The official language of Indonesia—Bahasa Indonesian—is virtually the same as Bahasa Malaysian (also known as Bahasa Melayu or Malay). Most Indonesia speak the language of their ethnic group or island as their first language, at home and with members of their group and speak Bahasa Indonesian in public and when talking to members of other groups. Bahasa Indonesian is understood in all but the most remote villages. It is universally taught in schools and is spoken by nearly every Indonesian in business, politics, national media, education and academia. Compared to other languages it is fairly easy to learn and speak a few words.

Indonesians speak hundreds of languages, as may as 700 alone in Irian Jaya by some counts. Most languages are linked to ethnic groups such as the Javanese, Batak, Sudanese, Dayak, Toraja and Buginese. Javanese is the dominant language of Java. Many people on other islands speak it too because many Javanese live on other islands too. When Sukarno took control off Indonesia during the 1949 independence from the Dutch, he implemented one language across the archipelago — Bahasa Indonesia. This is taught in all Indonesian schools along with local languages and English in some schools.

According to “Indonesia's languages are not mutually intelligible, though some subgroups are more similar than others (as Europe's Romance languages are closer to each other than to Germanic ones, though both are of the Indo-European family). Some language subgroups have sub-subgroups, also not mutually intelligible, and many have local dialects. Two languages—one in north Halmahera, one in West Timor—are non-Austronesian and, like Basque in Europe, are not related to other known languages. Also, the very numerous languages of Papua are non-Austronesian.” [Source: ]

English, the most widely spoken foreign language, is spoken by many people in the major cities and tourist areas. A lot more people speak English than Dutch, the language of the colonial power that ruled Indonesia for 350 years until 1949. But far fewer people speak English than in Malaysia, which is a former British colony and where English is often the language of instruction in school.

More than 700 Languages Spoken in Indonesia

Indonesians speak hundreds of language. Depending on who is doing the counting they speak 583, 703 or 731 different languages. In one estimate 700 languages are spoken in Irian Jaya alone. On the tiny island for Alor, there are 140,000 people divided among 50 tribes, each of which speaks a distinct languages or dialect. Countries with the most languages: 1) Papua New Guinea (832); 2) Indonesia (731); 3) Nigeria (515); 4) India (400); 5) Mexico (300); 6) Cameroon (300); 7) Australia (300); 8) Brazil (234).

Based on reports of ethnic self-identification in the 2000 census, the primary languages spoken by 2 million or more people were Javanese (83 million), Sundanese (30 million), Malay/Indonesian (17 million), Madurese (6.7 million), Batak (6.1 million), Minangkabau (5.4 million), Buginese (5.1 million), Balinese (3 million), and Acehnese (2.2 million). In addition, some 2 million inhabitants spoke one of several dialects of Chinese. Arabic and languages of India and Europe also are used. Other languages with more than 1 million speakers each are Banjarese, Batawi, Sasak, Toba Batak, Makasarese, Lampung, Dairi Batak, and Rejang. English widely used in government and business circles.

All people, except those in New Guinea and northern half of Halmahera, speak languages which belong to the related to the Malay-Polynesian group of languages, which in turn belong to the Austronesia family of languages, a group of agglutinative languages.. There are 1,200 Austronesia languages—about a fifth of the world's total. The Austronesian family extends from Malaysia through the Philippines, north to several hill peoples of Vietnam and Taiwan, and to Polynesia, including Hawaiian and Maori (of New Zealand) peoples. About a hundred different Austronesian languages are spoken on Vanuatu alone. Malay, Formosan, and most of the languages of Indonesia, the Philippines and Polynesia are Austronesia languages. Those that don’t speak Austronesian languages—people in parts of Timor, Papua, and Halmahera—speak Papuan languages.

