What are the spoken languages in Bali?

Alexis
Modified on December 28, 2023

Balinese speak a lot more languages that you might suspect. Here are the languages that are widely spoken on the island and when to use them.

Basa Bali or Balinese: The Original Language of the Balinese People

Basa Bali, or simply Balinese, is the original language of the Balinese (Hindu) people, almost exclusively found in Bali.

Who really speaks Balinese?

The vast majority of Balinese Hindus understand and speak Basa Bali. However, not everyone uses it in the same way in their daily lives.

In Bali, Balinese is primarily the language spoken among Balinese people and in Hindu religious affairs.

It's important to note that Bali is a multicultural island: many people from other islands come to work or settle there. Local Balinese people won't speak Balinese to someone from Java or Flores who wouldn't understand it at all!

In reality, only a quarter of Balinese people use Basa Bali in their everyday lives. Others often use Bahasa Indonesia, especially at work or in school.

However, Balinese is far from dead! It's just that this language is so specific and closely tied to Balinese (and religious) culture that few people living in Bali but outside of this culture bother to learn it.

Characteristics of Basa Bali

Balinese is a somewhat different language from what we are accustomed to.

The registers of basa Bali make it particularly complicated

In Bali, there is a caste system, unrelated to the Indian caste system but still governing certain social relationships, including the language register to be used depending on who you talking to.

Long story short, there are 3 main (depending on how you divide them) language registers that can be used in Balinese: low (basa ketah), medium (basa media), and high (basa singgih).

90% of Balinese people can speak to each other using the first two, which are their everyday Basa Bali. However, when addressing certain people in higher castes, they must switch to the basa singgih language register.

The problem is that the last language level is not mastered by all Balinese people, as it is very different from the languages of the lower registers. It is actually quite close to ancient Javanese.

As Balinese castes do not govern the economic or social position of individuals, you can very well be in the highest caste but work as an entry level position. Conversely, you can be a CEO coming from the lowest caste. This can lead to comical situations where the manager has to use a very formal language to its subordinate that he or she doesn't master well.

The original writing in Sanskrit, less and less used

om swatiastu in balinese sanskrit

Once upon a time, Balinese was written in a kind of Sanskrit, derived from the Indian subcontinent, locally known as Aksara Bali.

These days, very few Balinese people are capable of understanding or writing it. The Latin alphabet has more or less completely replaced this traditional script.

Bahasa Indonesia: the every day language for most Balinese

Bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian, is the most widely used language in everyday life on the island, and more generally in the rest of Indonesia.

Who speaks Bahasa Indonesia in Bali?

Almost all Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia, which is the language used in schools, administration, and work.

It is also consistently the language used between a Balinese person and someone from another island who does not speak Basa Bali.

The rare cases of people who do not speak Bahasa Indonesia, or speak it poorly in Bali, are often elderly people in remote villages who do not interact with people outside their village/ethnicity and do not follow national news or culture.

It is increasingly common for Balinese people to use Bahasa Indonesia among themselves, especially young people who often speak a mixture of Basa Bali, Bahasa Indonesia, and youth slang that can be challenging to understand when you are not native.

Bahasa Indonesia in the Rest of Indonesia

In the rest of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia is the passport for communication between the (very) numerous Indonesian ethnicities and the (very) numerous languages that accompany them.

In reality, Bahasa Indonesia is almost always the second language for people, after their mother tongue (Balinese in Bali, Javanese in Java, etc.).

In big cities, in mixed couples, or in certain families, the mother tongue is Bahasa Indonesia, and people do not speak the language corresponding to their origins. However, this represents only 25% of the population; all others have a mother tongue other than Bahasa Indonesia.

The vast majority of Indonesians, including Balinese people, are therefore at least bilingual. And many of them also speak other languages.

all languages in Indonesia

English is by far the most widely used language in tourism in Bali.

Most people working in the island's tourism industry speak and understand English well. The level of English varies, of course, but it remains on average quite good.

If you're worried about not speaking English very well, there's truly not much to worry about. Balinese people don't only communicate with native English speakers (but many can spit some aussie slang though!). They are quite great at getting a message across, even to those who lack a few lessons in the language of Shakespeare.

In restaurants, hotels, activities, or on the beaches of Bali, you shouldn't really need anything other than some basic English to get by.

If you're good at math, you've probably already done the following calculation: Basa Bali + Bahasa Indonesia + English = 3.

And yes, indeed, many Balinese working in tourism are trilingual.

Other spoken languages in Bali

In some specific communities, you might find Balinese that speak other languages: Dutch, French, German, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin are probably the ones I've found the most.

Usually, these people have been living abroad, or been in contact with a specific tourism niche in Bali, or are in a mix relationship / family.

I guess if you look hard enough you can probably find Balinese that speak your local language regardless of where you are from.

Just don't count on it as a way to get by during your stay in Bali! English and Bahasa Indonesia and you are covered for 99% of the scenarios you might encounter.

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