We’ve been in Indonesia for the past three weeks, and I have to say, I am definitely in my happy place! My family and I lived in Indonesia when I was a child. And since then, I’ve dreamed of living here again. We’re currently in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on the island of Java, where we will learn Indonesian for the month. And then we’ll continue traveling throughout Indonesia’s many islands for the next several months.
Indonesia has long held the interest of many travelers throughout the years. The country’s most popular island among travelers, Bali, is just a speck among the over 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. This collection of islands, spanning across the equator between mainland Asia and Australia, holds over 264 million people. And within these islands, there are over 300 ethnic groups all speaking their own language. Each Indonesian speaks at least two languages: the language of their ethnic group, and Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia.
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Tracing the roots of the language of Indonesia
Bahasa Indonesia was created in the 1920’s as part of the Indonesian nationalist movement. At the time, under Dutch rule, many Indonesians were not allowed to learn Dutch, as the Dutch thought this would make Indonesians start viewing themselves as equals to the Dutch.
So, in order for the various ethnic groups to communicate with one another, the Indonesian people adopted a form of Malay that was already widely used throughout the region for commerce and trade. When nationalism spread across the archipelago, this form of Malay became the precursor to the language of Indonesia. The book, Brief History of Indonesia, goes more in depth about the development of the Indonesian language.
While much of the language of Indonesia stems from Malay, Bahasa Indonesia also borrows words from the other cultures that have passed through the archipelago. Many of the ethnic groups around Indonesia have contributed words to the language of Indonesia. Words like candi (temple), gadis (girl), and juara (winner) stem from Javanese, Minangkabau, and Sundanese languages, respectively.
Additionally, outside cultures have influenced the language of Indonesia. Indian, Chinese, and Arab traders brought words like kota (Tamil for city), mie (Hokkien for noodles), and kabar (Arabic for news). And from the European cultures, the Portuguese brought words like keju (cheese), meja (table), and sepatu (shoes), while the Dutch brought buku (book), gang (alley), and kamar (room). More recently, English words like bisnis (business) and elektronik (electronic) have been adopted as part of the language of Indonesia.
Best ways to learn Indonesian
When it comes to trying to learn Indonesian, the best way is to take a course. We’re currently taking Indonesian language courses at a place called Wisma Bahasa, and it is helping us tremendously in being able to communicate. But if you aren’t able to take in-person courses, the next best thing is to do an audio based course like Pimsleur. Alternatively, books that teach Indonesian are also great, but just make sure they have an audio component too, so that you can hear the pronunciation accurately.
Once in Indonesia, the best way to learn Indonesian is to jump right in to speaking the language. Knowing a few Indonesian phrases goes a long way in helping Indonesians open up to you as a traveler. And making some effort into learning the language may even garner you some respect and appreciation. As a last resort, you can always fall back to Google Translate.
Indonesian is a relatively simple language to learn. Unlike the Romance languages, there are no verb conjugations, and there are no masculine or feminine forms of words. And unlike Chinese, Korean, or other east Asian languages, the meaning of a word doesn’t often change drastically when you pronounce it in a different way. All this is to say that even if you have a horribly American or European Indonesian accent, you should still be able to be understood when speaking Indonesian.
Tips on pronunciation when you learn Indonesian
A few notes about pronunciation when you’re just starting to learn Indonesian. For vowels, Indonesians pronounces a like in “father” rather than in “man”. The e is pronounced like in “bed”, and the i is pronounced like the “e” in “me”. The letter o is pronounced as a mix of the ending sounds in the words “saw” and “toe”, and the letter u is pronounced like the “oo” sounds in “loot” or “boot”.
There is also an ai sound that is sometimes pronounced like the end of the word, “pie,” or sometimes pronounced like the end of the word, “day.” And there is an au sound that is similar to the word “how.” Keep these sounds in mind as you practice the pronunciation of these Indonesian phrases.
In terms of consonants, most are pronounced how they are in English. However, the letter r is rolled, like in Spanish. The letter c is always a hard sound like “k”. And with words that end in k, like tidak, bapak, or masak, they use a glottal stop, which means you only just start to pronounce the “k” sound, and then stop. In the pronunciation notes below, I’ll put (k) to remind you of this.
