How Long Does It Take To Learn The Indonesian Language? (By Yourself, That Is!)

avatarMille Larsen
9 mins read

The Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia as it's called, is a beautiful language spoken by around 45 million people as their native language, or more than 150 million as a second language. It's got the reputation of being an easy language to learn, but on the other hand, it's also a quite different language for English speakers.

In fact, it's completely unrelated to English. Indonesian is of the Austronesian language family along with languages such as Tagalog, Hawaiian and Malay.

But how long would it take the average English speaker to learn to speak Indonesian? There are many things that need to be taken into consideration to answer that question. Namely, what is the background of the learner, if he or she motivated enough? Which study method will be used? And how consistently will he or she study Indonesian? (And many other things).

How long does it take to learn Indonesian? For a serious learner who knows what he or she is doing, I'd say that learning Indonesian to a solid lower-advanced level could be archived in a little over a year with 1 hour of study time per day.

But let's look at the question a little more closely:

Your Background Plays A Role In Predicting How Long It Will Take To Learn Indonesian

Who you are and what your background is actually means something when it comes to learning languages. If you want to learn Indonesian and you already speak Hawaiian? That'll be a clear advantage. But even if you don't speak a related language but only just get by in Spanish or if you did French in high school, these things will also help you learn Indonesian.

Why? Because foreign languages wouldn't be a mystery to you.

It might sound strange, but if you only speak English, you're likely to be very set on an Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, but as soon as you've touched on other languages, other ways of saying things and grammatical differences don't seem as mystical anymore. Does this mean that you can't learn Indonesian if you only speak English? Of course not! But it might take you slightly longer.

The same goes for your educational background. Are you used to note-taking, being disciplined with studying on your own and working towards a goal? Then you'll have a clear advantage when it comes to learning a foreign language like Indonesian

Will Indonesian Grammar Put Much Of A Delay On Learning The Language?

Indonesian is rather simple in terms of grammar. There's no verb conjugation, no cases, no gender, no verb tenses and the word order is pretty much as it is in English. While Indonesian grammar obviously takes a little time to learn, it isn't something to worry about!

Read "Is It Hard To Learn Indonesian?".

What About Indonesian Vocabulary? Can I Learn Indonesian Words Quickly?

When it comes to vocabulary, it really starts to become clear that Indonesian is something in another category than the Germanic and Romance languages like French and Dutch, that are closer to English.

Indonesian words simply seem much more exotic than European ones. This means that you won't find a lot of shortcuts to learning Indonesian words from associations and from comparing new words to those that you already know in another language.

There are a few Dutch and English loan words in Indonesian, however, and they might provide a bit of a relief, especially when dealing with scientific or technological terms. But then Indonesian has had an even greater influence from other languages such as Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese and Persian, and these aren't all as helpful.

What this means is that you'll most likely need to spend a little longer on memorizing Indonesian words than you would if you were learning a language like, say, French. As a native English speaker, Indonesian words just don't instantly ring a bell, like many French or German words might.

This isn't to say that Indonesian words are difficult. They're generally easy to pronounce and to distinguish from one another, but to remember then, you'll need more active effort. If you want some tips on how to retain vocabulary, go read the article I wrote on remembering words.

How Long Does It Take To Learn Indonesian According To Linguists?

The Foreign Service Institute (or FSI) is the US government institution that teaches foreign languages to American diplomats before being sent to work in other countries. They have a great deal of experience in providing intensive language classes, and they've compiled a list of some of the languages that they teach, and divided them into groups according to the time they estimate that they take to learn.

We need to take FSI's numbers with a grain of salt, though. For one thing, the FSI provides full-time intensive classroom instruction. You're most likely a self-student, and you'll probably want to study an hour a day or less in stead of the 5-8 hour days laid out in FSI's intensive program.

Then there's the fact that FSI teaches in a classroom setting. You most likely don't have a private language instructor who adapts the teaching methods to your level, progress and learning style. All of this is up to you.

Finally, the FSI aims for "high professional working proficiency", a high level of fluency. You might have other goals, like being conversational or reaching a lower-advanced level where you're fluent, but without your Indonesian being necessarily perfect.

All this being said, let's have a look at the FSI's language groups:

In the first group, FSI has put languages that are close to English and take the shortest time to learn. These are languages such as Danish, French and Dutch. They take around 500-600 classroom hours to learn, according to the FSI.

The second group is for languages that are either a little more complicated than English, or simply just more exotic. This is where we find Indonesian, but also such languages as Swahili and German. These languages are said to take around 900 classroom hours to learn. The reason for Indonesian being put in this group is not that it's overly complicated but more that it's simply very different from English.

Then there's the third group where we find languages such as Hindi, Russian and Thai. These are said to take about 1100 classroom hours.

And finally, the fourth group, where we find Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. These languages take an impressive 2200 classroom hours to learn!

But let's get back to Indonesian. 900 classroom hours is a little under 2,5 years of 1 hour of study time per day. But that's according to FSI's estimates. I'd argue, however, that the Indonesian language might be on the lower end of the scale, so maybe it could be done a little faster under ideal circumstances.

But let's not forget that these are estimates for reaching a high level of fluency! If you're aiming for less, it can shave several months off the time estimates. And then there's the question of you being a self-student instead of enrolling into intensive classes.

This can either make or break your time plan. Self-students who know what they're doing might actually advance faster than average students enrolling to a class. But on the other hand, if you're not that sure about how to go about learning languages yourself, it might take longer this way.

How long Does It Take To Learn Indonesian Then? Here Are A Few Scenarios

As you might have been able to figure out from the above, deciding how long it takes to learn Indonesian (or any language, really) is difficult. It depends. And it depends on a lot of factors that are difficult to all consider.

But I'll try anyway, to list a few different scenarios here, in order for you to try and guess where you'd fit in. For all of them I'm going to aim for a lower advanced level of Indonesian

  • For a student who know's what he's doing, who's studying 1 hour a day consistently and who constantly adapts his or her learning approach to the given situation, a lower advanced level of Indonesian can be archived in a little less than 2 years.

  • Someone who's serious about his or her studies, but who's figuring his or her approach out along the way and who's spending 1 hour almost every day, will probably learn Indonesian in something like 3-4 years.

  • An inconsistent learner who keeps coming back to studying Indonesian after short breaks and who's not 100% sure about the best approach, can spend as much as 4-8 years before becoming fluent in Indonesian.

  • And someone who's highly inconsistent, who takes breaks for long periods only to have to start over on a lot of previously covered material, and who's studying with an inefficient method, might need more than a decade to learn Indonesian. It is, however, more likely that this person will either end up giving up, or start studying in a more consistent manner.

Consistency, Motivation And Patience.

Language learning is obviously about a lot of things, and as stated above, it's almost impossible to give good estimates for the time it'll take to learn a language.

In the end, however, it all comes down to you and your attitude. Are you motivated enough to see this project through? Will you study consistently every day, avoiding long breaks and hiatuses? And are you patient enough to be able to wait for the delayed gratification of becoming fluent in a couple of years?

If you can answer yes to these, you've got what it takes to learn Indonesian fast. Just how fast really depends, but you won't get anywhere if you don't get started!