Do People Speak English in Indonesia?

Indonesia is an island nation located between the Indian and Pacific oceans in Southeast Asia and Oceania. It is comprised of more than 17,000 islands, including Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, and New Guinea. Indonesia is the largest island nation in the world, and the 14th largest by land area.

But, do people speak English in Indonesia?

While an exact percentage of English speakers in Indonesia’s population is unknown, Indonesia is attempting to increase English proficiency.  English is taught in most schools and you will find that the more touristy areas of the country have a surprisingly high level of English speakers. Those who live in the richer urban areas are more likely to be able to speak English. While travelling around Indonesia, travellers will find that Indonesians speak many different languages. Indonesia is a linguistically diverse country with many islands throughout the country. 

So, given the diversity of English usage across the country it would be useful to look at some of the different regions.

English Use in Major Cities in Indonesia

  • Jakarta – Jakarta is Indonesia’s capital, and largest city. The city is the center of Indonesia’s economy, culture, and politics. Situated on the island’s northwest coast of Java, the city has a population of around 10.8 million people. The city was established in the 4th century, and the town became an important trading port for the Sunda Kingdom. Once it was known as Batavia, it was the de facto capital of the Dutch East Indies. Jakarta is officially a province with a special status of capital area, although it is commonly called a district. As Indonesia’s capital is the melting point for all cultures of all ethnic groups in the country. While Betawi people are known as Jakarta’s indigenous population, the city’s culture reflects many languages and ethnic groups, supporting differences in religion, customs, and linguistics rather than any single dominant culture. In Jakarta, travelers should have no problem encountering other English speakers especially when traveling around Indonesia.
  • Surabaya –  Surabaya has a population of over three million within its city limits, and more than ten million in the metropolitan area of Surabaya, making it Indonesia’s second largest metropolitan city. The city was settled by the Kingdom of Janggala in the 10th century, one of the two Javanese kingdoms established in 1045 when Airlangga abdicated the throne in favor of his two sons. Surbaya was a duchy in the late 15th and 16th centuries, when Surabaya grew to a significant political and military base, as well as a port in eastern Java, possibly under the Majapahit Empire. In Surabaya, Javanese culture has distinct characteristics compared to other regions. In Surabaya, although it is a larger city, finding an English speaker might be more difficult than Jakarta.
  • Bandung – Bandung is the fourth most populous city in Indonesia after Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bekasi with about 2.5 million inhabitants. The Bandung metropolitan area is the country’s third largest metropolitan area with about 8.5 million residents. In the 18th century, the Dutch first established tea plantations around the mountains and a road was built to connect the plantation area with the colonial capital Batavia. The Dutch residents requested the creation of a municipality in the early 20th century, which was granted in 1906, and Bandung slowly developed into a resort town for plantation owners. Luxurious hotels, restaurants, cafes, and European boutiques were opened, and the city became known as Paris of Java. Although Bandung was once home to Dutch plantations, it might be a little harder to find English speakers there.
  • Bekasi – Bekasi is a city located in West Java, Indonesia, situated on Jakarta’s eastern border. It serves as a commuter city within the metropolitan area of Jakarta, although it has notable industries in trade and industrials. Bekasi is one of Indonesia’s oldest cities and has a tradition of being the capital of the Tarumanagara Kingdom. At the time, Bekasi’s name was Sundasembawa Dayeuh. According to theTugu inscription, the earliest evidence of its presence dates back to the 5th century. Bekasi was a part of Batavia’s residence during the Dutch East Indies period. Bekasi has sprawled and built up many satellite areas that are complete with their own shopping malls, schools, hospitals, water parks, and shuttle services to Jakarta. Many multinational firms are in Bekasi, which has motivated many expatriates to settle in Bekasi. Due to the international firms located in Bekasi, it might be very easy to meet other English speakers.
  • Medan – As a regional hub and financial center on Sumatra, Medan is considered on of Indonesia’s main central cities. Medan was established by Guru Patimpus, a Karonese man who called Kampung Medan Putri as a swampy land at the confluence of the Deli and Babura Rivers. It later became part of the Deli Sultanate founded in 1632 by Tuanku Gocah Pahlawan. In the 18th century, Sultan Mahmud Al Rasyid Perkasa Alam collaborated with Jacob Nienhuys, a Dutch tobacco merchant pioneering the opening of the tobacco plantations in Medan. With the help of the Sultan Ma’mun Al Rasyid Perkasa Alam and well-known Chinese businessmen, Medan developed at a rapid pace, and Medan transformed into a large trading center. Medan has a more international vibe, so it will be slightly easier to find English speakers to join you over dinner and a drink.

What Languages are Spoken in Indonesia?

