How Hard is Indonesian to Learn?

Indonesian aka Bahasa Indonesia by the locals, is a very useful language to learn if you are to spend any amount of time travelling through Indonesia… or Malaysia, Singapore or Brunei for that matter. 

But, how hard is Indonesian to learn?

  • Vocabulary – Firstly, Indonesian is very similar to Malay. In fact the two are mutually intelligible. So you will find it very easy to learn Indonesian if you first speak Malay. On top of that, there are many loanwords from Dutch because Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands and English loanwords have been adopted in recent years thanks to globalisation. Vocabulary in Indonesian is formed through affixes attaching to root words. There are a lot of rules to these affixes which can make building vocabulary complicated.
  • Grammar – In some ways the grammar of Indonesian is simple, nouns lack gender, word order is similar to English and verbs don’t change for tense or subject. However there are some complications. The use of affixes on nouns, verbs and adjectives can seem complicated. Verbs gain affixes for aspect and there are lots of variations to learn.
  • Speaking/Listening – The sounds of Indonesian are pretty similar to English so they shouldn’t take long to become familiar with. On top of that there are no tones in Indonesian.
  • Writing/Reading – The Indonesian alphabet used the same 26 letters as the English alphabet. The spelling rules are quite consistent so you shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the writing system.

So that was a quick overview. Let’s now take a deeper look into the question.

How Hard is Indonesian to Learn Really?

— Vocabulary

The Indonesia language shares a lot of vocabulary with Malay, the language of Malaysia. This is because both languages developed from Old Malay. When the colonists arrived Malaysia was taken by the English and Indonesia by the Dutch. This meant that two languages began to diverge from one another. Indonesian began to adopt a lot of loanwords from the colonial language. That being said, around 80% of Indonesian vocabulary still shares a root with Malay.

Before the colonial era other languages also had an impact on Indonesian. These include Arabic, Portuguese and Chinese. In the era of globalisation English became an international language of business and in latter years Indonesian has adopted more English vocabulary.

  • Astronaut – astronot
  • Electronic – elektroni
  • Gossip – gosip
  • Rocket – roket
  • Strawberry – stroberi
  • Business – bisnis
  • Pilot – pilot

So on balance, if you have a background in Malay you will be able to learn Indonesian with ease. On the other hand, if you are familiar with Dutch or English you can begin to pick up some new vocabulary quickly.

— Grammar

The use of affixes is the most common difficulty when learning Indonesian. That being said, there is no noun gender or case system so some aspects of Indonesian are pretty simple.

  • Word Order – The standard word order is subject-verb-object but if another part of the sentence is the focus of the sentence then this other part could be placed a the start.
  • Affixes – In Indonesian there a lots of root words. These can be transformed by an affix, that is a prefix, a circumflex or a suffix on the word. In adding the affix you can change the part of speech, in other words change a noun to verb. Or you can define the aspect of a verb, meaning stating whether verb is completed or not. These affixes are the fundamental building blocks of the language.
  • Pronouns – In Indonesia there are personal pronouns, however they are not as commonly used as in English. Instead they would tend to use the persons name, relationship to the speaker, or the title. Also, be aware that there are informal and polite forms for you.
  • Nouns – Nouns don’t change whether they are plural or not, instead plurality is shown through context. However, numbers can be placed before the noun to show the number of the nouns. The lack of a case system or gender makes the use of nouns simpler.
  • Verbs – In Indonesian the verbs do not change for tense or the subject. Tense is shown through context or with time words like yesterday or currently. There are, however, affixes that can be attached to show aspect, so in other words whether the action is complete, begun but not finished, incomplete. The lack of changes for tense or subject can make forming verbs simpler than many other languages. That being said, showing aspect is pretty difficult.
  • Prepositions – There are lots of prepositions in Indonesia and they function much like in English.
  • Adjectives – The adjectives are placed after the noun that they describe. They can also function as adverbs.
  • Questions – Question can be formed on a statement with upward intonation at the end of the sentence. You could also place the word apakah at the beginning or end of the sentence or use specific question words to form questions.

— Speaking/Listening

There are very few tricky sounds to pronounce in Indonesian. You also won’t find any tones so on balance pronunciation is one of the easier areas of the language.

  • Consonant sounds – There are 21 consonant sounds in Indonesian. Most of these are found in English words and so shouldn’t be much of an issue. There is a more frequent use of the ng sound, which is the sound produced at the end of the word when you say the word wing. There are a lot of loanwords in Indonesian, and these loans words required the use of consonant sounds not found in native Indonesian words. There sounds are f, ʃ, x, v and z.
  • Vowel Sounds – There are 6 monophthongs which combine to create 3 more diphthongs. These sounds are all found in English words and are therefore pretty easy to pronounce.
  • Stress – Stress isn’t a key part of Indonesian pronunciation and you’ll find equal stress is applied to the syllables in the words.

