national language of Brunei in the constitution of 1959, and its central role in the country is reinforced in the national MIB philosophy (Melayu Islam Beraja, 'Malay Islamic Monarchy').
While the variety of Malay that functions as the national language is not specified, it is generally assumed to be a variety of Standard Malay that is similar to the standard varieties promoted in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In fact, the use of Standard Malay and Brunei Malay can be described under the concept of diglossia, with Standard Malay taking the H(igh) role and being used in formal domains such as teaching and official speeches, while Brunei Malay functions in a L(ow) role, being used in informal domains such as between friends and in local shops.
In terms of pronunciation, the Standard Malay of Brunei is rhotic, so there is an [r] at the end of words such as besar ('big'), and it has [a] rather than [ə] at the end of words such as saya ('I') and utara ('north').
The local dialect, Melayu Brunei (Brunei Malay), is the most widely spoken language. It is spoken by about 266,000 people. About 84% of its words are cognate with Standard Malay, while 94% are reported to be cognate with Kedayan.
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). In Brunei, use of Brunei Malay is expanding at the expense of the other indigenous minority languages in Brunei, most of which are under threat of extinction.
Some of the phonological features of Brunei Malay are: /h/ cannot occur in initial position, and there are only three vowels, /i,a,u/. For its syntax, if has been claimed that the verb often occurs in initial position, and there is a distinct set of modal verbs.
English is widely used as a business and official language and it is spoken by a majority of the population in Brunei, though some people have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. There is one daily English language newspaper, Borneo Bulletin.
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, 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.
The language of the courts is mainly English, though, just as in Malaysia, code-switching between English and Malay is common.
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.')
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]; vowel reduction is mostly avoided in function words such as of and that; and there is an increasing incidence of rhoticity.
The Chinese minority in Brunei speak a number of Chinese varieties. The main varieties of Chinese spoken include Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka.
Mandarin is the language of instruction in some Chinese schools, and there are also some radio broadcasts in Mandarin. Mandarin is also used as the lingua franca among the Chinese community.
Apart from Brunei Malay and Kedayan, the latter which may be considered a dialect of Malay, five indigenous minority ethic groups are officially recognised in Brunei, each with their own language: Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Bisaya, and Lun Bawang ('Murut'). Each of these five minority languages is threatened with extinction, though it has been reported that Murut (which is spoken mostly in the enclave of Temburong) is relatively healthy, partly because it receives some support across the Malaysian border in Lawas, where it is known as Lun Bawang.
Iban is also quite widely spoken in Temburong, and there is a small community of Penan speakers living in a longhouse along the Belait River.
Arabic is the language of the Quran and is used by Islamic scholars in Brunei. The official religion of Brunei is Islam and as such, all adherents of the faith possess some proficiency in reading and speaking Arabic.
Arabic is taught in schools, particularly religious schools. All Islamic children are required by law to attend an Ugama School ('Religious School') for three hours five days per week from the ages of 7 till 15, and the curriculum of these schools promotes the learning of Arabic as well as skill using Jawi, the Arabic-based script for representing Malay.
In addition to the Ugama Schools, as of 2004, there were six Arabic schools and one religious teachers' college in Brunei.
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. Tamil is mainly spoken by Indians in Brunei.
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 and the British Forces Broadcasting Service.
Besides the expatriate Indians, Brunei also has a large expatriate community of Filipino, Indonesian, Dutch and English-speaking origins. Betawi, Javanese, Sundanese, Ambonese and Batak languages are also spoken by immigrants from Indonesia.
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