English Phonology vs Indonesian Phonology – Learn with Experts

Let’s learn about Indonesian Phonology.

What is phonology? Sometimes people got confused between phonology (phonemes) and alphabets. However, to learn about phonology you should also master Indonesian Alphabets. To shorten time, the main difference of phonemes and alphabets are their form. Phonemes is set of language sounds/speech sounds, while alphabets is the symbol. On the other word, phonemes are abstract (heard), while alphabets are more ‘real’ (seen).

Here are the examples of phonology.

  • She sang a song [ʃiː sæŋ ə sɒŋ]
  • The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog [ðə kwɪk braʊn fɒks ʤʌmpt ˈəʊvə ðə ˈleɪzi dɒg]

You could see the 5 main difference between the letters/alphabets and the phonetic transcription (showed in []). What about Indonesian Phonology? Trust me, it is not as complex as English. Therefore, let’s learn about main differences between Indonesian and English Phonology.

English Phonology vs Indonesian Phonology

Before we step forward, I recommend you to check Indonesian Pronunciation of Basic Words and A-Z Indonesian Words Pronunciation  because it is completely related to this topic.

1. Vowels Sound

Basically there are only 5 vocals in Bahasa Indonesia and English (sometimes ‘y’ is counted too in English). However, if you talk about vowels, the results will be completely different. Let’s break down one by one.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the vowels are more simple. It has limited variation than the English. For example, the alphabet ‘a’ only symbolized the sound ‘a’ (except in special occasion/new word such as ‘slang’, it symbolized the [æ]), while in English it has wide variation, such as [æ], [a], or [ei]. Therefore, it becomes really difficult to Indonesian to understand and memorize all of different variation of sound by a single letter.

a or a pronunciation/allophones

In Indonesia, both symbol are used to refer the sound [a]. It does not have allophones (more than one sound) like English ‘a’ It is only font matter. However, as I said, it could symbolized the sound [æ], [a], or [ei] even [ə] or [ɔ] in English. Here, take a look of the examples.

Bahasa Indonesia

  • saya [sa‘ya]
  • aku [a‘ku]
  • Mama sayang saya [mama sa‘yaŋ sa’ya]


  • sad [sæd]
  • apple [æpl]
  • all [ɔl]
  • photography [fəˈtɑgrəfi]
  • walk [wɔːk]
  • mask [mɑːsk]
  • chance [ʧɑːns]

e pronunciation/allophones

The ‘e’ symbol is very interesting in Indonesia. There are 3 different varieties to pronounce it. They are [e], [ɛ], and [ə]. Moreover, the variation of sound also happened in English. Here take a look at the examples.

Bahasa Indonesia

  • lebar [le’bar]
  • nenek [nenɛʔ]
  • depan [dəpan]


  • bet [bɛt]
  • lake [leɪk] — no sound
  • neck [nɛk]
  • eight [eɪt]
  • be [biː]
  • really [rɪəli]
  • the [ðə]
  • me [miː]

You could see there is no [e] if it is not combined as a diphtongs.

Notes: while the English has different standard and formal pronunciation of the ‘e’ symbol, in Bahasa Indonesia it is also could be pronounced differently, but mostly does not change the meaning. The example above  are the common pronunciation in Bahasa Indonesia.

However, because there are not standard or formal pronunciation, it is okay to mispronounce it with another allophone. For example, the Eastern Indonesia or Sumatra people rarely used the [ə] sound. Therefore, usually it will be replaced with the [e], but the meaning and reference are not changed.

The reason of it because it is possibly caused by dialects/mother-tongue of most Indonesian people, which is usually local language, such as Javanese, Balinese, Batak, but not Indonesian. 

i, o, u pronunciation/allophones

For this three symbol, there is a similarity between them in Bahasa Indonesia. Unlike English, each one of them only has 2 different sound for each symbol. Here are they: [i] and [ɪ] for ‘i’, [o] and [ﬤ] for ‘o’, and [u] and [ʊ] for ‘u’.

