Bahasa Indonesia At A Glance

  • First or second language of 163 million people
  • One of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world
  • The official language of Indonesia; also spoken in Singapore, Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, and the United States

Indonesia: land of shadow puppets, Komodo dragons… and Southeast Asia’s largest economy. And here’s something unexpected: Languages spoken in the fastest-growing emerging economies are turning away from Europe, and toward Asia and the Middle East. In a few decades, four languages—Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu—may dominate the global business world.

But in 1945, when Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands, a couple of its unique characteristics were also blocking its forward momentum. Its enormous diversity and scope (it’s comprised of 17,000+ islands!) were hindering not only its communications, and but also its solidarity. Indonesia’s prominent language, Javanese, coexisted with hundreds of indigenous languages, and residents of different islands often couldn’t understand each other. As a result, Bahasa Indonesia (whose literal translation is “Indonesian language”) was established as the national language to unify the country linguistically and avoid favoritism of any ethnic group.

Today, only a minority of residents speaks Bahasa Indonesia as their primary language, but tens of millions use it as their second language. It’s surprisingly easy to learn: it’s phonetic, non-tonal, and has no genders or tenses. And English-speaking travelers may not realize it, but they already recognize many words—“paspor” (passport), “ekoturisme” (ecotourism), “kamera” (camera)—so they have a jumpstart on the language.


Thinking about working in Indonesia? Learning Bahasa Indonesia will give you an edge, especially if your chosen career is in the government, media, environment, mining, energy, education, or tourism. Do you have a talent for translation, research, engineering, or business management? Indonesia may be the place for you. It’s a top 10 market for U.S agricultural products; its aviation business is growing at 20 percent annually, driving new airport construction and jobs for air traffic controllers; and in 2014, the U.S. named it a priority market for exports.

If you’re on vacation, understanding Bahasa Indonesia is a plus when asking directions to the local market, and it will give you an edge when buying a couple of mangoes or bargaining for that intricate wood carving. And, once you arrive in Indonesia, you may decide to stay awhile: from mountains, to beaches, to tropical forests, few countries are as geographically diverse. It has the world’s greatest marine biodiversity and second greatest terrestrial biodiversity. Fluency in Bahasa Indonesia is also useful for excursions to neighboring countries like Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Singapore.

Even if you can’t jump on a plane to the archipelago tomorrow, you still can make new friends today: Indonesians are very “social”—they’re the world’s fourth largest users of Facebook, and have one of the highest Twitter user rates in the Asia Pacific. Ninety percent of Indonesia’s 88 million Internet users are under the age of 34. You can also browse business opportunities, long distance: Indonesian entrepreneurs prefer Line, WhatsApp, and Path for e-commerce.


What can you do with Indonesian?