— Writing/Reading

Indonesian uses the same 26 letters of the Latin alphabet as English. Most spelling in the language is phonetic, meaning the rules are pretty consistent for how you pronounce the word given how it is written. There are 5 letters that are only used for loan words, these are f, q , v, x and z.

The Latin script actually replaced an Arabic based script called Jawi in the 17th century. This Arabic script had replaced an earlier Brahmi style script called Pallava in 14th century. This change to a Latin script was made during the colonial era to facilitate better communication between the Europeans and the local Indonesians.

Why Learn Indonesian?

There are few languages as interesting as Bahasa Indonesia. Each person has their own reasons to study a language. So here are my 4 biggest reasons for taking on this language.

  1. Around 273 million people live in Indonesia and there are over 300 different languages spoken by people in the country. However, Bahasa Indonesia is spoken by the vast majority as either a first or second language. Indonesian is the official language of the country and it is how locals communicate with people from other parts of the vast country. If you choose to live in Indonesia then you can’t just rely on English, take the time to learn Indonesian.
  2. If you are hoping to spend a lot of time travelling more independently in Indonesia then English is not going to be enough either. You will find that you get access to better service, prices are cheaper, and you can explore more extensively if you speak the language proficiently. This is true of most countries you visit, but very much so of Indonesia because of how underdeveloped many parts of the country are.
  3. You can put the language to use in other countries around the world. Firstly, the language spoken in Malaysia and Brunei called Malay is very similar to Bahasa Indonesia. With a working knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia you should be able to get by in those countries. Also, there are many Indonesian communities in other countries around the world including in the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the USA.
  4. The language itself is incredibly challenging and fun to learn. A lot of the vocabulary has interesting origins, the grammar is pretty straight forward, the writing system is simple and the pronunciation has only a few areas you might stumble over. Therefore a lot of people find they can progress quickly in the language and find the learning process quite rewarding.

Indonesian Facts

Who Speaks Bahasa Indonesia?

Indonesian aka Bahasa Indonesia is the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. However, only around 10% of the citizens of the country speak it as a first language, this is pretty low for any national language. However, the vast majority of citizens of Indonesia do speak it as a second language. As such the language is a strong force for national unity in a country of over 300 languages and over 17000 islands.

The language is used in the government both at a national and local level, within the education system, on TV and radio, and within the business community. Across the world there are many communities of Indonesian people and in the major cities of Malaysia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the USA you are bound to bump into some Bahasa Indonesia speakers. In total it is estimated that around 240 million people speak the language worldwide. This is a significant number.

What Is the Difference Between Indonesian and Malay?

Bahasa Melayu which is spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and Bahasa Indonesia which is spoken in Indonesia are both forms of Malay. They evolved from Old Malay which is an Austronesian language with origins on the island of Sumatra. The two languages are mutually intelligible, however there are some key difference worth describing.

Both Malaysia and Indonesia had colonial histories. Malaysia under the British and Indonesia under the dutch. As such, Malay has a large number of loan words from English, while Indonesian has a lot of loan words from Dutch.

Also, Indonesia is a country of upward of 300 other languages, this has meant that the local languages have had an impact in different areas on the Bahasa Indonesia vocabulary and pronunciation. This has made the Indonesian language more open to changes in pronunciation and taking on new loanwords. In recent years from English due to globalisation.

Malaysia on the other hand doesn’t have so many local languages in the country so Malay was able to preserve its form more so than Indonesian. The language is seen as being more conservative to outside influence.

Is Indonesian a Useful Language?

There are a number of reasons why Indonesian can be useful, it just really depends on your circumstances. If you are hoping to travel around the country, English is going to be helpful, but Bahasa Indonesia is probably a very useful tool to also have access to. The vast majority of Indonesians speak it as a first or second language. You will find that the local people respect you more and treat you more favourably if you know some Indonesian. You can also detect problems and travel more safely if you can understand the situations which may develop around you.

If you plan to spend time in the surrounding countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore your knowledge of Indonesian will help a great deal when speaking Malay. The two languages are mutually intelligible. Learning any language is useful. It exercises certain parts of the brain and gives many people a purpose and can broaden your interest in a country.

Should I learn Malay or Indonesian?

The quick answer is that it depends where you are going to spend most of your time. If you are going to spend most of your time in Malaysia, Singapore or Brunei then choose Malay. If you are going to spend most of your time in Indonesia then Indonesian is your best bet.

That being said, cultural or family family factors could also play a role. It is possible you are more drawn to one culture than the other and this could motivate you more. Ultimately, the two languages are mutually intelligible, if you learn one you are truly building a strong base for being understood in the other language.

Sample of Bahasa Indonesia

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