Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia is the Language of 43 million native speakers and over 150 million second-language speakers.
The language belongs to the Austronesian language family and is a standardized version of Malay, spoken in Indonesia along with over 700 other languages.
Despite its being geographically distant and seemingly unconnected with English and other European languages, Indonesian has the reputation of being easy to learn.
But how hard is the Indonesian language really to learn for an average English speaking self-student? Let’s find out!
Indonesian pronunciation. – What are the challenges?
To get an idea about Indonesian pronunciation, have a look at the video below that takes you through the Alphabet as its pronounced in Indonesian.
As you might have noticed, most letters are quite simple to pronounce for an English speaker. In fact I only think that one letter might need a slight bit of work.
- R – The thrilled R
While the thrilled R is common in many languages throughout the world, some people have trouble with it. It’s really not that bad, though. If you’re struggling with it, go watch this video that explains really well how you should go about pronouncing the thrilled R.
As demonstrated in the video above about the alphabet, the Indonesian language also uses the glottal stop when pronouncing certain words. The glottal stop is an abrupt pause or a break in the airflow when pronouncing certain sounds. The video uses the exclamation “uh-oh” as an example, but you can also see it in certain British dialects, as in cockney English, when the word “butter” almost becomes “bu’er” with a glottal stop replacing the two t’s.
So the Indonesian language is not very difficult to pronounce. What makes it even easier is that the Indonesian people tend to be very forgiving to mispronunciations.
Due to the many common dialects of the language, they’re more or less used to hearing the language pronounced in different ways, meaning that chances are that you’ll be understood even if you make a few mistakes when speaking.
What about vocabulary? Are Indonesian words hard to learn?
Indonesian, being an Austronesian language is completely unrelated to English and other Indo-European languages. This means, in turn, that Indonesian words are made up from another logic than most languages we’re used to hearing, making the vocabulary a little more foreign to the ear.
What this means is that when you learn a new word, you’ll need to create more bonds, or more associations in your mind in order to remember it. If you were to learn Dutch, it’s just easier to remember that “huis” means “house” than it’s the case with Indonesian. (The Indonesian word for house is “rumah”).
This isn’t a problem. It’s not difficult to make foreign words stick if you know some techniques to commit them to your memory, but when most words are unrelated to English, you’ll have no shortcuts (or very few).
Here’s an article I’ve written on the subject of remembering foreign words.
So how should you go about learning Indonesian words? Some words will naturally stick without you doing anything. When learning a foreign language, however, you’ll always have those few words that you keep forgetting no matter how often you look them up. These are the words you need to create more elaborate connections to in your brain.
For the Indonesian word for “house” (rumah), the most immediate association for me is that the word sounds like “room”. One would think that this would be confusing. You’d think that the word meant “room” rather than “house”, but this hasn’t been a problem for me personally.
It also sounds a little like “roomba” which is either a dance or a vacuum cleaner. Maybe you think that associations that relate to another meaning than the actual translation of the word are unhelpful. What has vacuum cleaners, a dance, or the word for “room” got to do with the word “house”?
Well in reality, I’ve found that this doesn’t matter. You don’t need your associations to spell out what the words mean. What you’re actually doing is making the word “rumah” stand out in your mind. It’s the word that sounds like “roomba” and so on.
This in itself will be a strong aide in remembering the word for later. Not because the word has anything to do with vacuum cleaners, but because you’ve stuck a strange and memorable tag to the word.
If you’re still having problems with the word, you might go a step further and make up a more elaborate memory. “The roomba vacuums the whole rumah” or “me and my friends dance the roomba in the rumah”. Mental images like this can be really effective to make a word stay in place in your memory.
So are Indonesian words hard to learn? I’d say that they are slightly more difficult than most European languages. This doesn’t mean that they’ll require a certain language talent to learn, but that they’ll need a little more time.
Indonesian grammar is very simple
So what about grammar? Will Indonesian grammar be the one thing that makes you run away screaming?
The Indonesian language is really simple grammar-wise. The nouns in the language have no gender like they do in French, German or a ton of other languages. There are no complicated cases like we see in Russian or Finnish.
And then the verb-tenses are extremely simple. Instead of changing the verb itself in the different tenses, time-words are added to the sentence. These time-words have a formal and an informal version, but learning them is much easier than learning a lot of different versions of a verb.
Add to that that there aren’t any complicated extra future and past tenses such as “have been” “will be”, “will have been” and so on. It’s either the future or the past.
In other words, Indonesian grammar doesn’t represent a huge challenge.
Is Indonesian hard according to linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute, which is the American government institution who teaches foreign languages to US emissaries and diplomats, have sorted the languages that they teach into four groups depending on the time they take to learn.
This time estimate is based on an intensive classroom setting, and with a specific end-goal in mind. The FSI aim for what they call “High professional working proficiency”. Which is an advanced level of fluency.
So these estimates don’t necessarily apply to a self student. Your methods might differ from FSI’s teaching program and you might not aim for the same degree of fluency off the bat.
It can, however, be interesting to see how Indonesian is ranked difficulty-wise compared to other languages.
In the first group of languages we have French, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian and other languages that are rather close to English. These take around 5-600 classroom hours to learn according to the FSI.
In the second group, which is where we find Indonesian, we also see languages such as German and Swahili. German is estimated to be more difficult than the category 1 languages grammar-wise, even though it’s closely related to English. As for Indonesian and Swahili, these languages might be very different from English, but are considered more or less straight forward. The FSI puts an estimate of 900 class-room hours on Indonesian.
In the third group, we find languages such as Russian and Hindi. These take 1100 hours.
And the fourth category belongs to very difficult languages such as Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. These languages are estimated to take 2200 classroom hours.
But let’s get back to Indonesian. 900 classroom hours. That’s two and a half years of studying one hour a day in order to reach a high degree of professional fluency. That’s actually a long time!
In my opinion, if you put your mind to it, you can get pretty far with Indonesian within a year. It’s true that “perfecting” a language is the most time-consuming part, so getting to a high degree of fluency might take significantly longer. But that being said, don’t be scared by the 900 hours.
So is Indonesian a hard language to learn by yourself?
Generally, I’d say that Indonesian is one of the easier languages out there despite being very exotic for the average English speaker.
You have to consider that the formal Indonesian that you study in most textbooks is a little too formal for most Indonesians. Even when you reach fluency in the Indonesian language taught in most textbooks, you’ll notice that many Indonesians speak quite differently in real life.
So learning the language, formally, is only part of the battle. Once you get to Indonesia and start speaking with people, you’ll realize that there are many differences to dialects and to how the language is actually used. People will understand you, but you might need to get used to how they’re talking before you understand them.
But all in all, Indonesian remains a language that’s both easy and pleasurable to learn.
When this is said and done, however, there’s one important aspect left to discuss: You.
The most important variable in the difficulties of learning a foreign language like Indonesian is you, your motivation and your patience.
To learn a foreign language, you need to be consistent with your studies and keep at it. You’ll need to be in it for the long run, and you won’t get very far if you’re discouraged after a few days of no progress or once you start feeling frustrated.
To learn Indonesian, you need to put in the work, and you need to do so every day for months if not years. If you’re up for the challenge, however, you can be sure to eventually become fluent in Bahasa Indonesia.
If you want to learn more about how I recommend that you go about learning Indonesian, go read my article entitled “How to learn the Indonesian language by yourself“.