Indonesian Language: History and Development


The struggle for nationalism was one of the significant events during the colonial period in Indonesia. It was facilitated by the unity of the Indonesian tribes. The natives of Indonesia achieved unity through the adoption of a common language that facilitated communication. Therefore, the adoption of a common language was one of the significant factors that contributed to the development of nationalism in Indonesia. Today, Indonesian is the formal lingo in Indonesia. It is used as a language of instruction in most learning institutions and national media (Simpson 2007, pp. 45-46). Moreover, it is one of the most popular languages globally. Indonesian evolved during the colonial period. It was called Malay before independence. Apart from Indonesian, the natives commonly speak Javanese and Madurese. This paper discusses the emergence of Indonesian during the colonial period and its development since independence.

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Emergence of Indonesian

Indonesian originated during the colonial period. In the early period of the twentieth century, many dialects existed in Indonesia because the indigenous communities had their own languages. The European invasion of Indonesia led to the rise of more languages. It was out these numerous dialects that the Indonesian developed gradually.

During the colonial period, the Dutch dominated the natives in all spheres of life (Woodward 2010, pp. 121-122). For instance, the Dutch colonialists disrupted the social, economic, and political organization of the natives. Therefore, colonialism led to the immense suffering of the natives. This led to the struggle for independence.

During the colonial period, “Dutch, Javanese, French, and Malay languages became popular in various parts of Asia” (Anwar 2001, pp. 57-58). The colonial regime made Dutch the official language in the colony. The well-read individuals spoke Dutch during the colonial period. For example, most of the political leaders in Indonesia spoke Dutch. Thus, it was a popular and homogeneous language. Nonetheless, Dutch never had the same prominence as other foreign lingos such as French and English. As a result, Indonesian became more popular than Dutch and other foreign languages.

Javanese had a well-developed fictional custom (Smith-Hefner 2009, pp. 57-58). However, “there are social registers in Javanese with completely separate lexicons used depending on the age and social class of the person addressed, which makes the language difficult for outsiders to learn” (Paauw 2009, p. 2). If the Javanese were resolute on the formal recognition of their superior language all over the country, they would certainly have a better chance to do. Nonetheless, many people disliked the perceived supremacy of the Javanese in the political and economic spheres. Thus, it was difficult to make Javanese a countrywide language. It is providential that these challenges were circumvented.

The Selection of Malay

When Indonesia attained independence, the Javanese were about fifty percent of the population of Indonesia. Conversely, a few natives spoke Malay before independence. Nonetheless, Malay was easier to learn than Javanese were. Initially, many people learned Malay trough trade and Islam. Later, Christianity facilitated the development of Malay (Woodward, 2010, pp. 123-124).

Moreover, many people perceived Malay as a classless language. Thus, it became a common language among various tribes in Indonesia. Interestingly, Malay became an indigenous language along major trade routes. Finally, since Malay was a dialect of a small number of people who did not possess political authority in the community, it was not looked upon as an intimidation to the traditions of other tribes.

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Malay was an important language that facilitated communication during the colonial period in Indonesia. Initially, it was used in spreading European religions such as Christianity. It was also taught in missionary schools. After some time, the Dutch colonial regime adopted the use of Malay and made it the second official language in the colony. In the twentieth century, Malay gained prominence in many learning institutions. It was also adopted by many local media organizations. For instance, many local newspapers were written in Malay. Most of the Indonesians who attained formal education during the colonial period were taught in Malay. Only a few natives from rich families had a chance to learn in Dutch schools during the colonial period.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, well-liked associations with pro-independence ambitions began to form. In 1911, the Sarekat Muslim Organization made Malay its formal language. In 1926, “the First Congress of Indonesian Youth was held, and the future leaders of Indonesia discussed the national language issue” (Paauw 2009, p. 4). The second assembly was held after two years, and Malay became the formal language of the congress (Anwar 2001, pp. 67-68). During the second congress, Malay acquired new status because the participants unanimously supported the idea of making it a national language. After the congress, Malay was called Bahasa Indonesia. The struggle for independence in Indonesia gained momentum after the second congress. “The Youth Pledge gave new prestige to the Malay language, which was renamed Indonesian” (Paauw 2009, p. 4). Nonetheless, the youthful pro-independence advocates continued to use Dutch in their everyday communication.

Opposition from the Dutch affected the development of Malay during the 1930s. The colonial regime felt threatened by the development of nationalism. They responded by prescribing the teaching of Malay in learning institutions. The natives and local media condemned the proscription of Malay in learning institutions. The first lingua meeting that was held in 1938 strengthened the role of Indonesian in the struggle for self-determination (Harper 2001, p. 89). Indeed, this meeting marked the beginning of the official preparation tasks for the advancement of the Indonesian language.

The Japanese Occupation

The invasion of Indonesia by Japan in 1942 influenced the development of Indonesian. Immediately after the incursion, the Japanese proscribed the use of foreign languages such as Dutch. Their primary motive was to make the Japanese an official language (Errington 2000, pp. 90-91). Nonetheless, this ambition was unattainable in the short term. The banning of the use of Dutch by the Japanese facilitated the rapid propagation of Malay. Thus, within a short period after the Japanese invasion, Malay became the only official language of the journalists, learning, and political administration. Before the Japanese intrusion, all instructional materials in learning institutions were written in Dutch (Mietzner 2006, pp. 29-31. The Japanese colonial regime encouraged the translation of the Dutch texts to Indonesian. Thus, the Japanese intrusion facilitated the propagation of Indonesian. The Japanese left Indonesia in late 1945. After attaining independence, the natives made Indonesian an official language.