There are many different regional languages and dialects. There are at least six distinct language groups on Sulawesi and seven on tiny Alor. The languages spoken in the interior of Kalimantan form their own distinct sub-family. On Java there are three main language. The Balinese have have their own language. Sumatra has around 52 languages. Acehese and Batak are the primary languages of northern Sumatra while Bahasa Melayu is the predominate language in the south. Mandarin is not only the most widely spoken language in China, it also has many speakers in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Bahasa Indonesian

The central and most successful feature of the Indonesian national culture is probably the Indonesian language. A modified form of Malay, it is spoken by an estimated 17 million to 30 million mother-tongue speakers and more than 140 million second-language speakers or readers. Bahasa Indonesia is spoken in more than 90 percent of households in Jakarta. Outside the capital, only 10 to 15 percent of the population speaks the language at home, but this number appears to be on the rise. In Javanese areas, only 1 percent to 5 percent of the people speak Bahasa Indonesia in the home. Nationwide, some 17 million Indonesians use Bahasa Indonesia as a primary language, while more than 150 million to 180 million others use it as a second language. It is now indisputably the language of government, schools, national print and electronic media, and interethnic communication. In many provinces, it is the primary language of communication between ethnic Chinese shopkeepers and their non-Chinese patrons. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Michael J. Ybarra wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Indonesia is one of the world's largest countries, but it's also a relatively young one. When the Indonesian republic was born in 1949, after three centuries of Dutch colonialism, language was one forge of nationalism. The new country stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, encompassing 17,000 islands. The archipelago was also a riot of languages with some 300 tongues spoken. The literary tradition was more oral than written, everything from the spoken word epics of the Kalimantan Dayaks in Borneo to Javanese court songs. The new government declared Bahasa Indonesia (a dialect of Malay) the national language. "Indonesia owes its identity to the Indonesian language," says novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. [Source: Michael J. Ybarra, Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2004]

Bahasa Indonesia is infused with highly distinctive accents, vocabularies, and styles in some regions (particularly Maluku, parts of Nusa Tenggara, and Jakarta), but there are many similarities in patterns of use across the archipelago. For example, it is common to vary the use of address forms depending on the rank or status of the individual to whom one is speaking. This variation is not as complex as in the elaborately hierarchical Javanese language, but it is nonetheless important. For instance, in Bahasa Indonesia respected elders are typically addressed in kinship terms—bapak (father or elder) or ibu (mother). The use of second-person pronouns in direct address is generally avoided in favor of more indirect references unless speaker and listeners are on intimate terms. In casual contexts, however, such as when one is speaking to taxicab drivers, street peddlers, and close friends, formal textbook Indonesian often gives way to the more ironic, sly, and earthy urban forms of address and reference. *

Bahasa Indonesia is the language of official communication, taught in schools and spoken on television. Bahasa Indonesia is based on the high Malay language as spoken and written in the Riau Islands, as in the early 19th century. Bahasa Indonesia use Latin alphabets but some parts of Indonesia have their own scripts, too. Bahasa Indonesia is rather easy to learn and once you get the hang of it, you’ll find out that it’s actually quite simple. You can try some simple Indonesian phrases, to get you started. [Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic of Indonesia]

The twelve most widely spoken languages are (number of speakers) in the 1990s: 1) Mandarin Chinese (975,000,000); 2) English (478,000,000); 3) Hindi (437,000,000); 4) Spanish (392,000,000); 5) Russian (284,000,000); 6) Arabic (225,000,000); 7) Bengali (200,000,000); 7) Portuguese (184,000,000); 9) Malay-Indonesian (159,000,000); 10) Japanese (128,000,000); 11) French (125,000,000); 12) German (123,000,000).

Both English and Bahasa Indonesian use a similar alphabet and syntax set up. Punctuation is nearly the same as well. This makes the process for you to learn Indonesian a lot easier. There are some differences between the languages, of course. Indonesian grammar has no concept of plurals and no tenses. Also, there is no deference to gender (male or female) in pronouns. The pronunciations are different, but not drastically so. To speak Bahasa Indonesian wel is another story. The language is full of euphemisms and vagueness.

National Geographic photographer Ian Lloyd wrote that he has always been rewarded when he speaks Bahasa Indonesian. “Sometimes Indonesians are so impressed when they hear me speak their language that they invite me into ther homes and lives. On a recent assignment, when I called out a simple Bahasa greeting to a Javanese train driver, he asked me to act as the official whistle puller as the train wound it way through miles of mountainous rice terraces.”

