As an Indonesian language teacher, I am often asked by my international students about languages spoken in Indonesia. This question normally occurs after my students find out people in Bali have different accents and they hear different languages on the street. So, in this blog post, I want to answer the question.
There are 653 languages spoken in Indonesia. This includes one official language Bahasa Indonesia, and 652 regional languages spoken across the country. The number of local languages has been verified by the Language Department of Ministry of Education and Culture.
Indonesia’s Official Language
Indonesian language or Bahasa Indonesia is the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. The root of this language is Malay which belongs to the Austronesian language. Malay has been widely used for centuries as a lingua franca in the archipelago. Besides in Indonesia, Malay varieties are also used in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam as one of their official languages.
In addition to Malay, Indonesian vocabulary heavily influenced by other local languages such as Javanese, Minangkabau, and Sundanese. Indonesian language also borrows words from foreign languages such as English, Arabic, Dutch, Sanskrit, and Portuguese.
Bahasa Indonesia is primarily used in education, administration, and media, so in this modern time, every Indonesian speaks the language. If you want to communicate with Indonesians during your travel, Bahasa Indonesia is the first language you need to learn. Apart from its popularity, it is a simple language compared to other local languages in the country.
Major Local Languages in Indonesia
With 652 local languages, Indonesia is the second most linguistically diverse nation in the world after Papua New Guinea. Most of these languages are part of Austronesian language family and Papuan languages.
To feed your curiosity, I list eight major local languages and their short descriptions below. For other languages, you can check out this Wikipedia page.
Javanese language – 68.2 million speakers
This language is mostly spoken in the middle and the eastern parts of Java island. As many Javanese people migrate to other islands in Indonesia, the language is widely spread across the country. Surprisingly, Javanese language is also used in other countries like Suriname, New Caledonia, Singapore, and Malaysia where people with Javanese descendants are significant in numbers.
Sundanese language – 32.4 million speakers
It is spoken by Sunda ethnic group who resides in western part of Java island.
Maduranese language – 7.7 million speakers
It is the main local language on the island of Madura, in the province of East Java. Like Javanese, this language can be heard across the country as many Maduranese people migrate to other islands.
Bahasa Bugis – 4.3 million speakers
It is widely spoken in South Sulawesi where most Bugis tribe reside.
Minangkabau language – 4.2 million speakers
Minangkabau or Minang language is one of many Malay variations that is used in the province of West Sumatera and Sembilan state, Malaysia.
Banjar language – 3.6 million speakers
It is the main language in South Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).
Acehnese language – 3.5 million speakers
It is spoken in the northern part of Sumatera island.
Balinese language – 3.3 million speakers
This language is used by Balinese people on the islands of Bali, the western part of Lombok, and the eastern part of Java. (Check also languages spoken in Bali)
Do Indonesians speak English?
Although English is most popular foreign language in the country, Indonesians with English proficiency is still low. The fact is confirmed by the English First’s research who put Indonesia on the 74th place by English skills.
If your first destination is Bali, you don’t need to worry, most people speak English here due to a massive tourist industry. If you plan to travel to remote places in Bali or other islands in Indonesia, learning the basic Indonesian will help with your trip.
How about other foreign languages?
In addition to English, other popular foreign languages in Indonesia are Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin. Arabic is learned for religious reason as almost 90% of Indonesian population are Muslims. Learning Arabic also allows Indonesians to find job opportunities in the Middle East.
Japanese is also on the rise, mainly, for job opportunities. Some universities and language schools offer Japanese majors and courses.
As for Korean, the main reason for its popularity is Korean drama and music.
Indonesians also learn Mandarin to prepare as China is doomed to be a superpower nation. Many Chinese descendants want to learn their heritage language as well.
The main language spoken in Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia which functions as a national language and a lingua franca that bridge people from different mother tongues and ethnic groups.
If you want to make the most of your travel in the country, you might consider learning Indonesian. Once you master Indonesian, and if you are interested in learning more Indonesian languages, you can pick the local language where you live.