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Indonesian and Malay

Hello i have a question is Indonesian and Malay mutually intelligible how similar are they can a Indonesian speaker understand Malay or is the difference bigger.

September 13, 2018



I know Malay but fared rather badly when I tried to take the placement test. However, I can mostly understand Bahasa Indonesia.

Most speakers (myself included) are at least bilingual and speak Indonesian or Malay either natively or as a second, third, fourth, fifth (if you count dialects) language. Since Indonesian media has a wider influence, I would say it's easier for Malay speakers to understand Indonesian than vice versa. I think Indonesian is used more than Malay since most Malay speakers with higher education are fluent in and use another language (e.g. English) in their daily lives.

It's not exactly US vs UK English per se, because the names of things are different (but in such a way that you'd be able to identify it) and not in different spellings. It's more of a chips vs fries, crisps vs chips comparison. And how certain words in Australian or NZ English is quite incomprehensible to other English speakers.

Finally, a short background: Malay is usually translated as Bahasa Melayu, or in Malaysia Bahasa Malaysia and used in Singapore and Brunei as well as some parts of the Philippines and Thailand while Indonesian is used in Indonesia and East Timor as well as the Philippines and Australia. It was the lingua franca of the Malacca Sultanate.

Edit: Indonesian is also more widely used so those who learn Malay usually have teachers who'd say, "... but in Indonesia they call this..." so that helps too. Indonesian is used far more widely by its speakers than Malay is by its speakers, fortunately or unfortunately. However, all my non-Malay-speaking friends (thus far) tell me it is an easy language to learn, so that helps too.


Where in Australia is Indonesian used?


Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. Besides the fact that there are significant Indonesian communities in Australia, enough that it is one of the three Asian target languages taught under the Languages Other Than English programme in certain schools (the other two are Chinese and Japanese), it is spoken by the Malay people of the Cocos Islands, which is admittedly an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean between Sri Lanka and Sumatra.


There are Indonesian communities in big cities like Melbourne and Sydney.


By that measure though Indonesian is spoken in lots of countries


Malay would argue that our languages are mutually intelligible, but as a bahasa native, I find it difficult to understand BM. I can understand maybe 60% of the conversations, and even in my country's television, we put bahasa subtitle in Malaysian cartoons. While for Malay, since they're used to consume our medias for decades, they're understanding our language better.

I'd say that rather comparing bahasa and BM like US english and UK english, it's more like something between US english vs UK english and Dutch vs German.


I agree with your comparison between US English vs UK English, but I'd have to disagree with the Dutch vs German comparison. I'm a native speaker Dutch myself who lived almost 8 years in Germany and I really really had to learn the German language. I'm in Malaysia now and I'm taking BM classes here, but had little problem talking Bahasa in Indonesia and understanding what people said. The last was harder for the simple fact that I'm a beginner. Anyway, my two cents here, good luck to you mastering the Dutch language. :)


Agree. However well, the US English vs UK English is rather similar to each other, you can basically comprehend those dialects just fine. However for Bahasa vs BM case, it's harder than that especially when the slang is playing there. Also I already said that Malay somehow comprehends Bahasa just fine while a native Bahasa (Bahasa as the first language) somehow finds it more difficult to comprehend BM. So that's why I guess it's not on dialect level but rather more than that but not really on language level either? It's something in between but a bit more on dialect level side?

Hahaha thanks. You too.


Maybe it is like Swiss German to German. Swiss people speak German well, because of all the media being in German, but German people usually don't understand Swiss people at all. (But from what I saw of Malay, I would say it looks closer to Indonesian than Swiss German looks to German, maybe more like Norwegian and Swedish?)(Can't much Indonesian yet, so hard to judge.)



I guess from now on, if someone asks the similarity between Bahasa and BM, I would say it's like Swiss German vs German or maybe like the difference between Scandinavian languages (yeah I look up at net, and the difference between Scandinavian languages seem like a perfect fit too for the comparison).


There's a complication with slang - it does change rather quickly and is often age-group related. As an 80+ year old UK English speaker I've seen big changes in the informal varieties of my mother tongue in UK. As someone posted on another thread Australian and New Zealand slang differ again and US slang is 'something else'. More formal English doesn't vary nearly as much. But aren't all these differences fascinating to explore!


I can also confirm that this is true. In my opinion as Indonesian, if someone speaks to me in Malay, I'd probably ask some words to clarify the meaning. Structure differences have never been a problem for me, as it is not that different.


Student of Indonesian who also wants to study Malay here. They are very similar languages, not quite the same because they are different standards of the same dialect continuum, but there are a lot of words that are different between each language. Here’s a video where an Indonesian speaker and a Malay speaker talk about tiny differences in each language like the word for car; https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=g9m6kDSlQcs

If you only want learn one, I would suggest Indonesian for general travel and Malay if you are only interested in Singapore or the Malay parts of Indonesia. I’ve read someone suggest to learn both so you can understand both, as it’s common for speakers of both to talk with the other. Most of the differences are vocabulary-based, although I have read Indonesian’s grammar is harder. A native speaker of either can probably be a lot more detailed about the technicalities but this is what I’ve read. I love learning Indonesian and I really want to understand both Indonesian and Malay one day.

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