On written Bahasa Indonesian Omniglot reports: During the time Indonesia was a Dutch colony, the Latin alphabet was introduced to write Indonesian and a number of Dutch spellings were used. This alphabet was called ejaan lama (Old Script) in Indonesian. In the 1930s, as part of the independence movement, the Indonesian language was standardised and the term Bahasa Indonesia was adopted as the name of the language. In 1947 the spelling of oe was changed to u. Then in 1972 a set of official changes to the Indonesian spelling system were introduced by former president Soeharto. The major changes included changing ch to kh, dj to j, j to y, nj to ny, sj to sy, and tj to c. There are four digraphs: ng (eng), ny (nye), kh (kha) and sy (sya). The final two only appear in words of Arabic origin. The letters q, v, x, and z are used in loanwords from Europe and India. [Source: Omniglot]

History of Bahasa Indonesian

Malay was used for centuries as a lingua franca in many parts of the archipelago. The term Bahasa Indonesia, which refers to a modified form of Malay, was coined by Indonesian nationalists in 1928 and became a symbol of national unity during the struggle for independence.

Bahasa Indonesian is a Malay language derived from Bahasa Meayu—the predominate language of southern Sumatra— that grew out of the language introduced by seagoing traders that first brought the islands together. It may have begun as as trading lingua franca. During the war against the Dutch it became a unifying force and was adopted as a national language when Indonesia became independent. It remains a great unifier for Indonesians from different regions and ethnic groups.

Malay was the lingua franca throughout the then Dutch East Indies, the language spoken in trade transactions. The more democratic Malay language was preferred by nationalistic youth above the Javanese language, despite the fact that Javanese is more sophisticated and at the time spoken by the majority population, Yet, Javanese is feudal as it has different levels of language depending on one’s status and the status of the person spoken to. The Youth Pledge of 1928, therefore, vowed to build one Indonesian country, one nation, speaking one language: bahasa Indonesia. Since then, Bahasa Indonesia has developed rapidly incorporating Javanese terms, Jakarta dialect, as well as many English and Arabic words into its vocabulary. [Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic of Indonesia]

According to “In 1923, the Malay language (now known as Bahasa Malaysia in Malaysia where it is the official language) was adopted as the national language at a congress of Indonesian nationalists, though only a small minority living in Sumatra along the Straits of Malaka spoke it as their native language. Nevertheless, it made sense for two reasons. First, Malay had long been a commercial and governmental lingua franca that bound diverse peoples. Ethnically diverse traders and local peoples used Malay in ports and hinterlands in its grammatically simplified form known as "market Malay." Governments in British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies used high Malay in official documents and negotiations and Christian missionaries first translated the Bible into that language. [Source: ]

“ Second, nationalists from various parts of the archipelago saw the value of a national language not associated with the largest group, the Javanese. Bahasa Indonesia is now the language of government, schools, courts, print and electronic media, literary arts and movies, and interethnic communication. It is increasingly important for young people, and has a youth slang. In homes, a native language of the family is often spoken, with Indonesian used outside the home in multiethnic areas. (In more monolingual areas of Java, Javanese also serves outside the home.) Native languages are not used for instruction beyond the third grade in some rural areas. Native language literatures are no longer found as they were in colonial times. Many people lament the weakening of native languages, which are rich links to indigenous cultures, and fear their loss to modernization, but little is done to maintain them. The old and small generation of well-educated Indonesians who spoke Dutch is passing away. Dutch is not known by most young and middle-aged people, including students and teachers of history who cannot read much of the documentary history of the archipelago. English is the official second language taught in schools and universities with varying degrees of success.”

AFP reported: “Suharto's personal quirks have also had an influence on Indonesian life. A Javanese man from the country's largest ethnic group, his error-laden and heavily accented version of the national language was imitated by sychophantic officials during his reign and leaked into wider usage, to the horror of purists. [Source: Aubrey Belford, AFP, January 14, 2008 /]

Javanese and Other Languages in Indonesia

Javanese is an Austronesian language spoken by about 80 million people in Indonesia and Suriname. It belongs to the West Indonesian Branch of the Hesperonesian subfamily of the Malayo-Polynesian Family. It has a literay history dating back to the 8th century and has nine styles of speech, which are determined by principals of etiquette. There s a trend towards simplification of the different speech levels. Five major languages are spoken in Java: 1 Javanese around Jakarta; 2) Bahasa Indonesian in northwest and central Java; 3) Sundanese in southwest Java; 4) Madurese in northeast Java and nearby Madua island; and 5) Balinese in eastern Java and Bali.

