According to the Indonesian Constitution, the country’s official language is Indonesian. This language is similar to Malay but has a distinct vocabulary and accent. The main language in Indonesia, Indonesian, is commonly used for formal communication, including administration, commerce, and the media, and is the most widely spoken language in the country.
Indonesia’s Official Language
Bahasa Indonesia, also known as Indonesian, serves as the common language that unites the diverse population of Indonesia. It is used for official purposes such as administration, media, judiciary, and formal education. Bahasa Indonesia is widely recognized as the official language of Indonesia because almost everyone in the country can speak it.
In this country, Bahasa is commonly known as a second language, and the level of proficiency differs depending on the region. Although it is a common language, locals blend it with their dialect to create a regional variation. This is a widespread practice, so there’s little chance of encountering the same form of Bahasa in various areas of the nation.
Bahasa Indonesia belongs to the Austronesian family of languages spoken in Indonesia, including other regional languages in Indonesia, like Javanese and Regeng. Bahasa Indonesia is a standardized version of Riau Malay, and it emerged during the nationalist movement in the 1940s. Although most people in the country or the colonizers did not initially speak it, the Indonesian language has effectively assimilated into the nation.
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 the Palembang Malay language. 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.
Approximately 3.5 million people 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. The number of speakers is estimated to range from 2.7 million to five million. Still, 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. 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.
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 other 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.
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.