Do Indonesians Understand the Malay Language? Are They Language Sound The Same?

Do Indonesians understand the Malay language? The simplest answer is: Yes, they do. However, the understanding is only to a certain extent. Why is that?

Let’s break it down so we can comprehend further about what make it different yet understandable.


The first and foremost thing we need to know is that Indonesian and Malaysian language have the same parental language, that is Austronesian, and are standardized registers of the Malay language.

Even though both are mutually intelligible, there are still some differences in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and the source of their loanword.

The important reason behind this is because during the era of colonization the regions of Malaysia was captured by the British and that of Indonesia by the Dutch. This has caused Indonesian to absorb a lot of loanwords from Dutch, while Malaysian from English. This colonization also greatly affected the spelling and writing in the language.

Here are for more:

For example:
The consonant ‘c’ was called as ‘ch’ in Malay language in Malaysia, where as under the Dutch influence, it became ‘tj’ in Indonesia.

Moreover, in recent years Indonesian has also absorbed more Javanese vocabulary while Malaysian still keep the old vocabulary. This is why nowadays there is more and more differences between these two languages.


Whilst Malaysian and Indonesian languages may sound the same to a non-native speaker, in the contrary there is some noticeable differences in accent and also diction for its native speaker.

Sometimes for the structure and also vocabulary, both languages may have the similar meaning even the word is also the same, but they are way different in the spelling.

This is also one of the reasons why Indonesians generally can understand Malaysians language, if it is written rather than from conversation.

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For example:

  • English : I sit with my brother but there is a hair falling down.
  • Written Indonesian or Malay : Saya duduk bersama adik tapi ada rambut yang gugur
  • Spoken Indonesian : Saya duduk bersama adik tapi ada rambut yang gugur (flat tone)
  • Spoken Malaysian : Saye dudok besame adek tapi ade rambot yang gugo (with up and down tone)

In terms of vocabulary, differences between the two languages could come in many forms because of the influences of Dutch or English in both country.

The differences vary from the spelling, the words themselves, and the pronunciation or in the meaning. As for most Indonesians native speaker, they might feel awkward even confused to hear Malaysian language, due to its similarity in word yet very different in the meaning for them. 

For example:

  • In Malaysian   : Car is Kereta, Train is Train
  • In Indonesian : Car is Mobil, Train is Kereta

Example for the extreme one:

  • In Malaysian   : Tank is Kereta kebal (in Indonesian it means ‘Immune train’)
  • In Indonesian : Tank is Tank

The rather funny example:

  • In Malaysian   : turn left is Pusing kiri (in Indonesian it means ‘Dizzy left’)
  • In Indonesian : Turn left is belok kiri


Maybe to put it simply, we can say that the differences between Indonesian and Malaysian languages in term of spelling are quite the same with when an American try to understand a British accent. It takes time for Indonesian to be familiar with Malay language.

And for Indonesian itself, geographically speaking, people live in Sumatra especially near the north coast or Kalimantan (southern part of the island of Borneo) is more familiar with Malay rather than those who live in other islands such as Java, Sulawesi, etc.