Do They Speak English in Indonesia?
Is it necessary to know Indonesian–Bahasa Indonesia–when you’re living in Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia, or can you get by just speaking English in Indonesia? Should you know some bahasa before you even arrive in Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia?
I get variations of the question below a lot from Wage Freedom readers–basically: do Indonesians speak English or must I learn Indonesian?–so I thought it was worth a blog post:
My son lives in Bali with his Balinese wife and young son. I would love to go for a year or longer, but am concerned about not knowing the language… and I am not good with languages. Do you have a suggestion for learning Indonesian? I am (in my 70’s) and in good health. I could live sufficiently on my income. Thanks for any suggestions! — JH
First as to suggestions on learning Bahasa Indonesia. You’ll come into contact every day with light-hearted, friendly people who will be delighted to practice with you at any level you require, always with a smile at no charge.
I hope that doesn’t sound flippant. I think the best way to learn is to just jump in and make mistakes. I’m not sure there’s another way actually.
Of course there are schools and private tutor arrangements you can set up if you’d like a more formal arrangement for learning bahasa. That’s not strictly necessary. Either way it’s going to be a matter of how much you choose to practice.
The good news is that with Indonesians, practicing Bahasa Indonesia is fun!
Also as you might have heard, as languages go learning Bahasa Indonesia is pretty easy, especially for day-to-day verbal communications. It uses the Latin alphabet and there are no tonal sounds like there are in e.g. Thai or Vietnamese, where word meaning depends on the tone used. Verbs themselves have no tense and there’s no grammatical gender like a lot of languages.
I predict you’ll be surprised at how fast you progress, even if it’s your first effort at learning a second language.
But let’s back up.
The writer of the question above said she thought she might have a hard time learning languages generally, so let me say this too:
As you get going in Indonesia, it will be about setting up and dealing with the practicalities: a place to live, getting around, ordering meals in restaurants and shopping for things. In each of these situations, the locals are very prepared to speak English with you.
These Indonesians are incentivized to know enough English to get by speaking to the foreigners with whom they do business, and after all that means not only native English speakers. It means most people who come to visit or stay a while in Bali for the amazing culture, beaches, and still-low cost of living in Bali.
Maybe it will be a bit less smooth than transactions and social interactions in English back home, but you’ll be able to get what you need.
Here’s my point:
On a practical, day-to-day level, a native English speaker coming with no Bahasa Indonesia will have far less of a communication problem than people who come with limited English skills.
Of course all this is not an argument against learning some Indonesian!
I’m just saying that if doubts about knowing the local language and a fear that one can’t get by with only English in Indonesia are holding you back from coming here to stay for a while, I honestly would move forward.
You’ll see what I mean in your first week here. Crazy as it sounds, you’ll meet people apologising for not speaking your language in their country.
Over time you’ll be dealing increasingly with people outside of the tourist industry and those who don’t necessarily do business with foreigners. In the beginning though, you’ll be interacting with restaurant staff, taxi drivers, hotel staff, property managers or property owners (or their relatives!), etc. who have been waiting for you.
Remember too that unless you’re way, way out in the countryside you’ll have foreign expats as part of your social circle. That means the isolation one might have felt 20 or 30 years ago as an expat is really not a factor any more.
I sense that’s part of the concern people have when they ask about language. And I get it. But things have changed.
When you add ubiquitous Internet, Facebook and more free messaging apps than we need, you might find yourself just as in touch with friends and family back home as you’d be if you were living back there!
Well, aside from the time difference.
Language concerns are one of those things you might not overcome until you get to Bali. My message is not to let it hold you back. I’ve seen hundreds of new travelers and expats become savvy quickly, and you will too!
Hey, it might bother you that conversations you have with many Indonesians will lack the nuance you’re used to in your native country.
But maybe it matters less than you think.
Communication can become an exercise not just in acquiring some item or service you need by speaking basic Bahasa Indonesia/English and using non-verbal cues, but in something more.
These inefficient, sometimes slightly awkward moments beyond language are about more than ‘getting what you need’. They’re about making real human connections despite our very different backgrounds and languages. Isn’t that partly why you’re coming to Bali?
That authenticity is about more than travel or being an expat. That’s about life. That’s why you’re here.
4 thoughts on “Do Indonesians Speak English?”
A great post with many not-so-common sense observations. If I’m in a restaurant and the server asks me a question I don’t need to get discombobulated and pitch a fit because there’s only two questions in that context. “What do you want to drink?” or “What do you want to eat?” I learned Greek at age 41 and it became clear that mastering food and drink, time and money vocabulary are the most useful because they are the most common for travelers.
So Tom, in a nutshell the answer is you don’t need to learn bahase prior to coming, and most locals particularly in the tourist and retail trades speak some English. Also Bahase is not too complicated to learn some basics and unlike the French the locals are quite helpful as you struggle to learn. Is that about right? Gary in Cali
Hey Joe and thanks for the comment! You hit the nail on the head–context will see you through the basic situations in the beginning, and if you can get enough to eat and a place to sleep on day one (and of course, you will), it just gets easier from there. Obviously this goes for anywhere in the world, not just Indonesia.
I think that’s an admirably succinct summary Gary, much better than I did!