Some scholars contend that the following factors compelled the natives to make Indonesian a formal language after attaining autonomy. First, it played a significant role in the struggle for self-determination (Simpson 2007, pp. 145-146). Second, it did not have any tribal inclination. Hence, it did not denote tribal superiority. Third, Indonesian acted as a unifying factor during the colonial period. In fact, there was a great potential for tribal conflicts in the post-independence period since Indonesia comprised many tribes with diverse cultures. Therefore, Indonesian served as a symbol and means of achieving countrywide unity (Bertrand 2004, p. 65). For instance, it enabled the natives to develop a sense of individuality. The function of this language has been closely connected with nation-building activities. Since independence, “Indonesian has had a dual function in Indonesian society as a language of unity, political administration, modernization, literacy, and education” (Paauw 2009, p. 5).

Development of Indonesian after Independence

The development of the national language has continued progressively since independence. Interestingly, many factors have reinforced the development of Indonesian in the post-independence period. The Indonesian model of education is one of the factors that have contributed to the popularity of the national language (Sen & Hill 2000, p. 101). At present, Indonesian is a compulsory subject in the majority of elementary learning institutions in Indonesia. Nonetheless, children can be taught vernacular languages during their first three years of elementary education. Thus, education has contributed to the propagation of literacy skills in Indonesia. Many natives have been able to access learning institutions since independence. Thus, they can speak and write Indonesian.

The mass media is another significant factor that has promoted the growth of the national language (Jurriens 2010, p. 82). For example, many mass media programs are in Indonesian. In addition, most of the magazines and newspapers are written in Indonesian. Unfortunately, the media has been quite detrimental to the growth of the national language because some radio and television programs are broadcasted in English. In response to this challenge, “the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture has drafted a law, which would ban the use of written foreign languages in public and the print and electronic media” (Paauw 2009, p. 6). Currently, expatriates in Indonesia can only be given job permits if they can speak and write Indonesian fluently.

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Urbanization is an additional factor that has reinforced Indonesian. Urban areas and cities attract people from various tribes with unique cultural practices. Thus, urbanization creates an environment, which favors the development of a common language for all tribes. Moreover, town dwellers have facilitated the spread of the Indonesian by abandoning local dialects and acquiring Indonesian as their first language (Mietzner 2006, p. 56). The nationwide language strategy has also facilitated the development of Indonesian as a sign of countywide harmony. These factors have contributed to the popularity of Indonesian among the natives.

Today, Indonesian is one of the most successful languages in the postcolonial era because the majority of the natives have adopted it. Therefore, some language experts contend that Indonesian has the capacity to become a common language in entire Southeast Asia in the future (Anderson 2006, pp. 35-45). Moreover, Indonesia is likely to be spoken by almost everyone in Indonesia in the next generation. The successful adoption of Indonesian has fostered peace and stability among various tribes in the post-independence period. Thus, it has greatly contributed to development (Anderson 2006, pp. 45-47).

Nonetheless, some scholars and language experts have different views about the success of Indonesian. According to James Peacock, “Bahasa Indonesia is a language, peculiarly turgid, humorless, awkward, mechanical, and bereft of sensuality” (Paauw 2009, p. 7). On the other hand, “Wright notes that Indonesian is an example of the kind of tensions rising within multi-ethnic states between the centripetal efforts of the nation-building center and the centrifugal pressures of independence and autonomy movements” (Paauw 2009, p. 7).


This essay has discussed the origins and development of Indonesian as a countrywide language in Indonesia. During the colonial period, many local and foreign languages were spoken in the Indonesian colony. Dutch became popular during the colonial period because the colonial regime made it an official language. Thus, it was taught in most of the colonial schools. Conversely, Javanese became popular because many natives spoke it. Nonetheless, it failed to be a nationwide language because it denoted tribal superiority. The natives disliked some aspects of the Javanese; hence, it lost its popularity.

Conversely, Malay gradually gained popularity because of social and economic activities in Indonesia facilitated its spread in various parts of Southeast Asia. Unlike the other languages, Malay was perceived to be classless. Hence, many natives adopted it quickly. The colonial regime also made it the second official language. Malay fostered unity among the natives during the struggle for independence. It is worth noting that the Japanese conquest was one of the most significant factors that led to the development of Malay towards the end of the colonial period. The Japanese colonialists curtailed the development of Dutch. Consequently, Malay became dominant in the entire colony. In the post-independence period, various factors such as language policy, urbanization, the media, and education have all contributed to the development of Malay. At present, Malay is recognized as one of the most successful postcolonial languages worldwide.


Anderson, B 2006, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, Equinox Publishing, London.

Anwar, K 2001, Indonesian: the development and use of a national language, Wiley, New York.

Bertrand, J 2004, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Errington, J 2000, Shifting Languages: Interaction and Identity in Javanese Indonesia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Harper, T 2001, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jurriens, E 2010, From Monologue to Dialogue: Radio and Reform in Indonesia, Brill Academic Publishers, London.

Mietzner, M 2006, The Politics of Military Reform in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Elite Conflict, Nationalism, and Institutional Resistance, Sage, London.

Paauw, S 2009, ‘One land, one nation, one language: An analysis of Indonesia’s national language’, University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Sciences, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1-16.

Sen, K & Hill, D 2000, Media, Culture and Politics in Indonesia, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Simpson, A 2007, Language and National Identity in Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Smith-Hefner, N 2009, ‘Language Shift, Gender, and Ideologies of Modernity in Central Java, Indonesia’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 57–77.

Woodward, M 2010, Java, Indonesia and Islam, Wiley, New York.

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