Languages of Indonesia: The Different Tongues of a Diverse Country

Indonesia is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world, with a plethora of rituals, customs, and performances being an integral part of their society. It comes as no surprise then that the country is also linguistically diverse, with over 700 languages in Indonesia spoken across the archipelago. Indonesians are the second largest multilingual population in the world, next only to Papua New Guinea. For tourists planning to visit Indonesia, it can be a bit difficult to navigate through the complexities of Indonesian culture. Knowing a little bit of the local language while travelling can make your trip considerably easier and more convenient. Here's the lowdown on the top languages of Indonesia:

Bahasa: Official Language of Indonesia

Ethnic Groups, Languages of Indonesia

Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia, is the lingua franca of the country, the binding force that brings together the diverse citizens of the country. It's the official language of Indonesia used for administration, media, judiciary and formal education, and almost everyone in Indonesia knows how to communicate in Bahasa, as it is commonly called. Most people know it as their second language and proficiency vary across the country. While it certainly serves as a unifier, citizens often mix Bahasa with their native language to produce a regional dialect. This practice is common nearly everywhere, so you're unlikely to find the same exact version of Bahasa being spoken in different parts of the country.

Bahasa Indonesia is a part of the Austronesian family of languages, under which several other regional languages of Indonesia such as Javanese and Regeng also fall. Bahasa is a standardized register of the Riau Malay and emerged during the nationalist movement in the 1940s. Despite it not being the native language of the majority of the people at that time, or even the language of the colonizers, Indonesian has managed to integrate itself into the nation very well and is now an important identity marker. A number of Dutch, English and Arabic words have also been incorporated over the years.

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in brackets)

1. “Hello” (informal) - halo (haa-lo)
2. “Good morning” - Selamat pagi (sla-mat paa-gee)
3. “Good day” - Selamat siang (sla-mat see-yaang)
    (used between 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM)
4. “Good afternoon” - Selamat sore (sla-mat so-ré-e)
5. “Good evening” - Selamat malam (sla-mat ma-am)
6. “How are you?” - Apa kabar? (ap-ah ka-ba-ar)
    or Bagaimana kabarnya (puh-gei-ma-ne-ke-bar-ye)
7. “I’m good” - Saya baik-baik (hei ba-yik ba-yik)
8. "Good" - Baik (ba-yik)
9. "Yes" - Iani (iya-nee)
10. "No" - Tidak (thi-dah)
11. Asking them back “How about you?” -
    Bagaimana dengan anda? (puh-gei-ma-na-ga-den-an-da)
    or Kamu gimana (kaa-mu-gi-ma-na)
12. “What is your name?” - Siapa nama anda? (sépa na-ma anda)
    or Siapa nama kamu? (sépa na-ma kha-mu)
13. “My name is….(put your name here)” - Nama saya… (na-ma sa-yé)
    or Saya… (saa-ya)
14. “What is your name?” (when you ask them back) - Ragane sira? (Rra-ga-né see-ruh)
      or Ragane nyen? (Rra-ga-né n-yen)    
15. “Thank you” - Terima kasih (three-ma kaa-ssi)
16. “See you!” - Sampai Jumpa (saam-paai yoom-pa)


Javanese, Languages of Indonesia

Spoken predominantly in eastern and central Java in Indonesia, Javanese is the native language of Indonesia of over 98 million people or about 42% of the country's population. Pockets of Malaysia and Singapore also have Javanese speakers. It's written in the Arabic, Javanese and Latin script, and has branched off into three geographical dialects: Central Javanese, Eastern Javanese and Western Javanese. However, these remain mutually intelligible for the most part. Because of its widespread usage, and the fact that all seven Indonesian Presidents have been Javanese, Javanese has influenced the development of Bahasa Indonesia to a great extent.

Javanese itself has been influenced by Sanskrit to a large extent. If one were to read a literary piece written in Old Javanese, about 25% of the words used would be from Sanskrit. This has led to a long-lasting impact of the Indian language on Javanese, and many of the personal names used in the latter are derived from Sanskrit. Other significant influencers are Dutch and Malay.

In the 1940s when Indonesia was emerging as a country, Javanese was the main contender for the language with the official status. Not only was it the first language of nearly half the population, but it was also culturally rich and used for religious, courtly and literary traditions. However, choosing Javanese could easily have led to conflict within the country, with claims of the Javanese ethnic group being favoured by the Government. In a country as diverse as Indonesia, which has over 300 ethnic groups, it was much wiser to choose a language that most people knew to some degree but wasn't exclusively identified with a particular group.

