U.S. English Foundation Research



Language Research

2. Background: Background notes

Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands and over 200 million people and it is the fourth most populous country in the world.

There is a considerable diversity concerning the languages used in Indonesia. There are 669 Austronesian and Papuan languages that can be found in the territory of the country. These languages written mostly in the Latin script have been influenced by the Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese and European languages.

The Indonesian language is considered to be the central feature of the Indonesian national culture. Malay was used for centuries as a lingua franca in many parts of the archipelago. The term Bahasa Indonesian, which refers to a modified form of Malay, was coined by Indonesian nationalists in 1928 and became a symbol of national unity during the struggle for independence. Bahasa Indonesian was spoken in more than 90% of households in Jakarta, but outside the Capital only 10 to 15% of the population spoke the language at home. In Javanese areas, only 1 to 5% of the population spoke Bahasa Indonesian at home. Nationwide, however, some 6.7 million Indonesians used Bahasa Indonesian as a primary language while more than 100 million others used it as a secondary language.


West Papua is Indonesia’s largest province in the eastern part of the country. It was annexed through force into the Republic of Indonesia during President Suharto’s government and its name was changed to Irian Jaya (Victorious Irian) in 1973. The indigenous inhabitants rejected this name and the people identify themselves as West Papuans. The government promoted a “transmigration” policy – relocating Indonesians into this area – so that approximately 770,000 people were eventually brought into the territory.


East Timor, one of the oldest European colonies, was the most neglected part of the Portuguese Empire. Many centuries ago the Malay and Melanesian peoples settled on Timor and this ethnic mix was further diluted by the arrival of Arab, Chinese and Gujarati traders. Portugal did not prepare Timor for independence. In April 1974 the popular nationalist movement, Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, filled the political vacuum caused by Portugal’s abandonment. On November 28, 1975, the self-proclaimed FRETILIN government declared the colony an independent nation state.

Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975 and expected a quick victory, but it misjudged the skills of its own forces and underestimated the East Timorese resistance to the invasion. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese – a third of the population – lost their lives due to massacres, war-related starvation and disease. The present population is estimated to be 867,000, of whom perhaps as many as 200,000 are Indonesian immigrants.


The first Chinese people came to Indonesia in the 7th century. When the Dutch colonial forces arrived in Indonesia during the 16th century, the Chinese had already established an important role in the country’s economy. Ethnic Chinese constitute quite a large number, from 8 to 10 million and it is the fifth largest ethnic group.

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