How Many Languages in Indonesia? Indonesia has more than 17,000 islands and over 300 ethnic groups. As such, many languages are spoken in Indonesia, from the national language to hundreds of local language varieties.
The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia (or Indonesian language), a standardized variety of Malay. The language is taught in schools and is the language of government, commerce, and education. The established Bahasa Indonesia is spoken by more than 160 million people across the archipelago.
The Indonesian language has been developed from the Malay language and is a standardized dialect. It was the official language of Indonesia when the country gained independence in 1945. The languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are still similar, and people from both countries can understand each other languages.
The Indonesian Language Family Tree
There are at least 700 languages spoken in Indonesia, but it may be more than 800 depending on the definition of a language versus a dialect.
Most of these languages belong to three Indonesian family tree groups: Austronesian, West Papuan, and Trans-New Guinea.
In addition to its larger language families, Indonesia has several isolated languages and smaller language groups.
The Official Language of Indonesia
Bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian, is the common language used in Indonesia. It is the official language for administration, media, judiciary, and formal education. Almost all Indonesians are familiar with Bahasa Indonesia, which acts as the binding force that unites the diverse citizens of the country.
Bahasa is commonly known as a second language with varying proficiency levels nationwide. Although it is a unifying language, citizens often combine it with their native language to form a regional dialect.
Bahasa is spoken differently in various parts of the country, so it is unlikely to find the exact version everywhere. However, the practice of speaking Bahasa is common throughout the country.
Indonesian Regional Lingua Francas
Most Indonesian languages are spoken in small, specific regions and have varying numbers of speakers, ranging from a few individuals to thousands. Indonesia also has 43 regional lingua francas that connect different ethnic groups within a region. These lingua francas can be divided into two categories: Malayic and non-Malayic.
To clarify, below are some of Indonesia’s most commonly spoken languages.
Javanese is the most widely spoken native language in Indonesia, with 30-45% of the population saying it (estimated). It is primarily expressed on the island of Java but is also prevalent in Sumatra and Kalimantan. As a result, the Javanese language has more native speakers than Bahasa Indonesia.
Javanese is a language with several regional dialects. It is closely related to other languages such as Sundanese, Madurese, and Balinese—the most extensive Austronesian languages in terms of native speakers. Besides Indonesia, Javanese speakers can be found in Malaysia and Singapore.
Sundanese is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken in Western Java, Lampung, Banten, and Jakarta. It has approximately 14 million native language speakers and several dialects. Some of these dialects have significant influences from Javanese. Sundanese has a unique writing system, which is derived from old Sundanese. The Pallava script of South India influenced this system.
In the Sundanese language, there used to be six different levels of speech to denote varying degrees of politeness and respect. However, in 1988 it was reduced to only two levels: ‘basa format for the respectful tone and ‘basa some for the more familiar tone. Nevertheless, the language still has the lowest level called ‘change,’ which is used to address animals or express anger towards humans.
The Sundanese language has two registers used for different levels of formality. The low or informal spoken Indonesian register is called Kasar, while the high or formal register is called Lemes. In addition, certain words have other versions based on the social context.
Madurese is spoken by a significant portion of Indonesia’s population, approximately 8 to 13 million people, over 5% of the total population. The language is mainly expressed on Madura Island, eastern Java, and the Kangean and Sapudi islands.
The Malayo-Sumbawan language is closer to Balinese than Javanese. Additionally, the number of Madurese speakers is currently decreasing.
Over 5 million people in Indonesia speak the Malayic Minangkabau language. However, linguists have differing opinions on whether it is a language on its own or just a non-standard variety of bazaar Malay.
Minangkabau is a language spoken in West Sumatra, as well as western Riau, South Aceh Regency, Bengkulu, and Jambi. People who have migrated from these areas to cities across Indonesia have also brought their language. Additionally, along the coast of North Sumatra, Minangkabau is commonly used as a lingua franca.
Buginese, also known as Bugis, is a language spoken in the southern region of Sulawesi. It has about five million speakers, of which four million speak it as their first language.
