Indonesia boasts a remarkable cultural wealth, with various customs, rituals, and performances deeply ingrained in their society. It is a known fact that Indonesia has a diverse, multilingual population with around 700 different languages used, making it the second-largest in the world after Papua New Guinea. Indonesian is recognized as the official language spoken per the country’s Constitution.
The other commonly used languages in the region are Javanese, Sudanese, Hindi, Chinese, Minangkabau, Dutch, and English. In this article, we will learn the top 5 languages spoken in Indonesia.
Indonesian Regional Lingua Francas
Most Indonesian languages are spoken in specific areas with varying numbers of speakers per major language, ranging from a few to thousands. Additionally, 43 regional lingua francas or spoken languages link different ethnic groups within a region. These can be categorized into two main language groups: Malayic and non-Malayic.
Javanese language – 68.2 million speakers
The Javanese language is primarily used in eastern and central Java, Indonesia, and is the native language of more than 98 million people, which accounts for about 42% of the country’s population. Some parts of Malaysia and Singapore also have people who speak Javanese as their local language.
The language is written using Arabic, Javanese, and Latin scripts and has three dialects based on geography: Central Javanese, Eastern Javanese, and Western Javanese. Despite these differences, the dialects are mostly understandable to each other. As all seven Indonesian Presidents have been mostly Javanese speakers and the language is widely used, it has greatly influenced the development of Bahasa Indonesia.
Sanskrit has dramatically influenced the Javanese language. If you were to read an Old Javanese literary work, around 25% of the words used would be of Sanskrit origin. This has resulted in a significant language lasting impact of the Indian language on Javanese, and many of the personal names in Javanese are taken from Sanskrit. The Dutch and Malay languages have also had a significant influence.
Sundanese language – 32.4 million speakers
Sundanese is a Malayo-Polynesian language widely spoken in Western Java, Lampung, Banten, and Jakarta. It has approximately 14 million native speakers and various dialects, some strongly influenced by Javanese. Additionally, Sundanese has its writing system derived from old Sundanese and was influenced by the Pallava script from South India.
In the past, Sundanese had six language levels corresponding to varying politeness and respect. However, in 1988, it was simplified to two levels: the respectful ‘basa hormat’ and the more familiar ‘basa Loma.’ It’s worth noting that there is still the lowest level, called ‘cohag,’ reserved for speaking to animals or expressing extreme anger towards humans.
Maduranese language – 7.7 million speakers
Madurese is a primary language spoken by many people in Indonesia, specifically on Madura Island, eastern Java Island, and the Kangean and Sapudi islands. It is estimated that 8 to 13 million people, over 5% of Indonesia’s population, speak Madurese.
The Malayo-Sumbawan language is more similar to Balinese than the other Javanese script. The number of people who speak Madurese is currently decreasing.
Bahasa Bugis – 4.3 million speakers
The primary language officially recognized and used in Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. It helps bring together the country’s various communities. It is used for administration, media, the judiciary system, and formal education. Almost all Indonesian citizens know how to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia.
Bahasa is a local language commonly known as a second language in the country, and its proficiency varies across regions. Even though it is a national language that unifies people, locals blend Bahasa with their native language to create a regional dialect. This is a common practice throughout the country, resulting in different versions of Bahasa spoken in various regions of populated islands.
The Bahasa Indonesia language belongs to the Austronesian language family and is related to other languages spoken in Indonesia, including Javanese and Regeng. It developed from the Riau Malay language as part of the nationalist movement in the 1940s and is now a standardized form of the official regional language.
Minangkabau language – 4.2 million speakers
The Minangkabau language is a Malay spoken by over 5 million people in Indonesia, specifically in the West Sumatera and Sembilan state in Malaysia. Although some linguists consider it a non-standard variety of Malay rather than a separate language, it is still the most widely used language in the region.
The Minangkabau language is spoken in some regions of West Sumatra, western Riau, South Aceh Regency, Bengkulu, and Jambi. Additionally, people who have migrated from these areas to different cities in Indonesia continue to use the language.
The Imported Languages Spoken in Indonesia
Indonesia doesn’t just have its first language and so many languages native languages, but it also has various foreign languages.
These languages have been imported from other countries, mainly through immigration and colonization.
The Dutch East India Company controlled parts of Indonesia for a prolonged period, spanning over three centuries. Although colonial domination ended in the mid-1900s, there are still traces of the Dutch language in Indonesia. Although Dutch is used less frequently, a few Indonesians still speak it fluently. Notably, specific portions of Indonesian law, written initially during Dutch sovereignty, are exclusively available in Dutch and still need to be revised.
There are many English speakers in Indonesia. Some experts believe that English is a lingua franca there, while others classify it as a foreign language. In any case, English is becoming more and more prevalent in the business world in Indonesia and the surrounding region.
Other Foreign Languages
Indonesia has people who speak other languages other than their native language. Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, French, and German are some of the popular languages among the foreign languages spoken in Indonesia. These languages are taught at different levels in schools and higher education institutions, with the primary languages used in Indonesia.
Are any languages spoken in Indonesia at risk of disappearing?
Indonesia, a diverse archipelago, is home to over 700 languages. Sadly, many of these languages are at risk of disappearing. Factors such as urbanization, cultural assimilation, and the dominance of Indonesian pose significant threats. Efforts are being made to preserve and revitalize endangered indigenous languages, but the battle to safeguard linguistic diversity remains challenging and crucial for Indonesia’s cultural heritage.
Ethnologue reports that 63 languages in Indonesia are classified as dying, meaning that they are spoken only by native speakers who are beyond childbearing age. Unfortunately, these languages are unlikely to be rescued or maintained, and most will vanish within the next decade or perhaps even sooner.
According to the Indonesian Constitution, the official language of Indonesia is Indonesian. It is a spoken language similar to Malay but differs in vocabulary and accent. Indonesian is the most commonly used major language spoken in the country, especially for formal communication like administration, commerce, and media.
The primary language used in Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, which serves as a national and common language connecting individuals from various ethnic groups and native languages. To enjoy your travels in the country, it would be beneficial to learn Indonesian. Once you have a good grasp of Indonesian, you may be interested in learning other various regional languages and local languages specific to the area you are visiting.