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in the brackets)

1. “Good morning”- Sugen enjing (soo-kuh-n en-jing)
2. “Good afternoon”- Sugen siyang (soo-kuh-n see-yaa-ng)
3. “Good evening”- Sugen dalu (soo-kuh-n daah-lu)
4. “Have a nice day”- Sugen ngayahi gati (soo-kuh-n gayi-ah-i gaa-ti)
5. “How are you”- Pripun kabaripun panjenengan? (pri-pun ka-ba-ri-pun pan-jen-ne-gan)
6. “Good” - Sae (sa-yi)
7. “Yes” - Inggih (unn-gei)
8. “No” - Mboten (bo-tth-an)
9. “Excuse me” - Nuwun sewu (noo-wan say-wu)
10. “Thank you” - Matur suwan (mah-tth-or soo-ww-on)
11. “You’re welcome” - Sugeng rawuh (soo-kun-g raa-wo-h)
     or Sami-Sami (Ssa-mee Ssa-mee)
12. “Please” - Monggo (monn-guh)
13. “I’m sorry” - Nyuwun pangapunten (new-wwun paan-ga-punn-th-en)
14. Ask them back “How about you?” - 
   ‘Njenengan piyambak ‘dospundi? (n-jenen-gan pi-yam-bak dos-pun-dhee)
15. “What is your name?” - 
   Sinten asmanipun panjenengan? (sin-than as-ma-ni-pun paan-je-ne-gan)
16. “My name is…(put your name)” - Asmo kulo… (as-mo koo-lo)


Sundanese is spoken in the western part of Java and has about 39 million native speakers, or 15% of the Indonesian population. One of the oldest languages in Indonesia and the subcontinent, Sundanese has been written in various scripts since it emerged in the 5th century; from Pallava and Nagari to Arabic to the present-day Latin. Old Sundanese, or Aksara Sunda Kuno, was the script in use during 14th-18th centuries and the one that was finally adopted as the official script by the government in 1996.  The language is distantly related to Javanese and Malay. It now has five dialects divided on the basis of location: Southeast, Northeast, Mid-east, Southern or Priangan, Western and Northern.  Of these, the most widely used dialect is Priangan or Southern.

Sundanese has two registers for formal and informal usage: Kasar, which is low or informal and  Lemes, which is high or formal. Thus, several words have two versions to be used according to the social setting, such as 'read' which translates as 'maca' in the Kasar register, and 'Maos' in the Lemes register.

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in the brackets)

1. “Hi!” - Hei! (haei)
2. “Hello” - Sampurasun
3. Response to “Hello” - Rampes
4. "Good morning" - Wilujeung enjing (wil-eu-jung en-jing)
5. "Good afternoon" - Wilujeung siyang (wil-eu-jung see-yaang)
6. "Good evening" - Wilujeung sonten (wil-eu-jung son-th-un)
7. "Good night" - Wilujeng wengi (wil-eu-jung won-gi)
8. “How are you?” - Kumaha damang? (ku-ma-ha dha-maang)
9. “I’m fine” - Saé (saa-ye)
10. Ask them back “How about you?” -  Kumaha sawangsulna?
    (ku-maah sa-waa-ng-sool-nuh)
11. “Thank you” - Hatur nuhun (hatth-ur noo-hu-n)
12. “You’re welcome” - Sami-Sami (sa-mi sa-mi)
13. “Excuse me” - Punteun (punn-thh-un)
14. “What is your name?” - Saha namina? (saah na-mee-na)
15. “My name is…” -  Nami abdi... (na-mi ab-dee)
16. “Nice to meet you!” - Resep patepang sareng anjeun!
    (ras-sap pa-tuh-paang sa-rung an-jun)


Madurese, Languages of Indonesia

Madurese is the language spoken in Madura island and East Java, along with some other parts of Indonesia including Surabaya, Malang and Kalimantan. It is spoken by approximately 8-13 million people and is closely related to Sundanese and Balinese. Traditionally the Javanese script was used to write it, but Latin and Pegon (a script derived from Arabic) are more commonly used languages in Indonesia now. Sumenep is the Eastern dialect of Madurese and is considered its standard form. It's used for educational and all other official purposes. The western dialects of the language include Bangkalan and Pamekasan, of which the former is given more importance because it's spoken in the urbanized, economically significant region of Surabaya. 

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in the brackets)

1. “How are you”- Kadih ponapah kabereh panjenengan?
   (kaa-di-h po-naa-pah kaa-buh-ruh paan-jen-guhn)
2. “I’m fine” - Abdina sae (aab-dee-na saa-yei)
3. Ask them back “How about you?” - Manabi panjenengan? (maa-naa-bee paan-jen-guhn)


Minangkabau, Languages of Indonesia

Minangkabau is a spoken language in Indonesia by the Minang or Minangkabau people in the highlands of Western Sumatra, as well as parts of Riau, Aceh, Jambi and Bengkulu. It's also spoken in parts of Malaysia and acts as the lingua franca of the coastal region in North Sumatra. It has about 8.5 million speakers and nearly a dozen dialects. Some of these dialects have emerged between two villages separated only by a river. Among these, the Agam-Tanah Datar dialect is the standard form that is used for communication between people who speak different dialects.

