Indonesian is a phonetic language. One way to learn the Indonesian language bahasa Indonesia pronunciation is to listen to locals speak. After listening carefully, imitate their pronunciation as accurately as possible and practice speaking out loud. Most Indonesians are happy to help you learn the language.
Travelers also can learn a great deal about the Indonesian language by watching local news and programs on Indonesian television. Watching movies also can help you learn words because they often are in English with Indonesian subtitles. It makes for an interesting language lesson.
Most consonants are pronounced the same in Indonesian and English. The most distinct exceptions are:
c is pronounced like the “ch” in champion
Example: cinta (CHEEN‑tah) love
g is always hard, as in girl
Example: gigi (GEE‑gee) tooth/teeth
h is very soft like in the word hush
Example: habis (HAH‑bees) finished
k and kh are always a hard as in keep
Example: khabar/kabar (KAH‑bahr) news
r is always stressed and rolled, as in Italian and Spanish
Example: baru (BAHR‑roo) new
y is one of the tricky letters in the Indonesian alphabet. Technically, it always is pronounced like the “y” in yellow. However, personal and regional interpretations sometimes pronounce it like a “j.” In some cases, such as “Yogyakarta” (JOHG‑jah‑KAHR‑tah) Indonesians pronounce the “y” like a “j.” The proper and traditional pronunciation is YOHG-yah-KAHR-tah.
Indonesian has five vowels and two diphthongs:
a is pronounced “AH” as in the word father
Example: babi (BAH-bee) pig
e is usually hard “EH” as in the name Ed
Example: empat (EHM‑paht) four
However, when placed at the end of a word, the “e” usually sounds like “ay” in “today.”
Example: sate (SAH-tay) sate
i is pronounced “EE” as in the word bee
Example: tiga (TEE‑gah) three
o is pronounced “OH” as in show
Example: bodoh (BOH‑doh) stupid
u is pronounced “OO” as in boot
Example: Juni (JOO‑nee) June
au is sometimes pronounced with two syllables, such the final two syllables of the Hawaiian island “Oahu”
Example: mau (MAH-oo) want
au can also be pronounced with only one syllable “AH,” which sounds more like the vowel in now
Example: pulau (POO-low)
ai is smooth and long like the “y” in the word apply
Example: pantai (PAHN‑tye) beach
As mentioned earlier, there are several regional variations to pronunciation and spelling. In addition to regional variations, some words are spelled differently today than they were prior to 1972 (when Indonesia eliminated some of the Dutch influence from the language). For instance, Jakarta and many other words that start with the letter “J” were once spelled with “Dj” at the beginning. Therefore, be prepared to see some variations when reading words that are printed or posted.
Verbs and Verb Forms
The verb is the key element in Indonesian sentence structure. While verbs are not conjugated for people and numbers as they are in many languages, there are a number of verbal prefixes and suffixes that alter or reinforce the meaning. The most common is the prefix “me,” which makes a verb active in the present tense. However, since most verbs are assumed present tense, this prefix usually is omitted. For instance:
Saya mau melihat Borobudur. I want to see Borobudur.
Saya mau lihat Borobudur. I want to see Borobudur.
As mentioned earlier, the prefix “di” makes a verb more passive. The passive form often implies an imperative or necessity. For instance:
This rice must be cooked. Nasi ini dimasak.
These shoes may be tried on. Sepatu ini boleh dicoba.
Indonesian verbs do not change to indicate tense. The same basic form of the verb is used to speak of past, present, and future. Usually the meaning is defined by the context. To be more specific, auxiliary verbs and words indicating a specific time reference may be added (as in English).
I am eating. Saya makan.
I already ate. Saya sudah makan.
I ate just now. Saya makan tadi.
I will eat. Saya akan makan.
I will eat later. Saya makan nanti.
If no auxiliary verb or specific time reference is used, it is generally assumed that one is speaking about the present. “Sekarang” (now) is used to emphasize that someone is speaking about the present. For example:
We are leaving now. Kita pergi sekarang.
I want to eat now. Saya mau makan sekarang.
“Sedang” is another word used to indicate that you are “in the process of” doing something. For example:
I am in the middle of eating. Saya sedang makan.
We are in the middle of speaking. Kita sedang bicara.
“Akan” (shall/will) is an auxiliary verb used to express the future. For example:
Saya akan kembali ke Indonesia. I will return to Indonesia.
“Mau” (want) is often used as an auxiliary verb to signify the near future, just as it is in English. It is then followed by the main verb. For example:
I want to go to Borobudur. Saya mau pergi ke Borobudur.
“Nanti” (later) also is used as a specific time reference to indicate future tense. It typically follows the verb.
I will go later. Saya akan pergi nanti.
I want to go later. Saya mau pergi nanti.
“Sudah” (already) is used in Indonesian to indicate most forms of the past tense. It is placed before the verb. For example:
He/she has already gone? Dia sudah pergi?
Yes, he/she has already gone. Ya, dia sudah pergi.
I already have. Saya sudah punya.
To form an imperative, the suffix “LAH” is added to the verb:
Go! Pergilah! (PEHR-gee-LAH)
Eat Makanlah! (MAH-kahn-LAH)
Speak! Bicaralah! (BEE-chahr-RAH-lah)
Enter Masuklah! (MAH-sook-LAH)
Run! Larilah! (LAHR-ree-LAH)
“Waktu” (time/the time when) is another time reference used to indicate past actions. Followed by “itu” (that) it means “by that time” or “at that time.” For example:
At that time, I just returned home. Waktu itu saya baru pulang.
