Indonesian vs. Malay Language: what’s the difference?

At a well-known school in Singapore Indonesian students shone in Maths and Science but stumbled with Malay. On the surface, it’s perplexing since Indonesian and Malay are so much alike, and mutually intelligible.

Yet, the differences between the two languages, while subtle, are significant.

First some history…

After declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia felt the need to carve out its linguistic identity. This led to Bahasa Indonesia adopting unique words and sounds, distinguishing itself from Malay.

First difference: Pronunciation

Both languages might sound similar to an untrained ear, but their pronunciation nuances are distinct. For instance, while Malay pronunciation of the Roman alphabet leans towards English, Indonesians have a touch of Dutch influence. Words ending with the letter “r” like “besar” and “tidur” are pronounced with a clear trill in Indonesian. In contrast, Malay speakers might render the “r” silent, much like in English.

2nd difference: the same word can have a different meaning

Some words, familiar in both, can mean something entirely different.

Besides these examples, there are many more such “false friends”. You can imagine the confusion it can cause!

How many people speak each language?

The picture is a bit confusing. Most statistics count Indonesian speakers also as speakers of Malay as a second language (and vice versa), because the languages are considered mutually intelligible. 

If you search Google for the number of Malay speakers, it will quote this wikipedia page which puts the number at 290 million.

Malay Speakers:

  • Around 77 million people speak Malay as their first language;
  • 200-290 million speakers in total – but this number also includes all Indonesian speakers;
  • They are mostly based in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. 

Indonesian Speakers: 

  • Around 44 million people speak Indonesian as their first language;
  • The same 200-290 speakers in total, including Malay speakers;
  • Many Indonesians have a different first language, such as Javanese. But they speak Indonesian as a second language.

Which language to learn?

The best way to decide which language to learn is to think about where you’re likely going to be spending most of your time and who you’ll be talking to.

If you’re interested in learning Indonesian, check out our homepage to learn more, or contact us on WhatsApp via the green button below.

Our parent school Crystal Learning offers Malay classes.

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