The final note in terms of pronunciation is where to put the stress when you’re pronouncing a word. I would have loved to have added audio to this post, but it proved too difficult to do with the equipment I had. So in the Indonesian phrases below, I’ve made in bold the parts of the word where you place the stress.
Useful Indonesian phrases to help travelers learn Indonesian
While I’m not a linguist, I do appreciate how learning a local language can help make your travel experiences more interesting. For travelers, there are a few Indonesian phrases that will come in handy as you spend time in the country. As you travel through Indonesia, try and use these phrases to help you learn Indonesian and experience the culture.
Halo (hello) and sampai jumpa lagi (until we meet again)
“Hello” and “until we meet again” are useful Indonesian phrases to know. You’ll use them every time you meet someone new. If you’re not planning to see the person again, you can simply say “bye” as you leave.
Pronunciation: “ha-loe” and “sam-pie joom-pa la-gee”
Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam (Good morning/early afternoon/late afternoon/evening)
When you learn Indonesian, one of the first things you learn is how to say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening.” When it comes to saying “good afternoon”, Indonesians make a distinction between early afternoon (siang) and late afternoon (sore). Early afternoon is usually between 11 am to 3 pm, and late afternoon is from 3 pm until sunset.
Pronunciation: “se-la-mat pa-gee,” “se-la-mat see-yang,” “se-la-mat soe-ray,” “se-la-mat ma-lam”
Terima kasih (thank you) and tidak, terima kasih (no thank you)
Two other basic Indonesian phrases to know is “thank you” and “no thank you.” When you say, “thank you” to someone, they will usually reply with sama-sama, which means “same to you.” Being able to say “no thank you” comes in handy when you’re trying to fend off pushy taxi drivers at the airport, or hawkers on the beaches.
Pronunciation: “te-ree-ma ka-see” and “tee-da(k), te-ree-ma ka-see”
Maaf (I’m sorry) and permisi (excuse me)
One of the most helpful Indonesian phrases to know is how to say “I’m sorry” or “excuse me”. You can say “sorry” when you bump into people, knock things over, or just a general way of saying “I’m sorry.” “Excuse me” can be used when you’re trying to get some’s attention or squeezing by someone.
Pronunciation: “ma-af” and “per-mee-see”
Apa kabar? (How are you?) Baik saja (I’m fine)
Most basic conversations when you learn Indonesian include how to say “how are you” and “I’m fine.” These are useful Indonesian phrases to know, as you’ll most likely say this to taxi drivers, store owners, waiters, and basically anyone that you interact with.
Pronunciation: “a-pa ka-bar” and “bike sa-ja”
Ya (Yes) and tidak (no)
Like English, the Indonesian word for “yes” is ya. For “no,” the word is generally tidak. However, if you’re negating a noun, then you use the word, bukan. As an example, “that book is not good” is buku itu tidak bagus. But “that book is not mine” would be buku itu bukan punya saya.
Pronunciation: “ya” and “tee-da(k)”
Saya (me), Anda (you), kalian (you all), dia (he/she) mereka (they), kami/kita (we)
As I mentioned before, unlike the Romance languages, pronouns won’t change the conjugation of a verb. The verb remains the same whether you put “me/I,” “you,” “she,” or “we” in front of it. One thing to note when it comes to “we” is that kami is used when you’re referring to “we” without the person that you’re speaking to. Alternatively, kita is used when referring to “we” including the person that you’re speaking to.
Pronunciation: “sa-ya,” “an-da,” “ka-lee-yan,” “dee-ya,” “me-re-ka,” “ka-mee,” and “kee-ta”
Bapak (Mr.), Ibu (Mrs.), Mas (Mr.), and Mbak (Miss)
In some respects, the language of Indonesia relies heavily on formalities. This stems from the culture of Indonesia, and the emphasis placed on showing respect to others, especially your elders. When possible, use bapak (pak for short) or ibu (bu for short) when talking with adults to show respect. Mas and mbak are used when speaking to someone who is younger than you.
Pronunciation: “ba-pa(k),” “ee-bu,” “mas,” and “m-ba(k)”
Apa ini? (What is this?) and apa itu (what is that?)
You can ask “what is this” or “what is that” when you’re at a restaurant, at the market, or even when you’re shopping at a store.
Pronunciation: “a-pa ee-nee” and “a-pa ee-too“
Berapa harga ini? (how much does this cost?)