At that time, I already left. Waktu itu saya sudah pergi.
The basic word order of Indonesian is similar to English, (subject + verb + object + complement). For example:
I need (a) taxi. Saya perlu taksi
I arrived yesterday. Saya datang kemarin.
Additionally, the subject within a sentence often is implied and not verbally communicated. For instance:
Do you want to go? Mau pergi? (literal translation: want go?)
Do you have any rooms? Ada kamar? (literal translation: have room?)
May I see? Boleh lihat? (literal translation: may see?)
“Tidak” (no) is the most common word used to negate verbs and adjectives (Indonesians often contract the word to “ndak” or “nggak”). The word precedes the noun or adjective it negates:
This hotel is not good. Hotel ini tidak bagus.
I don’t want it. Saya tidak mau.
Why didn’t John arrive? Kenapa John nggak datang?
When possible, most Indonesians prefer to use “kurang” (less) or “belum” (not yet) instead of “tidak” because these words do not convey a sense of finality or extremity, which makes them less offensive or abrupt. For example:
This hotel is not very good. Hotel ini kurang bagus.
Why hasn’t John arrived yet? Kenapa John belum datang?
“Belum” (not yet) also is more commonly used than “tidak” (no) as a response to questions involving time or action. For example, there are two ways to say that you are not married. Indonesians use the first version, which is more optimistic:
I’m not married, yet. Saya belum kawin.
I’m not married. Saya tidak kawin.
“Bukan” (not, none) is used to negate nouns rather than “tidak.” For example:
Not this one. Bukan ini.
That is not a painting. Itu bukan lukisan.
“Jangan” (don’t) is used to express negative imperatives instead of “tidak.” For example, here is how it is used in a sentence:
Don’t go! Jangan pergi!
Don’t come! Jangan datang!
Articles and Nouns
Unlike English, the Indonesian language does not use any articles, (a, an, the) before nouns. Therefore, as you read translations, you won’t find these words in Indonesian. The pronouns “ini” (this) and “itu” (that) are close approximations though. The pronoun “yang” (the one) also comes very close to “the” in English.
I want to buy this beer. Saya mau beli bir ini.
How much does that cost? Berapa harga itu?
Singular or plural forms of nouns are not formally distinguished, and the same form is used for both. Singular or plural meanings are defined by the context or through additional words. For example:
This person is pleased. Orang ini senang.
All the people were pleased. Semua orang senang.
This tourist arrived. Turis ini datang.
Many tourists arrived. Banyak turis datang.
Repeating certain words back-to-back also can indicate plurality. However, you need to understand the language very well to avoid mistakes. In some cases, duplication makes a word plural, while in other instances, it changes the meaning completely. For example:
several people orang-orang
Noun modifiers, such as adjectives and possessives, always follow the word being modified, with the word “yang” sometimes inserted between them. For example:
new car mobil baru
the new car mobil yang baru
my new car mobil baru saya
As with adjectives and possessives, most adverbs follow the words they modify. For example, the most common adverbs are:
before/first dulu (DOO-loo)
only, just saja (SAH-jah)
thus/so far begini/begitu (BEH-gee-NEE, BEH-gee-TOO)
too, also juga (JOO-gah)
very sekali (SEH-kah-LEE)
Following are some sample sentences to demonstrate how these words are used:
He will also go. Dia pergi juga.
I will go first. Saya berangkat dulu.
This food tastes good Makanan ini enak sekali.
However, the following adverbs precede the verbs they modify:
almost hampir (HAHM-peer)
already sudah (SOO-dah)
approximately kira-kira (KEER-rah KEER-rah)
extremely/very sangat (SAHN-gaht)
merely cuma (CHOO-mah)
not yet belum (BEH-loom)
only hanya (HAHN-yah)
still masih (MAH-see)
too/excessive terlalu (TEHR-lah-LOO)
The following are some sample phrases that demonstrate how these words work together:
I’m still eating. Saya masih makan.
We’ve almost arrived at Solo. Kita hampir sampai di Solo.
This matter is extremely important. Hal ini sangat penting.
I only want to buy three pieces. Saya hanya mau beli tiga buah.
This item is too expensive. Barang ini terlalu mahal!
In Indonesian, prepositions always precede the object. The most common prepositions are:
in di (dee)
from dari (DAH-ree)
to, toward ke (keh)
In addition, the prefix “di” is combined with the following words to indicate location:
above, upstairs di atas (dee AH-tahs)
behind di belakang (dee BEH-lah-KAHNG)
below/downstairs di bawah (dee BAH-wah)
here di sini (dee SEE-nee)
in front of di depan (dee DEH-pahn), or di muka (dee MOO-kah)
inside di dalam (dee DAH-lahm)
next to di sebelah (dee SEH-beh-LAH)
outside di luar (dee LOO-ahr
there di sana (dee SAH-nah)
Here are some sample phrases that demonstrate how these words are used to form sentences:
He is in the house. Dia ada di rumah.
I ran from the house. Saya lari dari rumah.
I want to go to Sumatra. Saya mau pergi ke Sumatra.
Watch my quick video tutorial on YouTube.
Experience more of Indonesia than the average traveler by speaking the local language. Simple courtesies and greetings will make your trip more productive and rewarding. Our phonetic style makes it impossible to mispronounce important words. Order your hard copy.
The locals will sparkle with delight when you speak just a few words in bahasa Indonesia.