The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia (literally, “the language of Indonesia”). It is the language that unifies the world’s fourth most populous country – a country comprised of 18,000 islands and inhabited by 350 ethnic groups speaking 750 native languages and dialects. Bahasa Indonesia, a standardised version of Malay, is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic).
With dialect variations, Malay-Indonesian is spoken by as many as 250 million people in the modern states of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. It is also an important vernacular in the southern provinces of Thailand and among the Malay people of Australia's Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is understood in parts of the Sulu area of the southern Philippines and traces of it are to be found among people of Malay descent in Sri Lanka, South Africa and other places.
From the ninth to the fourteenth century, Malay was the court language of the Sumateran empire of Sriwijaya. It was also the language of the greatest of all medieval Malay states, Malacca. As a result, Malay became the native tongue of the people living on both sides of the Strait of Malacca that separates Sumatera from the Malay Peninsula.
In the succeeding centuries, the Strait of Malacca became a busy sea thoroughfare. Countless travellers and traders passed through and came into contact with the Malay language. They bore the language throughout the islands of Indonesia and, eventually, it became a widely used lingua franca. Later, Muslims and Christians helped spread the language as they used it in the propagation of their faiths. By the time Indonesia began to fall under the control of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, Malay was so well entrenched as a lingua franca that the European rulers adapted it as the primary medium of communication between the government and the people (rather than force communication in Dutch).
With anti-colonial sentiments running high in the early twentieth century, it was not easy to see what would define Indonesia as an independent nation. Given the diversity of cultures and native languages of the islands, it was difficult to find what Indonesians had in common. That common identity would eventually be found by developing a standardised version of Malay to unify the islands, and calling the language Bahasa Indonesia.
In 1928, with the country’s nationalist movement in full swing, the Congress of Young People drafted the famous Young People’s Vow (Sumpah Pemuda) declaring Bahasa Indonesia the pre-eminent language of Indonesia as well as the language of national unity. When the Indonesian nationalists emerged from the shadow of the Japanese occupation in 1945 to declare an independent republic, the Proclamation of Independence was uttered in Bahasa Indonesia. Both the state philosophy of Pancasila and the Constitution were framed in Bahasa Indonesia. The subsequent victory of the Republic in the Revolution (1945-1949) consolidated the prestige of the language and gave its development unstoppable momentum.
Today, Indonesians are overwhelmingly bilingual. In infancy, they learn the native language of their island region and, when they enter school, they learn Bahasa Indonesia – the national language and medium of instruction in educational institutions at all levels throughout the country. It is rare to meet an Indonesian who is not fluent in her or his native tongue as well as the national language.
In politics, administration and the judiciary Bahasa Indonesia is the sole official language. It is the language of legislation, political campaigning, national and local government, court proceedings and the military.
Indonesian also dominates as the language of modern business. Needless-to-say, in enterprises that involve expatriate staff or international transactions, English, Japanese, Chinese and other foreign languages are widely used, often side-by-side with Indonesian.
Bahasa Indonesia provides a wonderful opportunity for English speakers wishing to acquire another language. Unlike other Asian languages, it uses Roman or Latin script; pronunciation is generally straightforward for English speakers (as it is not a tonal language like Chinese); and its lack of complicated grammatical structures (such as verb tenses) make mastery of simple conversation relatively painless.
This article was generously contributed by Rahdian Saepuloh,
Director of Studies at LANGUAGE STUDIES INDONESIA.