Linguistic diversity varies hugely from country to country. This week, I wanted to take a look at one of the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet: Indonesia. Only Papua New Guinea is home to more languages than Indonesia.
What is the official language of Indonesia? How many languages are spoken in Indonesia? Read on to find out.
Actually, asking what language they speak in Indonesia isn’t quite the right question. It implies there is a single language spoken there, when the reality is that Indonesia is home to more than 276 million people and over 800 languages. Many Indonesians speak two languages, if not three or four. Below, we’ll explore some of these languages in detail. We will also look at some of the key characteristics and the geographical spread of the languages spoken in Indonesia.
But first, let’s look at the national language of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia (which means ‘language of Indonesia’). Also referred to simply as Indonesian, this language is spoken by between 80% and 94% of Indonesia’s population (estimates vary). However, it is the primary language of just 20% of Indonesians. Most Indonesians speak one of the country’s other languages as their mother tongue.
Indonesian is the main language of education, business, government and the media in Indonesia. As well as being spoken in Indonesia, it is spoken in the Philippines, the US, Singapore, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the world.
The origins of Indonesian are rooted firmly in the Malay language. It is a standardised dialect of that language. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945, its language was officially defined. In terms of Malaysian vs Indonesian, the languages remain similar to this day and are mutually intelligible.
Below, I'm going to look at various other languages used in Indonesia. You can also click the link below to find out more about the languages of Asia.
Read more: Asian Languages
Before I launch into further detail of the languages spoken in Indonesia, I just wanted to add a quick word on why so few people speak Bahasa Indonesia. Both geography and history come into play here.
Indonesia consists of five main islands and around 30 smaller island groups. Those include approximately 6,000 inhabited islands out of a total of 17,508. With those figures in mind, it becomes easier to see why Indonesia has so many languages, with many communities historically isolated from others.
Then there is the impact of Malay to consider. Malay was historically used as a lingua franca by travellers and traders across the Indonesian islands as well as across Malaysia and Singapore. When Indonesia gained independence from colonial rule, it established Bahasa Indonesia in order to provide a simple, flexible language that could break down communication barriers between the country’s hundreds of ethnic groups.
Politically, the move made sense. It meant that no ethnic group would dominate in linguistic terms. However, Indonesians across the country continued to speak their native tongues, learning Indonesian as a second language rather than speaking it natively. This continues to this day. Additionally, a range of local dialects and creoles have developed, blending with Bahasa Indonesia.
I have summarised hugely for the sake of brevity. A huge range of political and cultural factors also come into play when considering why so few Indonesians speak Indonesian natively. However, the depth of that subject means that it would require a whole other article – perhaps a topic for another day!
I will add one more interesting point. Though many speakers don’t use it at home, the rapid growth of Indonesia's population means that Bahasa Indonesia has been one of the fastest growing languages in the world over the past 50 years. Speaker numbers in 1971 stood at 127,635,615. By 2021, that number had grown to 228,241,973 speakers of Bahasa Indonesia. Only Urdu grew faster over the same time period. To find out more about some of the other fastest growing languages in the world, click the link below.
Read more: The Fastest Growing Languages in the World
Depending on how you define a language versus a dialect (click the link below for a further discussion on that topic), there are at least 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. By some counts, the total is over 800.
The majority of those languages can be divided into three groups within the Indonesian language family tree: Austronesian languages, West Papuan languages and Trans-New Guinea languages.
Indonesia is also home to a number of language isolates and many additional small language family groupings.
Some of the most commonly spoken Austronesian languages in Indonesia include:
• Malayo-Sumbawan languages:
• Barito languages:
• Northwest Sumatra–Barrier Islands languages:
o Batak languages (seven of them)
• South Sulawesi languages:
• Philippine languages:
The West Papuan languages are spoken only in eastern Indonesia. They include Ternate and Tidori (which is closely related to Ternate).
The Trans-New Guinea language family includes hundreds of languages spoken natively in Indonesia. Like the West Papuan languages, speakers are located in eastern Indonesia. The Trans-New Guinea languages include:
• Mairasi languages
• East Cenderawasih (Geelvink Bay) languages
• Lakes Plain languages
• Tor–Kwerba languages
• Nimboran languages
• Skou languages
• Border languages
• Senagi languages
• Pauwasi languages
I want to move on now to looking at some of the most widely spoken languages of Indonesia. One more quick note before I do come out though, on the country’s 43 regional lingua francas…
The majority of Indonesian languages are spoken in highly localised areas. Speaker numbers range from a handful of individuals to many thousand. In addition, the country is home to 43 regional lingua francas. These are used to connect ethnic groups at a regional level. They can be split into two types: Malayic and non-Malayic.
Keeping that in mind, some of the most spoken languages used in Indonesia are detailed below.
