Indonesian Language Policy Public  

Ever since the end of World War II and its bid to gain independence, Indonesia has been deliberate and thorough in its application of a unified language policy. Many observers would agree it has been a success, especially considering the daunting task faced by the Indonesian state. But how does this success translate into the modern era of global commerce and 24/7 communication methods? What has worked on a national level may now present unique challenges for a nation yearning to assert its rightful place in the global landscape.

Indonesia by the numbers

Fun facts: Indonesia is an island nation comprising 17,508 individual islands of various sizes. 719 distinct languages have been recorded in the country. In fact, Indonesia trails only Papua New Guinea in the country-with-most-languages category, with the latter being home to a staggering 851 languages.

So, how does a nation go about unifying the language of its 269 million denizens?

The Indonesian method

The country’s government had opted for Malay, a local language spoken by an ethnic minority within Indonesia, to serve as the basis of the newly-devised national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Several reasons made Malay the perfect candidate:

  • Malay had been used as the de facto lingua franca of the territory for centuries. It had been the vehicle for commerce and the spread of Islam first and Christianity second.
  • Malay, unlike the two most widely-spread local languages, Javanese and Sundanese, is a minority language. This would eliminate any sentiment of discrimination from people having to use the language of the majority.
  • Malay had been used as a language of instruction during the Dutch colonial era, the de facto second language of administration in the country during this time.

Point number two is interesting, especially when we compare Indonesia with its neighboring countries, the Philippines and Malaysia. Like Indonesia, both had discarded the language of their colonial past (British, in their case). However, unlike Indonesia, their governments opted to use the language of the ruling (majority) elite as the national language. Throughout the last 50 years, this has proved to be a constant source of fuel to the fire of nationalist sentiment in these states. Indonesia has, by contrast, avoided any tensions induced by language.

Indonesian was a language designed as a vehicle of national identity: politically independent, ethnically neutral, and free from the distinction of rank or status in its usage – unlike for example Javanese, which uses different forms of expression based on the degree of politeness one is aiming for.

Bahasa Indonesia became the language of administration, education, mass media, and entertainment, and it spread quickly across all spheres of society. Aided by the concerted effort of the government to further strengthen and codify the language, literacy levels have increased dramatically over a period of 50 years. Today, upwards of 200 million speakers use Bahasa Indonesia (both native and non-native speakers). 

The price of success

Although the codification and adoption of one language by so many and in such a short time can be deemed a resounding success, it has come at a price. There are several consequences to Indonesia’s language policy:

  • Low levels of English proficiency and its impact on Indonesia’s insertion into the global community.
  • Further marginalization of dialects used by a small portion of the population, leading to many of them becoming endangered.
  • A disconnect between the official language of the state and what the people use in informal settings.

Indonesian VS English

According to the 2018 English Proficiency Index published by Education First, Indonesia ranks as country #51 in the “Low” proficiency category. Perhaps more revealing is the direct comparison with its two neighbors, Philippines and Malaysia, significantly better off and ranked #14 and #22 respectively (“High” category).

EPI Indonesia Comparison

Data source: Education First English Proficiency Index

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Comparing the three countries, Indonesia has perhaps not been emphasizing the use of English in communication and affairs as much as its neighbors. Some could even argue the country has been too stubborn in promoting its national language and at times seeing English as a threat to its identity.

As in much of the world, the younger generations learn and adopt English more readily by interacting with technology and social media. Yet the country still has work to do in opening itself to and promoting learning of foreign languages.

Therefore, localizing your product into Indonesian is a no-brainer. It is likely English will not be enough, depending on your target demographic.

The Indonesian language landscape today

For a country with as many languages as Indonesia, it has its work cut out when it comes to ensuring its linguistic patrimony survives. This has been one of the unforeseen consequences of pursuing a single language policy. A lot of languages have simply been left by the side of the road. As the above table indicates, out of the 719 languages, half of them are in various stages of endangerment or are outright extinct. More may meet the same fate unless the country takes concrete action. However, it does not seem there is an immediate action plan to address the situation.

A unified language… on paper

There is another, less evident result of the nation’s efforts to rally behind one language. It is visible in the daily interactions of people in Indonesia and foreigners trying to learn their language. Given Bahasa Indonesia has largely been an engineered language, its vocabulary is limited and makes frequent use of loanwords. Bahasa Indonesia still remains the official language of the state. However, ordinary people tend to prefer their local language in informal settings or to use their own, modified versions of Indonesian.

The challenges of localizing for a market with 719 languages

Don’t get us wrong, there is one standard version of Indonesian. The challenges it faces are akin to those of any other language. The nature of language is to constantly evolve, influenced by societal currents or outside elements.

Let’s get this out of the way though:

Today, there shouldn’t be a business wanting to overlook the economic potential of the world’s fourth most populous country, despite its language landscape being so fragmented.

If anything, localizing your products into Indonesian seems like a sensible gateway to the archipelago. Think of the 200+ million potential customers you would thus be able to reach. Indonesian is not going away anytime soon. Savvy businesses should be taking note.

Still, we understand it gets trickier if you want to market your product on even more of a personal level. The nature of your business will be pivotal in determining your next step. It may be different whether you want to market for Indonesia or its (many) local populations using a different language.

Are you looking for a recommendation? Perhaps it would make sense to consider localizing into Javanese and Sundanese too, in addition to Indonesian. If nothing else, the size of the population speaking these languages should warrant serious consideration. There are more people speaking Javanese than there are those speaking Italian, after all.

This opens a different question, and perhaps not one of language, but rather of product design.

Who is your product designed for? As mentioned above, Javanese uses several levels of speech to denote politeness. Is your product prepared to deal with similar nuances in language? Or do you want to play it safe, and stick to English only?

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