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in the brackets)

1. "Hello" - Halo (haa-lo)
2. "How are you?" - Ba-ah kaba (ba-ah ka-bah)
   or Apo kaba (a-po ka-bah)
3. "I'm fine" - Ambo sehath (amm-bo sae-ha-th)
4. To ask them back "How about you?" - 
    Avatu ba-ah(av-va-thu ba-aah)
5. "Thank you" - Terimo kasi (the-ri-moh kaas-si)
   or Moh kasi (moh kaas-si)
6. "You're welcome" - Samo-Samo (ssa-mo ssa-mo")
7. "What is your name?" - Seya namo? (see-ya na-moh)
8. "My name is..." - Namo ambo... (na-moh amm-bo)
9. "See you later!" - Sampai basuvoyo 
    (samm-pai bas-su-vo-yo)
10. "Goodbye!" - Tadah! (tah-dah)
11. "Nice to meet you" - Sanang basuvo avatu 
    (sa-naa-ng basu-vo av-va-thu)
12. "Goodluck!" - Suksesyo (sook-ses-yo)


Balinese, Languages of Indonesia

Perhaps the most familiar to non-Indonesians, Balinese is the language spoken in Bali, Nusa Penida and parts of Lombok and Java. Spoken by approximately 3.3 million people, usage of Balinese is now mostly confined to oral communication. Balinese script derives from the Indian Brahmi script, but the Latin script has become prevalent in modern times. Balinese has three registers, depending on who you're speaking to Basa Ketah (low), Basa Madia (middle) and Basa Singgih (high). A number of Sanskrit and Javanese words can be found in the latter.

Most Balinese are unfamiliar with writing in their native language. The blossoming of the tourism industry in Bali has been a major factor for this since most parents living in the urban areas prioritize the learning of Indonesian or even English over Balinese. Most people living in Bali are multilingual, knowing Indonesian, Balinese and English with varying degrees of proficiency. Nowadays, a mix of Indonesian and Balinese can be heard in conversations on the local streets. In religious and literary contexts, Kawi, a language derived from Javanese and Sanskrit is used.

To help you cut some slack and make your trip a fulfilling one; here are some common phrases: (pronunciations in brackets)

1. “Hello” (informal)- Swatsyastu or Halo (swas-ti-yas-tu-u)
2. A formal greeting of “hello” means “may peace be with you”
   - Om swatsyastu (oh-m swas-ti-yas-tu-u)
3. “Good morning” - Rahajeng semeng (Rra-ha-jung suh-mung)
4. “Good afternoon” - Rahajeng tengai (Rra-ha-jung th-un-ga-yi)
5. “Good evening” - Rahajeng sanje (Rra-ha-jung saan-jé-e)
6.“Good night” - Rahajeng peteng (Rra-ha-jung puh-thung)
7. “How are you?” - Punapi gatra (pu-na-pi-i ga-tr-uh)
    or Kenken Kabare (ken-ken ka-ba-ré-e)
8. “I’m good” - Tiang becik becik (thi-yang buh-che buh-che)
9. “Good” - Becik (buh-che)
10. "Yes." - Inggih (in-geh)
11. "No" - Ten (thuh-un)
12. To ask them back “How are you doing?” - Ragane punapi (Rra-ga-né pu-naa-pi)
     or Ragane kenken (Rra-ga-né ken-ken)
13. “Thank you” - Suksma (sook-sm-uh)
14. “You are welcome” - Suksma mewali (sook-sm-uh muh-wa-li)
15. “What is your name?” - Sira wastan ragane? (see-ruh was-taan rra-ga-né)
     or Nyen ada? (nyen-a-dha-né)
16. “My name is….(put your name here)” -  Wastan tiang… (was-taan thi-yung)
     or Tiang… (thi-yung)
17. “What is your name?” (when you ask them back) - Anda siapa? (an-da see-ya-pa)
     or Kamu siapa? (kaa-mu see-ya-pa)
18. “See you!” - Sampai Jumpa (saam-paai yoom-pa)

This is just a glimpse into the various languages in Indonesia. Not only has the country managed to integrate the official Bahasa language successfully, but it has also ensured the survival of regional languages. Local languages of Indonesia are taught to children up to elementary or middle school level, which helps maintain the multilingualism of the nation. Bahasa, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Minangkabau and Balinese are the topmost languages of Indonesia in use today, each one with a distinct charm. These languages reflect the unique cultural context within which they emerged, while also sharing a number of similarities. This highlights the common history that unites this country despite its vast cultural differences.

This post was published by Rutvi Saxena

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