Javanese is spoken by 30-45% of Indonesians (again, estimates vary). It is the country’s most spoken native language. In geographic terms, Javanese is widely spoken on the island of Java and in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Javanese has double the number of native speakers that Bahasa Indonesia has.
Javanese has a number of distinct regional dialects and is closely related to Sundanese, Madurese and Balinese. It is, in native speaker terms, the largest of the Austronesian languages. Outside of Indonesia, Javanese speakers can be found in Malaysia and Singapore.
Spoken in Western Java, Lampung, Banten and Jakarta, Sundanese is a Malayo-Polynesian language with around 14 million native speakers. It has a number of dialects, some quite heavily influenced by Javanese, and its own writing system, derived from old Sundanese, which was influenced by South India’s Pallava script.
Sundanese used to have a register consisting of six levels of language, each relating to a different level of politeness and respect. That was reduced to two in 1988: the respectful ‘basa hormat’ and the more familiar ‘basa loma’, although there is still a lowest level – ‘cohag’ – which is used for speaking to animals or to humans when the speaker is very angry.
Spoken by over 5% of Indonesia’s population, equating to somewhere between 8 and 13 million people, Madurese is spoken mainly on Madura Island and in eastern Java, as well as on the Kangean and Sapudi islands.
This Malayo-Sumbawan language is more closely related to Balinese than to Javanese. Madurese speaker numbers are currently shrinking.
The Malayic Minangkabau language is spoken by over 5 million people in Indonesia. Linguists debate its status, with some considering it to be a non-standard variety of Malay rather than a language in its own right.
Minangkabau is spoken in West Sumatra, western Riau, South Aceh Regency, Bengkulu and Jambi. Minangkabau who have migrated to cities across Indonesia have also taken their language with them. Along the coast of North Sumatra, Minangkabau is used as a lingua franca.
Buginese (also called Bugis) is spoken mainly in southern Sulawesi. It has approximately five million speakers, four million of whom speak it natively.
Also referred to as Palembang Malay, this language has nearly 1.5 million speakers, located mainly in South Sumatra. Interestingly, the language consists of Musi and Palembang, two separate but mutually intelligible dialect chains. The fact that much of South Sumatra was under Javanese rule for so many years, means that Palembang has been heavily influenced by Javanese.
Banjarese has around 3.5 million speakers, many of them located in South Kalimantan province. Banjarese is also spoken elsewhere in Indonesia, as the Banjar people were nomadic merchants who took their language with them on their travels.
Another of the most common languages spoken in Indonesia is Acehnese. An Aceh-Chamic language with approximately 3.5 million speakers, Acehnese is spoken mainly in the coastal Aceh region in Sumatra, as well as in parts of Malaysia.
Balinese has around 3.3 million speakers, the majority of whom live on the island of Bali, though speakers can also be found in Nusa Penida, Lombok, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. In terms of daily use, Balinese is estimated to have fewer than one million speakers. Parts of the language borrow extensively from Javanese.
Betawi is an Indonesian language that is also referred to as Betawi Malay, Jakartan Malay and Batavian Malay. Speakers are located mainly in Jakarta. Estimates of speaker numbers range from 2.7 million to five million, with the use of various names for the language contributing to the difficulty of calculating a total.
Betawi Malay is the basis of much Indonesian slang and is commonly used in soap operas televised in Jakarta. It is the country’s largest Malay-based Creole. To discover more about Creole languages in general, click the link below.
Read more: Creole Languages
As well as being home to hundreds of indigenous languages, Indonesia is also home to several imported tongues. Before I wrap up, let’s take a quick look at a couple of these.
The Dutch East India Company ruled parts of Indonesia for many years. In fact, the Dutch presence in Indonesia dates back well over three centuries. While colonial rule was ousted towards the middle of the 20th century, some linguistic heritage remains. A small number of Indonesians speak fluent Dutch, though the language is used less and less these days. Interestingly, certain parts of Indonesian law are only available in Dutch, having been originally written under Dutch rule and not updated since.
Indonesia is home to many English speakers. Some linguists argue that English in Indonesia is a lingua franca, while others categorise it as a foreign language. However it is categorised, English is used increasingly within the business world in Indonesia and the surrounding region.
Speakers of other non-native languages can also be found in Indonesia. Foreign languages spoken in Indonesia include Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, French and German. These languages are, to differing degrees, taught in Indonesian schools and higher education institutions.
According to Ethnologue, Indonesia is home to 63 languages that are classified as dying. With only native speakers who are older than child-bearing age left, there is little hope of rescuing or prolonging the use of those languages. Many will be lost within the next decade or two, if not sooner.
From Bahasa Indonesia to endangered tongues with just a handful of speakers left, Indonesian language is a fascinating source of study for linguists. I hope you enjoyed this journey through some of Indonesia’s more widely spoken languages. Feel free to leave comments below on your own experiences of learning or speaking Bahasa Indonesia and any of the other languages spoken in Indonesia.
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