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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS: Indonesian

Indonesian is the national language of the Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago of some 13,000 islands stretching 3,000 miles from west to east, home to a population of nearly 240 million people from about 250 different ethnic groups with a correspondingly rich variety of languages and cultures. Indonesian is a variety of the Malay language and belongs to the Austronesian language family. For centuries Malay served a lingua franca in maritime South East Asia, and when Indonesia regained independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, Malay was chosen as the national language. Under the name of Bahasa Indonesia (“Indonesian language”), it functions as a means of communication between the different ethnic groups, and as the language of administration, education and scholarship, the media, and an extensive and rapidly growing modern literature. The standard language is continually being developed to make it more suitable to the diverse needs of a modernizing society. Knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is thus indispensable tool for anyone wishing to gain an insight into the past and present of Indonesia.

If you would like to learn Indonesian contact Dr Ben Murtagh (bm10@soas.ac.uk) Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia)

Indonesian language and literature

Speakers of Indonesian are the fourth largest language group in the world today. Indonesian is a variety of the Malay language (see Malay Studies), and belongs to the Austronesian language family, which stretches from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, and Taiwan in the north to New Zealand in the south. For centuries Malay was the lingua franca in maritime South East Asia. When Indonesian independence was proclaimed in 1945, Malay was chosen as the national language. Under the name of Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian), it functions as a means of communication between the different ethnic groups, and as the language of administration, education and scholarship, the media, and an extensive and rapidly growing modern literature. The standard language is continually being developed to make it more suitable to the diverse needs of a modernizing society. Knowledge of the national language is thus an indispensable tool for any real insight into the past and present of Indonesia.

Indonesian literature, which originates from Malay writings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, comprises poetry, novels, short stories, and other genres. Written by authors of different regional backgrounds, it offers a penetrating view of life and thought in Indonesia.

Unlike Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese, Indonesian is not a tonal language. It is written in the roman script, but traditional Malay uses the Arabic script. Students who take Indonesian in a three-year degree concentrate in the first year on acquiring the competence in the language which is essential to any further study of the subject, while at the same time studying aspects of cultural history which give an insight into contemporary Indonesia. The second and third year are devoted to the study of mainly literary texts relevant for a deeper understanding of modern Indonesian culture and society. In separate translation (English-Indonesian) and essay-writing classes active linguistic competence is further developed.

Students who choose Indonesian as their main subject in a four-year degree may also study traditional Malay literature in their second and fourth years. They are normally required to spend their third year at a university in Indonesia.

To find out more, try some of these books:
  • The Soul of Indonesia: A Cultural Journey by Umar Kayam & Harri Peccinotti: 1985, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State U.P., 147 pp.
  • Indonesia (a volume in the series The Modern Nations in Historical Perspective) by J. D. Legge: 1980 (3rd edition), Sydney, Prentice-Hall, viii + 214 pp.
  • Indonesia (a volume in the Insight Guides series) ed by Eric Oey: 1988 (3rd edition), Singapore, Apa Publications, 418 pp.