Language Education Policy Studies
An International Network
New members welcome!

Language Education Policies in Indonesia (1)

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the second most linguistically diverse country with 650 vernacular languages. Despite its linguistic diversity, Bahasa Indonesia has been used as the only national language since 1945. The language choice was made not on the basis of convenience in communication but for political purposes: to fuel the nationalistic movement in the post-colonial era and to avoid ethnic disintegration.

Before the arbitrary unity created by a colonial power, Indonesia never existed as a united nation and did not share a common language. At the end of the colonial period, however, the need for national language was posed by administrators. Bahasa Indonesia was chosen as the national language although it was spoken less than 5% of the entire population. Javanese, the language of the largest ethnic group which made up 48% of Indonesia’s population and which has a rich literacy tradition, was not chosen because administrators believed that it could cause a “high level of resentment for their perceived dominance in the political and economic domains” (Wright 2004, p.85). In addition, it originated from Malay which was favored by the nationalistic groups in the early 1900s. These perceived legitimate reasons to advocate Bahasa Indonesia as the language for the new nationalistic government.

Bahasa Indonesia has been a medium of instruction after the first three years of primary school, and is taught as a compulsory subject at all levels of education from primary to tertiary levels. As a result of the remarkable national language policy lasted for decades, the number of speakers of Bahasa Indonesia increased rapidly to 61% in the 1980 census, and 83% in the 1990 census. The critiques of national language policy, however, pointed out that Indonesian students’ reading ability is rather low, ranking 58th out of 66th countries tested. The weak support for mother-tongue education can be one of the major reasons for low literacy. A recent survey showed that over 80% of the Indonesian population still speak languages other than Bahasa Indonesia as their mother tongues. For students who does not speak the national language as L1, literacy development in L1 should be guaranteed to build strong L2 literacy. The case of Indonesia tells us that when imposing a national language, how to accommodate the ethnical and linguistic diversity into policy and curriculum is just as an important issue as the national language policy itself. 

For more, see HERE.


Indonesian language online resource:

UCLA Language Materials Project for Indonesian:

Online courses for Indonesian-Malay language offered by the University of Hawaii at Manoa:

  • Indonesian & Javanese: Languages of Southeast Asia
  • Indonesian language: Wiki Article


  • Lowenberg, P. H. (1992). Language policy and language identity in Indonesia. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 3, 55-77.
  • Pauuw, S. (2009). One land, one nation, one language: An analysis of Indonesia’s national language policy, In H. Lehnert-LeHouillier and A.B. Fine (eds.), University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Sciences, 5(1), 2-16.
  • Prentice, D.J. and Sneddon, James. (2003). Malay and Indonesian. In W. J. Frawley (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics, 2, 540-47. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Renandya, W. A. (2004). Indonesia. In H. W. Kam & R. Wong (Eds.), Language Policies and Language Education: The Impact in East Asian Countries in the Next Decade (2nd ed., pp. 115-138). Singapore: Times Academic Press.
  • Whitehead, D. Lobbying for English in Indonesia denies children mother-tongue education. Guardian Weekly (02/26/2013). Retrieved from
  • Wright, S. (2004). Language Policy and Language Planning (Chapter 4, pp. 69-98). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.



This web page has a copyright. It may be referred to and quoted, or reproduced and distributed for educational purposes according to fair use legislation only if the following citation is included in the document:


This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as


Lee, Jenny, & Mun, Sue (2013). Language Education Policies in Indonesia: Language Choice and Impact on Literacy. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

Widget is loading comments...