As is true with many of the cultural groups in Indonesia, the Javanese also have their own language. It is quite complex when compared to the more easily learned national language of Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). The Javanese language has nine levels ranging from low to high, reflecting status, age and familiarity between speakers. There are regional variations too. The Javanese language of East Java is more course and generally considered less respectful than that spoken in Central Java. In Central Java, politeness and good manners are highly regarded. Loud displays of emotion are considered quite rude. Thus, the Javanese are known for their indirectness and deference to authority in order to avoid negative, embarrassing or uncomfortable feelings. This trait stems from the Hindu court traditions of pre-Islamic influence. [Source:]

In Indonesia Javanese is spoken in Java, particularly in central and east Java, and on the north coast of West Java, and in Madura, Bali, Lombok, and in the Sunda region of West Java. Javanese was used as the court language in Palembang, South Sumatra until the late 18th century and has been used as a literary language for over a millenium. It currently has no official status though is recognised as a regional language in Central Java, Yogyakarta, and East Java. It is taught in some schools, and there are some radio and TV programmes in Javanese, as well as a number of magazines. The Javanese alphabet was also used to write Balinese and Sundanese, but has been replaced by the Latin alphabet. [Source: omniglot]

The earliest known writing in Javanese dates from the 4th Century AD, at which time Javanese was written with the Pallava alphabet. By the 10th Century the Kawi alphabet, which developed from Pallava, had a distinct Javanese form. For a period from the 15th century onwards, Javanese was also written with a version of the Arabic alphabet, called pegon. By the 17th Century, the Javanese alphabet had developed into its current form. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia between 1942 and 1945, the alphabet was prohibited.Since the Dutch introduced the Latin alphabet to Indonesia in the 19th Century, the Javanese alphabet has gradually been supplanted. Today it is used almost exclusively by scholars and for decoration. Those who can read and write it are held in high esteem. [Ibid]

Language and Etiquette in Indonesia

People generally use the highest level of language to speak to high-status people in formal situations and the lower levels to speak to people of lower rank or with whom they are most intimate. Although children learn to speak at the lowest level first, they gradually are socialized to speak to some of their more distant kin and respected strangers in higher-level forms of Javanese. This formality is particularly common in cities, where there are marked distinctions in status. However, there is evidence that these practices are slowly changing. Many children who go elsewhere in Indonesia for work or school or who live overseas refuse to write letters home to their elders in Javanese because of their fear of making a glaring error. Increasingly, in formal situations, they use Bahasa Indonesia because they are no longer sure of the social situation at home. Although Bahasa Indonesia possesses a relatively simple system for indicating status distinctions, it is regarded as a foreign idiom among many Javanese. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Many of the rules of etiquette center on the proper use of language, which is more problematic in Javanese than in most other languages. When addressing someone, Javanese speakers must choose from several different levels of politeness. These “speech levels” comprise words that have the same meaning but are stylistically different. For instance, among the Javanese variations of the word “now,” saiki is the least refined, while saniki is a little fancier, and samenika is the most elegant. Javanese has many such triads—so many that people cannot speak for long in the language without having to decide whether the situation is formal or informal and what the relations among the participants are. *

When someone says yes, does he or she mean yes or no. Indonesia is a gracious culture that is polite. Wanting to be agreeable and never wanting to embarrass another, the native language Bahasa Indonesia has 12 words that "say yes but really mean no. Unless you are fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, using English or another language will not convey the correct message. Even with a correct translation, though the literal translation for these 12 words would be yes, the culture requires a polite, agreeable response. Since saying no to someone is impolite, don't assume a positive response means you have agreement. *

Bahasa Indonesian Phrases

Some Indonesian phrases: English — Bahasa Indonesia: How do you do — Apa kabar?; Good Morning — Selamat Pagi; Good Afternoon — Selamat Siang; Goodbye — Selamat Tinggal; Fine — Baik; Welcome — Selamat Datang. [Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic of Indonesia]

Personal Pronoun & Title: I — Saya; You — Kamu/ Anda; We — Kami; He/ She — Ia/ Dia (both are genderless); They — Mereka; Mr. — Tuan; Miss — Nona; Mrs — Nyonya; ;

Questions: Can you help me? — Dapatkah Anda membantu/ menolong saya?; How do I get there? — Bagaimana cara untuk kesana?; How far? — Seberapa jauh?; How long will it make? — Seberapa lama?; How much (Price)? — Berapa harganya?; What is this/ that? — Apa ini/ itu?; What is your name? — Siapa nama Anda?; When? — Kapan?; Where? — Di mana?; Why? — Kenapa/ mengapa?;

Direction: Go up — Naik; Go down — Turun; Turn — Berputar; Right — Kanan; Left — Kiri; Front — Depan; Behind — Belakang; North — Utara; South — Selatan; East — Timur.