  • Javanese – Indonesia recognizes only one national language, and indigenous languages are recognized at the regional level. Javanese is the most spoken language without official status. Javanese is the largest ethnic group, accounting for about 40.2% of the population, and it is politically dominant.
  • Dutch – Given the Dutch presence in Indonesia for nearly 350 years – parts of Indonesia were controlled by the Dutch East India Company, and eventually by the whole of what is now Indonesia – there is no official status for the Dutch language, and the minority who can speak the language fluently are either educated members of older generations or working in the legal profession, as some codes of law are still only available in Dutch.
  • English – English has historically been listed as the first foreign language in Indonesia. English is recognized as the language most spoken. When it comes to Indonesia, however English falls off the radar at all levels of society. Omitted from Indonesia’s basic curriculum, Indonesia ranks 51st in English proficiency, scoring lower than most its neighbors in Southeast Asia; Singapore (3rd), Philippines (14th), Malaysia (22nd), and Vietnam (41st) according to an English First Proficiency Index.
  • Other Languages – Other languages such as Arabic, German, French, Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean are spoken in Indonesia. Such languages are included in the educational curriculum and may be categorised as either international or additional languages, depending on the the instrumental role of the language, the duration or access to them, as well as the motivations of the speakers who use or learn them.
  • Endangered Languages – In 2009, there were 726 languages spoken in Indonesia which dropped from 742 languages in 2007, so the Indonesian islands are the world’s second-largest lingual population after Papua New Guinea. Ethnologue, formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics, states that 63 languages are dying, which are described as ‘the only fluent users are older than the child-bearing age, so it is too late to restore natural inter-generational transmission through the home.’

Is English Necessary in Indonesia?

As a tourist, most Indonesians that you encounter will be fluent both in their native language and national language. Even though most Indonesian’s consider themselves bilingual, it is important to recognize that a language and cultural barrier still exists. To overcome any barriers or obstacles, it is important to learn the local language. Learning a language might be easy as an adult because adults tend to be more focused and organized.

As a local, Indonesians view themselves as proud bilinguals. Indonesians learn the native language of their island region, and they learn Bahasa Indonesian when they enter school. Bahasa Indonesian dominates as the language of the modern industry, in addition to education and media. Bahasa Indonesian is used alongside English, Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign languages. This provides an opportunity for many locals to work at English or other language teachers.

English Teaching in Indonesia

Indonesia is home to 240 million ethnically diverse people. These communities each have their own distinct language and culture. In the 1930s, the Indonesian language was standardized as part of the independence movement and Indonesian language was adopted which is now called “Bahasa Indonesian.” The language is part of the Austronesian language family, and about 230 million people speak the language. Although most of the formal education and communication occur in Bahasa Indonesian, English is still widely spoken, and there is demand for English teachers in the country.

If you would like to teach in Indonesia, make sure that all your accommodations are taken care of and sponsorship is taken seriously. Your prospective employer is in responsible for obtaining all the correct paperwork, so it is important to find a school that you feel is trustworthy. School should arrange most things like transportation, accommodation, and flight tickets to Singapore, if you need to extend your visa. Most Indonesian people are extremely hospitable to expats, and foreigners wishing to work abroad. Most Indonesians are hospitable and welcoming to foreigners, especially in big cities like Jakarta or Surabaya. If you are interested in teaching in Indonesia, the school can help with official Indonesian paperwork, but you will need certain qualifications to apply for a job.

Throughout most countries, qualifications are typically standard through the teaching English as a foreign language community. According to Indonesian law, general qualifications to become a teacher in Indonesia include completing a four-year university degree or obtaining and graduate or post-graduate degrees. A TEFL certificate or equivalent is required, and demonstrating technical, pedagogical, personal, and social skills are necessary for obtaining a teaching job.

In the Land of the Confluence of Tongues and Currents Between Islands

The country’s official language is Indonesian, a version of Malay based on a dialect that was the country’s lingua franca for centuries. It was supported by nationalists in the 1920s and obtained official status in 1945 under the name Bahasa Indonesia.

Due to the result of centuries-long contact with other languages, Bahasa Indonesia is rich in local and international influences, including Javanese, Sundanese, Minangkabau, Hindi, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, Dutch, Portuguese, and English. Nearly all Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia due its widespread use in schooling, academia, communications, industry, politics, and mass media.

Most Indonesians speak at least one of the over 700 local languages, sometimes as their first language. Many belong to the Austronesian language family, while over 270 Papuan languages are spoken in eastern Indonesia. Of these languages, the most spoken is Javanese.

In the 1930s, Dutch and other Europeans, Eurasians, and their descendants, such as the Indos, numbered about 240,000 people. Historically they were a small fraction of the population. Despite the Dutch’s colonial presence for nearly 350 years, the Dutch language never had a large presence or gained official status. The minority groups and descendants of Dutch colonizers are a small minority who can speak it or other Dutch-based Creole languages. There is some degree of fluency nowadays among either trained members of the oldest generation or legal professionals.

The Indonesian population is linguistically diverse. Indonesian arts include both age-old styles of art that have evolved over the centuries and a new art style that has recently emerged. Alongside an Indonesian artistic identity, Indonesian arts have absorbed foreign influences – most notably from India, the Middle East, China, and Europe as a result of trade-facilitated and sometimes inspired contacts and interactions.

Final Thoughts

So that is everything we have to say about English speaking in Indonesia. As summary, it is currently unknown exactly how many people speak English in the country, but tourist areas and cities have the greater concentrations of people who can speak English.

If you are interested in finding out more about the language of Bahasa Indonesia then please check out this amazing article.

Bonus – Gordon Ramsay’s Indonesian Fried Rice

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