  • bibi [bibi] – aunt
  • bibir [bibɪ] = lips
  • toko [to’ko] = shop
  • tokoh [tokﬤh] = figure
  • cucu [cucu] = grandchild
  • bungkuk [buŋkʊk] = hunch

Notes: it is back again into dialects. Those are the common pronunciation. The phonemes could be changed based on the speaker itself.

English ‘i’

  • piss [pɪs]
  • list [lɪst]
  • firm [fɜːm]
  • sit [sɪt]
  • ice [aɪs]
  • rice [raɪs]
  • in [ɪn]
  • ti [tiː]

English ‘o’

  • love [lʌv]
  • on [ɒn]
  • corn [kɔːn]
  • coke [kəʊk]
  • socks [sɒks]
  • no [nəʊ]
  • phone [fəʊn]
  • now [naʊ]
  • to [tuː]
  • cold [kəʊld]
  • so [səʊ]

English ‘u’

  • purse [pɜːs]
  • up [ʌp]
  • tube [tjuːb]
  • consume [kənˈsjuːm]
  • umbrella [ʌmˈbrɛlə]
  • uniform [ˈjuːnɪfɔːm]
  • sun [sʌn]
  • run [rʌn]
  • mute [mjuːt]
  • but [bʌt]

You could also check in dictionary 

2. Others vowels phonology [aa, ii, oo, ee]

Another main differences in Bahasa Indonesia and English vowels is double vocal. It is different with the diphtongs because it contains one single type of letter. In English, you may found ‘ee’ or ‘oo’ to be placed together. Usually the sound will be different than single letter version.

However, it does not happened in Bahasa Indonesia. There is no changing sound of it, and it is identified as different phonemes (except the word ‘riil’).

In addition, the words mostly derived from Arabic. Instead of pronounce it as a single phoneme, it has a glottal sound followed by a little bit stop between the two letter. Here are the examples of it.

Bahasa Indonesia

  • Aa [aʔa] – terms for older brother/male in Sundanese
  • saat [saʔat] – when
  • taat [taʔat] – faithful
  • riil [ril] – real
  • Uut [uʔut] – Indonesian people name
  • Iis [iʔis] – Indonesian people name
  • oon [oʔon] – Indonesian informal word for stupid
  • boong [boʔoŋ] = informal Indonesian word for (to) lie


  • teeth [tiθ]
  • shoo [ʃu]
  • shoot [ʃut]
  • boo [bu]
  • too [tu]
  • see [si]

Moreover, there are also set of vocals that looks like diphthongs but they are not. Even though they are put respectively in a word, the sound is not combined at all. It still becomes two separate sound, divided by apostrophe (stop) or semivowel ([w]/[y]).

In contrast, most of English set of vocals would form a new phonemes/diphtongs. Take a look at this comparison.

  • bait [ba’it] – rhyme (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • bait [beɪt] (English)
  • air [ayir] – water (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • air [] – English
  • syair [sya‘ir] – poet (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • fair [feə] – (English)
  • kue (kuwe) – cake (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • cue  [kjuː] – (English)
  • koin [kowin] – coin (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • coin [kɔɪn] (English)

Check more in Indonesian Diphtongs

English phonology vs Indonesian phonology – The main differences that you need to learn.

3. Nasal sound

This is another part of 5 main differences of Indonesian and English phonology. In phonology, there are four nasal sounds. It is a sound that came from nose. It contains [m], [n], [ŋ], [ñ]. You may not found the last sound in English. In contrast, the other three sounds of course very familiar.

The main difference between Indonesian and English is related to the []. Although there tons of words contains this sound, I bet you would not find it in the beginning of a word because it is not in English phonotactics (phone formation).  Take a look!