A “neko neko” is person that has great ideas but usually makes things worse. A “Goyang kaki” is someone who enjoys himself while others sort out problems.

English and Foreign Languages in Indonesia

English, the most widely spoken foreign language, is spoken by many people in the major cities and tourist areas. A lot more people speak English than Dutch, the language of the colonial power that ruled Indonesia for 350 years until 1949. But far fewer people speak English than in Malaysia, which is a former British colony and where English is often the language of instruction in school.

Indonesia words in English: Batik is a Javanese word. Amok, as in running amok, is an Indonesian-Malay word. It is derived from a psychological condition found in Malaysia and Indonesia called "amok," which has been described as a reaction to stress when a man goes quiet, broods and then finally freaks out and grabs any weapon available killing everyone in sight and then lapsing into silent amnesia.

In 1996, city officials in Jakarta ordered foreign words to be removed from buildings. The Citraland Shopping Mall, for example, was then forced to change its name to Citratanah Pusat Perdangangan.

An example of Indlish—a mix of Bahasa Indonesian and English: “Gue tadi lunch meeting sauna boss” means “I had a lunch meeting with my boss.”

Studying Chinese language is becoming more fashionable. For three decades the studying of Chinese was banned because of Beijing’s support for communist rebels in the 1960s.

Problem with English Teaching in Indonesia

Seven out of ten people in Indonesia questioned by the Jakarta Post said their English classes at school were boring and did not help them later in life. Sari P. Setiogi wrote in the Jakarta Post, “While English is taught at most elementary school, some parents try to give their children a head start by encouraging them to master the basics -- numbers, familiar objects and the like -- before enrolling them in international kindergartens. For the majority of students though, learning English is a tough task, and one that they readily complain about. "Er... I learned English, yes, but I don't feel confident. I feel weird every time I try to speak English,” said Toto, a graduate of a private university in Jakarta. [Source: Sari P. Setiogi, Jakarta Post, August 30 2004 ^/^]

“Toto blamed his high school English teacher for failing to encourage him. He likened his teacher to a robot. “He said the same sentences every time he entered the classroom,” Toto recalled. “Open your textbook. Read the text. Good -- those were the words that came out of his mouth.” An English teaching expert said Toto's experience was quite common here. “English classes in the country are considered rather boring, certainly they don't inspire a love of the language,” said Arief Rachman at a seminar held by the Indonesian International Education Foundation (IIEF) recently. ^/^

“IIEF organizes English tests for applicants for scholarships to study at overseas universities or attend fellowship programs abroad. Arief, who was also executive chairman of UNESCO's Indonesian National Committee, said about 80 percent of English teachers here taught in an authoritarian way. When it came to textbooks, Arief said, they were dry and lacked material that was relevant to daily life. ^/^

“Participation is the best way in which to stimulate children who are studying English, Arief said. “Maybe we should learn from kindergartens,” he said. “The learning process should be made fun and interesting for students. More activities such as a role-play and games, and the use of computers, would surely make learning fun.” Students should aim to master reading, speaking, audio-lingual and written skills, according to Arief, who hosted an English program on television station TVRI in the 1980s. “On average, Indonesian students' (English) reading ability is about 70 percent, listening 80 percent, speaking 5 to 10 percent and writing 3 percent,” said Arief. ^/^

“He said only about 40 percent of English teachers in the country could really communicate in English. “Our English teachers may understand theory, but they do not know how to use the language,” said Arief. Separately, director of the IIEF Irid Agoes told The Jakarta Post that no trainer of high school English teachers she observed exceed the standard score of 500 in their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). “If the trainers are of that standard, can you imagine the skill of the teachers they train,” she said. Irid said writing was not a habit among most Indonesians, including lecturers. “Why? Because they are afraid of making mistakes,” said Irid. Cultural factors also prevent some Indonesians from speaking English. “Some people think that speaking English is too Western,” said Irid. “In fact, their fear (of being too Western) causes them to miss out on the opportunities that a good grasp of English would bring.” ^/^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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