Home > English > Research > Research Projects > With other funding

Mutual intelligibility and receptive multilingualisme between closely related languages (MURMURS)

(Jérôme Samuel, director and researcher at IRASEC)


This research project seeks to further the understanding of Malay languages’ regional dimension in the present day. As we know, “Malay” refers to a cluster of closely related languages spoken in six Southeast Asian countries by approximately 300 million speakers. Its two standard variants, Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) and Malaysian (bahasa Malaysia often called bahasa Melayu), are recognized as official languages in four countries in the region. We refer to these Malay-speaking countries as a whole as “Malayophonia”.

Building on previous research on national or common language policies in Malayophonia, this project focuses on the mutual intelligibility and receptive multilingualism of variants or dialects of Malay. It also addresses their linguistic uses, as well as the standard variants of Malay, along with at least one sub-standard variant of it. Although our primary objective is to measure mutual intelligibility between standard variants of Malay and their purely linguistic commonality, we also strive to describe, analyse and better understand the linguistic consequences of human mobility and circulation of cultural products within Malayophonia. Considering that displacement gives rise to increased linguistic interaction between speakers expressing themselves in different variants, we argue that mobility can lead to changes in the speakers’ linguistic attitudes, if not in the languages themselves.

This project does not seek to address national or common language policies per se. Nevertheless, Malayophonia being part of ASEAN, we are alert to the underlying question of linguistic integration within this regional institution. We are likewise conscious of attempts to assign official functions to “Malay” (a putative common language which remains to be defined), and its role with respect to English. In other words, the question of an alternative to the two dominant models that are the EU’s theoretical multilingualism and ASEAN’s English monolingualism merits study.

On the long term, this project covers four components in the four countries of “Malayophonia” : Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The first component is the measure of mutual intelligibility using tools that go beyond a mere lexicostatistical exercise. Using authentic written and audio(visual) documents in particular, it is based on material reproducing real-life situations, if not actually based on real-life situations.

The second component focuses on the representations and conditions of Malay’s dissemination by its speakers, i.e. linguistic practices in multilingual or multidialectal situations. Human mobility—Indonesian migrant workers to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei as well as tourists—is not a new phenomenon in the Malay world. However, these movements now take place within the framework of nation-states which are anxious to control them. Arguably, there is in addition resistance against the emergence of a sense of belonging to a common linguistic group. This component includes the question of receptive multilingualism, a form of multilingual communication whereby each speaker uses his or her own language or variant, knowing that it is only understood by its interlocutor to a certain extent.

The third component is related to the circulation of cultural products with high linguistic content : novels, scientific literature, songs, movies, television programmes, etc. It examines the conditions of these products’ production, the markets for which they are intended, their audiences, their reception and, lastly, their accessibility through intralinguistic or interdialectal translation.

The fourth and final component is the exploitation of mutual intelligibility measurements to develop and enhance receptive multilingualism. It involves the acquisition of related skills, notably in the context of higher education as regards standard Malay (Indonesian and Malaysian) taught in European, North American, East Asian and Pacific institutions.


Research partners

  • Universiti Malaya, Faculty of Languages and Linguistics (Dr. Patricia Nora Anak Riget, Dr. Roshidah binti Hassan, Prof. Ahmad Kamil Bin Ghazali)
  • Universitas Indonesia, Fakultas Ilmu Budaya (Dr. Sonya Puspasari)
  • Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (Dr. Fatimah binti Haji Awang Chuchu)
  • IRASEC, Bangkok (Prof. Dr. Jérôme Samuel)