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How Many People Speak Indonesian, And Where Is It Spoken?

Indonesian is one of the most spoken languages in the world, but it's not used much outside of Southeast Asia. Read on to find out why.

A Brief History of Indonesian

Indonesian is a member of the Austronesian language family, along with Tagalog, Māori, Samoan and many others. Indonesian itself is a standardized version of Malay, which encompasses a range of languages and dialects that exist throughout Southeast Asia. Old Malay was the lingua franca among traders in the Indonesian archipelago, with its earliest recorded uses can being traced to the 7th century CE. When Dutch colonists started conquering the archipelago in the 17th century, they used Malay to communicate with the native population. This is unlike the majority of colonizers, who imposed their language on indigenous people, like the Spanish and British in the Americas. During the nationalist movement of the early 20th century, which followed centuries of oppression by the Dutch, Indonesian was formalized as the official language by the Second Youth Congress as a way of rebelling against the colonizers. The Dutch attempted to force people to learn their language as a way of maintaining control, but when the Japanese conquered Indonesia in 1942, Dutch was outlawed. Indonesia gained its independence in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, and the Indonesian language became a unifying force for the country.

Which Countries Speak Indonesian?

There is only one country where Indonesian is the national language, and that is (somewhat obviously) Indonesia. It also has acted as a working language in East Timor, which was occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. Since the country’s independence though, Indonesian has fallen out of use and a different colonial language, Portuguese, has become more commonly used.

How Many People in the World Speak Indonesian?

Because the divide between Indonesian and Malaysian is so permeable, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people who speak Indonesian specifically. The 2010 census of Indonesia says that there are 23 million native speakers of the language. In addition, there are about 156 million people who speak it as second language, which shows the extent to which it is an important lingua franca.

Indonesian is also one of three Asian languages taught in Australia as part of their Languages Other Than English program. It has been taught there since the 1950s, but otherwise is not widely spoken in the country. Efforts to teach it have been in decline in recent years, though Australia recognizes their cultural history is inextricably tied together with Indonesia. There is no country except Indonesia in which Indonesian is spoken by at least 1 percent of the population.

Why Did Indonesian Become a Thing?

Part of the reason Indonesian is so localized is that it is an important part of the Indonesian national identity. It is one of the only countries that was able to make its indigenous language the national language following colonization. There are estimated to be about 600 languages spread throughout the over 17,000 islands of Indonesia (if that number sounds high, it may get even higher as Indonesia is currently trying to do a census of exactly how many islands it has). In an attempt to unite the country, Indonesia decided to standardize Malay and make it the language of law, politics, media and all other public forms of speech and writing. It is estimated under 20 percent of people use Indonesian regularly at home, but it is taught widely in schools and is spoken by almost everyone to some degree.

How Similar are Indonesian and Malay?

In general, Indonesian is very similar to Malay’s Malaysian, Singaporean and Brunei standard varieties. There are differences in the lexicon and how certain words are pronounced due to Dutch and Javanese influences on Malaysian. They are usually mutually intelligible, but the differences can lead to some disconnect, which has led universities in Malaysia to create courses to teach students the more local vernacular. It is possible to get by in other countries with only knowledge of Indonesian, but certain words will cause confusion.

Why Learn Indonesian?

Besides a few cultural influences due to colonialism and globalization, Indonesian is unrelated to any of the languages in the Western world. Learning languages like Spanish and German are popular choices for second languages because they originate from the same root language, but this can also be limiting. Indonesian provides a strong introduction to the Austronesian language family, and starting with it can help you easily learn Malay and other local languages. Indonesia is home to popular tourist sites like Bali. And though Indonesian is very different from English, it may actually be one of the easiest languages for English-speakers to learn because of its simple grammar rules and use of the Latin alphabet. Indonesian is unique in that it has kept Indonesia’s indigenous history alive through language, and by learning it you too can learn about the rich cultural history of the region.

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