Nearly 1.5 million speakers, mainly located in South Sumatra, use this language, Palembang Malay. It comprises two dialect chains, Musi and Palembang, which are separate but mutually intelligible.
Due to years of Javanese rule in South Sumatra, the culture of Palembang has been significantly influenced by the Javanese.
There are approximately 3.5 million people who speak the Banjarese language, primarily in the South Kalimantan province of Indonesia. Additionally, Banjarese is expressed in other parts of Indonesia, as the Banjar people, nomadic merchants, carried their language with them wherever they went.
Acehnese is a popular language spoken in Indonesia and has about 3.5 million speakers. The language belongs to the Aceh-Chamic family and is mainly spoken in the coastal region of Aceh in Sumatra and certain parts of Malaysia.
Balinese is spoken by approximately 3.3 million people, primarily residing on Bali island. However, speakers of Balinese can also be found in Nusa Penida, Lombok, Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi.
Balinese has less than one million speakers who use it daily. Therefore, it heavily incorporates Indonesian vocabulary from Javanese.
Betawi is a language spoken in Jakarta, Indonesia. It is also known as Betawi Malay, Jakartan Malay, and Batavian Malay. It’s estimated that the number of speakers ranges from 2.7 million to five million, but it’s difficult to determine the exact number because of the different names used for the language.
It’s worth noting that Betawi Malay is the largest Malay-based Creole language in Indonesia and is frequently used in Jakarta’s television soap operas, and is the foundation of much Indonesian spoken slang.
In addition to the many indigenous languages, Indonesia also has several imported languages.
Dutch Language of the Early Settlers
For many years, the Dutch East India Company governed parts of Indonesia, with their presence dating back over three centuries. Although colonial rule ended in the mid-20th century, traces of Dutch linguistic heritage remain in Indonesia.
Although the usage of Dutch is decreasing, there are still some Indonesians who are fluent in the language. In addition, it’s worth noting that specific sections of Indonesian government law were composed during the Dutch reign and are yet to be revised; these sections are solely accessible in Dutch.
The Dutch language is predominantly spoken by the older generation, who possess high intellect and fluency in it. They continue to pass on their ethnic language to the younger generation. Moreover, numerous legal codes and protocols are still available in Dutch.
English the Most Commonly Spoken Language in Indonesia
As a tourist, you can easily communicate here since most people have a basic understanding of English. However, when you need clarification about the regional dialects in this area, using English is a good alternative. English is commonly used and supported here, with signs and directions available in English translations. Additionally, English is frequently used in scholarly communication.
Linguists are discussing whether English is considered a lingua franca or a foreign language in Indonesia, where there are many English speakers. However, English is becoming more prevalent in the business world in Indonesia and nearby areas, regardless of its categorization.
Sanskrit and Arabic – The Languages of the Migrant Settlers
Due to settlements and influence from Sanskrit and Arabic-speaking populations in India and Arab countries, Indonesia adopted these languages as its own. While a minority population still uses them, if you travel around the island, you can hear Sanskrit and Arabic being spoken in various places.
Indonesia has multiple languages that use different scripts. However, some standard hands are Brahmic, Arabic, and Latin.
Other Foreign Languages
Indonesia is home to speakers of non-native languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, French, and German. Learning Indonesian schools and higher education institutions teach these languages to varying degrees.
Despite a diverse population with various ethnicities and languages, Indonesia remains committed to preserving its native languages. Even with a thriving tourism industry, the country prioritizes its original dialects rather than allowing tourist influences to overpower its cultural heritage. Moreover, Indonesians are very hospitable in speaking English, so there is no need to worry about not knowing the local dialects. Here is a summary of the various languages spoken in Indonesia.
Indonesia has not only effectively incorporated the official Bahasa language but has also preserved regional languages. The local languages are taught to children up to elementary or middle school, maintaining the country’s multilingualism. Indonesia currently has six main languages, Bahasa, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Minangkabau, and Balinese, each with a unique appeal.
These languages reflect the distinct cultural backgrounds from which they originated, yet they also have similarities that suggest a shared history. This emphasizes the common bond that unites Indonesia, despite the vast cultural diversity within the country.