Additionally, you can ask “how much does this cost” when you want to know the price of something. Indonesia uses the rupiah as currency, and will generally price things in the thousands.
Pronunciation: “ber-a-pa har-ga ee-nee“
Di mana …? (Where is …?)
If you’re asking for directions, start with di mana, and then add the location that you’re wanting to go. For example, if you’re asking “where is the airport?” you would ask, di mana bandara? Alternatively, if you’re asking where an object is, such as a book, a pencil, or a phone, you can also use di mana, followed by the object.
Pronunciation: “dee ma-na”
Di sini (here) and di sana (there)
“Here” and “there” are two Indonesian phrases that will come in handy at restaurants (when you want to pick a table to sit) or when giving directions to a taxi driver.
Pronunciation: “dee see-ne” and “dee sa-na”
Saya mau … (I want …) and Saya tidak mau … (I don’t want …)
If you’re still beginning to learn Indonesian, knowing how to say “I want XYZ thing” or “I don’t want XYZ thing” is extremely helpful. You can use “I want” when you’re ordering food, or when you’re looking for something at the store.
Pronunciation: “sa-ya ma-oo” and “sa-ya tee-da(glottal stop) ma-oo“
Ada …? (Do you have …?)
Alternatively, you can also ask “do you have XYZ thing?” at restaurants and at stores. If the person answers in the affirmative, then you can follow up with “I want …”
Bisa saya …? (Can I …?) and Boleh saya …? (May I …?)
Just like in English, there is a difference between “can I” and “may I”. “Can I …?” implies the being able to physically do something. On the other hand, “may I …?” refers to being allowed to do something.
Pronunciation: “bi-sa sa-ya” and “bo-ley sa-ya“
Dewasa (Adults) and anak-anak (children)
At museums or attractions, you’ll often see different prices for adults and children. Knowing the words for “adults” and “children” will come in handy when buying tickets.
Pronunciation: “de-wa-sa” and “a-na(k) a-na(k)”
Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tujuh, delapan, sembilan, sepuluh (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
Understanding the words for simple numbers will come in handy when ordering food, purchasing tickets, or even telling time.
Pronunciation: “sa-too,” “doo-a,” “tee-ga,” “em-pat,” “lee-ma,” “uh-nam,” “too-joo,” “de-la-pan,” “sem-bee-lan,” “se-poo-loo”
Di tempat (for here) and dibungkus (to go)
At restaurants, waiters may ask you whether you want the food “for here” or “to go”. Many Indonesians like to get takeout rather than cook at home, especially if they’re working long hours at the office.
Pronunciation: “dee tem-pat” and “dee-boong-koos”
Bagus (it’s good) and enak (it’s delicious)
There are two ways of saying “good.” When it comes to most things, you can use bagus. For example, “this batik is good” or “this house is good” would translate to batik ini bagus and rumah ini bagus. But “this food is good” will always translate to makanan ini enak. Additionally, if you’re referring to how you’re feeling, you would use baik instead of bagus.
Pronunciation: “ba-goos” and “e-nak“
Sudah (that’s all)
When you’re finished with something, you can say, sudah. Additionally, vendors will say, sudah when they have run out of something. They may also say kosong, which means “empty.”
Saya tidak mengerti (I don’t understand) and bisa bicara Bahasa Inggris? (can you speak English?)
In my opinion, one of the most useful Indonesian phrases to know, especially when you’re still starting to learn Indonesian is “I don’t understand.” You can follow this up by asking, “can you speak English?” If the person you’re talking to doesn’t know how to speak English, they will most likely try to find someone who does.
Pronunciation: “sa-ya tee-da(k) meng-er-tee” and “bee-sa bee-cha-ra ba-ha-sa eeng-gris“
Making a commitment to learn Indonesian
As a traveler, it’s important to be respectful of the culture that you’re visiting. And one way to show respect is to learn a few phrases in the language of that country. Even if you’re just beginning to learn Indonesian, knowing one or two phrases can help you navigate through many situations while traveling in Indonesian.
These Indonesian phrases are just a starting point to introduce you to the language of Indonesia. I’m hoping that as you travel throughout this diverse and beautiful country, you’ll pick up many more phrases that will be useful in your travels.
Have you had a chance to learn Indonesian during your travels? What are some of your favorite Indonesian phrases?