  • bingung [biŋʊŋ] – confuse (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • ngantuk [ŋantʊk] – sleepy (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • bank [baŋ] – bank (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • bank [bæŋk] (English)
  • jungle [ʤʌŋgəl] (English)
  • pink [piŋ] – pink (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • pink [pɪŋk] – (English)
  • thing [θɪŋ] – thing
  • nyanyi [ñañi] – sing (Bahasa Indonesia)
  • banyak [bak] – many/much (Bahasa Indonesia)ˈ

Hey, to enhance your pronunciation, try to pronounce these followings Indonesian words. Good luck

  • nyamuk
  • senyap
  • lenyap
  • ternyata
  • nyasar
  • ngorok
  • ngasal
  • ngungsi
  • ngapain

Check also Indonesian Pronunciation of Basic Words

t [t] and th [θ]/[ð]

Here is also the main difference between Indonesian and English phonology. One way to identify a language without really mastering it is by their phonotactics principle (phones formation) or letter formation. While you may familiar with ‘th’ formation or [θ]/[ð] in English, it is very unusual formation/sound in Indonesia. If you find it, it is whether their way to talk or just trying to be more wannabe English native speaker. Trust me, lot of people love to sound British/American. Take a look.

Indonesian [t]

  • Tuhan [tu’han] – God
  • butuh [bu’tuh] – need
  • buat [buwat] – for/make
  • tetapi [tə’ta‘pi] – but
  • abad [a‘bat] – century

Notes: if a [d] put at the end of the word, the sound change and soften to [t]. Therefore, if you pay attention to Indonesian speaking English you may notice they are hard to distinct the way of ‘sad’ [sæd] and ‘sat’  or bat [bæt] and bad [bæd] sound.

English [t], [θ], [ð]

  • though [ðəʊ]
  • although [ɔːlˈðəʊ]
  • bother [ˈbɒðə]
  • both [bəʊθ]
  • South [saʊθ]
  • thumb [θʌm]
  • this [ðɪs]
  • the [ðiː]
  • thorough [ˈθʌrə]
  • whether [ˈwɛðə]
  • water [ˈwɔːtə]
  • time [taɪm]

If you found Indonesian, let’s them try pronounce those words. You may heard that most of therm would rather change [θ] and [ð] to [t] or [d] respectively. 

[f] and [v]

These two is my favorite one. Because Indonesian originally has no ‘v’ and [v] as a sound, there is no actually [v]! The letter ‘v’ came in an Indonesian word because (thanks to) translation from English. However, it sounds no difference with the letter ‘f’ [f]. Therefore, people’s name sometimes would be written incorrectly just because they could not decide whether the person name consist a ‘v’ or an ‘f’.

Indonesian vs English

  • virus [virus] – virus [ˈvaɪərəs]
  • kreativitas [kre’a’ti’fi’tas] – creativity [kriːeɪˈtɪvɪti]
  • vas [vas] – vase [vɑːz]

You could also observe it by yourself!

[r] and longer sound [:]

This is the most difficult part for English native speaker when they trying to sound as Indonesian native as possible. In English, most of the [r], except if it put at the first sound, are change into longer sound of previous vowel. Therefore, became really difficult (even known as problem called rhotacism) for English native speaker to make the sound because in Indonesia, it is always be pronounced. Take a look

  • baru [baru] – new
  • kabur [ka’bur] = escape
  • rumah [ru’mah] = house
  • blur [blɜː]
  • core [kɔː]
  • rabbit [ˈræbɪt]
  • carrot [ˈkærət]

For Indonesian child, especially the one that start talking, it is a social pride when you could say the [r] or you could be called ‘cadel’. However, it is okay though if you couldn’t because you may sounds like foreign people. It is a social pride too (Interesting, right?). But you could practice it! Try to reach your palate (roof of mouth) and try as hard as you can to vibrate it. Keep practice!

So, those are 5 main differences of Indonesian and English Phonology. Have understood about the English phonology vs Indonesian phonology now? To compare both language more, check these following articles.