Indonesia’s archipelago spans through three time zones, from the east to the west. With 707 living languages spoken in Indonesia, Indonesia has the second-highest number of languages in the world, following Papua New Guinea to the east. Many of these languages are spoken by a small number of people. Thus, they also face the risk of extinction soon if no preservation effort is done. Most of these languages are classified as Austronesian languages.

The major ethno-linguistic groups within Indonesia | Source: Wikipedia

The Official Language in Indonesia

The official language is the Indonesian language as indicated in the Indonesian Constitution. Indonesian is a language that resembles the Malay language very much, but distinguishable by vocabulary and accent. It is the most widely used language in the country, particularly in all formal communication, such as administration, commerce, and the media.

Read More: Learn the Basics of Indonesian Language and Culture

If you are interested in learning Indonesian, you might already know that Indonesian people speak Indonesian with different accents. The accents are not only shaped by their native language but also by the place where they grew up. People of the same ethnicity growing up in different places in Indonesia will most likely to pick up the local accent. For example, an ethnic Chinese from Medan would speak Indonesian with a Batak accent, and an ethnic Chinese from Surabaya would speak Indonesian with a Javanese accent.

5 Largest Islands in Indonesia and the Languages the People Speak

Source: Indonesia Investments

Indonesia is one of the biggest archipelago countries in the world. With more than 200 million inhabitants, Indonesia ranks fourth as the world’s most populous country. There are different cultures and customs, including the languages, on almost every island. Some of the languages have writing systems, but due to limited use and promotion, only a few speakers are able to write. Here are the five largest islands in Indonesia and the languages that are spoken by their inhabitants.

1- Sumatra Island

Source: Free World Maps

Sumatra island is located on the west of Indonesia, and it has over 52 million people living in it. People from various ethnicities belong to Sumatra island, mostly rooted in the Malay race. Some of the ethnicities are Aceh, Batak, Minangkabau, Rejang, Lampung, Nias, etc. Each of them has their own language and, in some cases, sublanguages.

The Batak language of North Sumatra province is one example of a language that has sublanguages. Its sublanguages are Batak Toba, Batak Karo, Batak Mandailing, Batak Dairi, Batak Simalungun, etc. This variation is caused by the variants of the Batak language spoken in different parts of North Sumatra province.

There are also ethnic Chinese, mostly Hokkien speakers, and ethnic Tamils, living mostly in North Sumatra province.

2- Java Island

Java island is usually the main focus of Indonesia’s social and political affairs because the capital city, Jakarta, is located there. Over 60 percent of the country’s population lives on Java island, making it the most populated island in Indonesia. This number has actually decreased thanks to the government’s program to transmigrate the Javanese people to other islands. As a result, ethnic Javanese can be found almost anywhere in Indonesia. Whether this new generation of overseas Javanese still speaks Javanese is another question.

The Javanese language is a major language predominantly used on Java island by the Javanese people. It is a pretty complex language with three different registers. Javanese speakers from different parts of Java island also speak different varieties of the language, such as Western Javanese, Central Javanese, and Eastern Javanese.

Sundanese is another major language spoken in Java island by ethnic Sundanese. It is spoken mainly in West Java and Banten province, where the language is recognized as an official regional language. About 15% of the total population speak Sundanese natively.

3- Kalimantan Island

Kalimantan is located on Borneo island. This island comprises of three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third largest island in the world.

There are 74 living languages belong to Malaya-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian language in Kalimantan. Ethnologue classifies these languages into five families: Greater Barito, Land Dayak, Malayic, North Borneo, and South Sulawesi. Most of these languages are lesser known to Indonesian and foreigners. There are also the Chinese Hakka speakers, mostly at Singkawang and Pontianak in the province of West Kalimantan.


4- Sulawesi Island

Sulawesi island neighbors Kalimantan island to the east, and it has a unique shape that looks like the letter K. It is the seventh largest island in the world. As with Kalimantan, Sulawesi is home to a great number of lesser-known languages.

Ethnic Buginese is mostly associated with this island and has the most speakers in Sulawesi. They are known for a traditional ship that they invented called the Pinisi. Their language, the Bugis language, is spoken mainly in the southern part of the island by only about 2% of the country’s population.

Following Bugis, Makassarese language is the second major language with almost 1% of the total population speaking it. Other languages spoken in Sulawesi include Manado Malay in the north, Toraja in the south and west, Muna and Tolaki in the southeast, and Tae in the south.

5- Papua Island

Papua island consists of two countries: Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. “Irian Jaya” is the former name of Indonesia’s Papua province, and it is the home to Indonesia’s highest mountain, the Puncak Jaya. It is one of the seven highest mountains in the world and it is a place where you can see snow. This is an amazing phenomenon because Indonesia is a tropical country.

The local language used in West Papua is quite large, consisting of about 270 Papuan languages and 5 Austronesian languages. Their existence is endangered. At least, 10 languages spread across 14 tribes in the province are facing extinction.

The Papuan inhabitant speaks a unique variant of the Indonesian language, called Papuan Malay. It is used as the lingua franca of inter-ethnic communication, especially in trading. The Papuan Malay has been highly influenced by local languages, but it is mutually intelligible with Indonesian.

And... the Balinese Language

The above mentioned are only languages on Indonesia’s five largest islands, and does not take into account languages spoken on plenty of smaller islands. One of many popular regional languages is the Balinese language, spoken predominantly on Bali island, which is a world-class tourist resort.

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