Learning Indonesian Language Basics Before You Travel

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Places to stay during your trip

You’d think that there would be a lot of English speakers in a touristy place like Bali. But it sure seemed like no one knew the language when we moved there. Especially those taksi drivers. They like to pretend they only understand Bahasa.

I found that attitude surprising, to be honest. I mean, tourists give them most of their business, right? And Indonesian is a relatively obscure language. Apart from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, few people have reason to learn it. And it’s not like learning Indonesian is a high priority in schools around the world.

Certainly, you have to deal with some language barriers when you travel. That’s a given. And while English may be the universal language for travelers, those who venture outside of the usual tourist areas may have a hard time finding someone who speaks it.

Maybe tourists shouldn’t be expected to speak a local language, but it’s different when you live overseas. As a guest in their country, it’s your job to learn how to communicate.

Read on and we’ll tell you how we managed living in Bali and learning Indonesian on our own.

How to Overcome Language Barriers When Traveling

Is learning Indonesian easy?

Well, yes and no. Many of its words come from Dutch (thank the traders), Arabic (thank the Muslims), and English (thank the U.S. military and the media).

There are a lot of nuances, but the Indonesian language basics are pretty easy to learn. They use the same western alphabet, thank goodness.

Also, there no past/present/future tenses, no masculine or feminine, no first- or second-person agreement, and the grammar is very similar to English.

As to how to speak Indonesian words, the words are pronounced as they are spelled. Except for the letter C. Just make a ch sound whenever you see a c, and you’ll be all set.

Sign in front of a protestant church in Bali. Fence in foreground. Some of the words are easy to understand.
Many Indonesian words are easy to figure out.

Where to find free online Indonesian language lessons

Online Indonesian language lessons

Here’s what I did: When we first started talking about moving to Bali, I found free lessons on this site, downloaded the MP3s to my audio player, and got serious.

Okay, not that serious. I studied for a few days, then forgot about it for a week or two, then picked it up again for another few days. Each time I did, I mentally reviewed what I could remember and tried to create sentences and phrases. And some of it began to stick.

It really began to stick when I later decided to invest in the premium membership. It wasn’t that expensive, but the printed study guides and expanded lessons made things a lot easier to understand. Plus, the fact that I’d paid money for it made me more serious about getting my money’s worth.


Somewhere along the way I found a free online flash card site called Quizlet and was shocked to discover someone had already created the flash cards for my Learning Indonesian lessons. I cannot tell you how helpful Quizlet was. Many of its learning exercises are games, and because it’s fun I sometimes lost track of how much time I’d spent on it.

Flash cards

In the past, I’ve bought physical flash cards. Learning Indonesian with something physical in your hands is different to learning with your eyes online.

I have found that language learning is easiest when you use them in tandem. While they weren’t available when I needed them, I’m glad that Amazon now offers Indonesian Flash Cards.

Google Translate

This free app is super helpful. Of course, people use it to look up words, but there’s another use that most people don’t think of: I’d carry on imaginary conversations in Indonesian, then once I had the entire sentence in my head, I’d type it into the Indonesian > English side. It sure was interesting to see what came out.

Indonesian woman in the countryside of Bali. She's got a basket on her head and giving two thumbs up.

Putting my beginning Indonesian to use

Even when I had been in the country for only a week, I was quite surprised by how much I could actually understand. Doesn’t matter where you go in the world, most people use a limited number of words.

Knowing a little Indonesian is better than nothing. So don’t be afraid to use the few basic Indonesian vocabulary words you know. That’s the key, USING IT. It seriously helped to reinforce things.

Not to mention, it’s fun to watch the reactions of the hotel staff, store clerks, taxi drivers and the Indonesian family we know when they hear bahasa Indonesia come out of my mouth.

I’ve made some major mistakes though, don’t get me wrong. But here’s what’s cool: Despite my many boo-boos, not one person has laughed at me yet.

Perhaps they’re in shock that a bule (white person) would make the effort to speak with them. Or maybe they’re just kind. No matter: I enjoy trying to communicate with them and it’s fun pretending – even if only for a moment or two – that I’m a local.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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2 thoughts on “Learning Indonesian Language Basics Before You Travel”

  1. Learning a new language is both interesting and challenging. Never thought about visiting Indonesia, but it does sound like a lovely country. I think learning to speak the local language is going to be helpful.

    • Absolutely, Renuka. Learning to speak the local language is helpful, even if it’s only a few words. Maybe someday you’ll consider Bali. It’s one of a kind, the only Hindu island in the country, and the culture is fascinating.

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