English on Bali
English is the common “third” language and the most popular foreign language by far (after Indonesian and Balinese). Due to tourism requirements, a lot of Balinese speak a level of English that allows them to communicate with tourists on a fundamental level. But you will meet many who do speak a relatively good level of English.
Every year between 600.000 to 700.000 Australians come to Bali as the island has been one of the most popular tourist destination for many decades – which of course caused an influence. You will be surprised how many young locals, particularly in Kuta, will greet you with a solid “Hey Mate”, sounding very much like an Australian themselves.
So if you are a tourist and visitor travelling to Bali speaking some English, you will be fine. In all hotels and most restaurants, you will have no problems with English. And as you can see on the picture, the Balinese might translate “creatively”, but you will still understand what they mean. International chain hotels also often employ staff who speak the languages of countries, where most of their guests originate from. So in a Novotel managed by French group Accor you will have some Guest relation Officers (GROs) speaking French. At Grupo Melia Spanish and so on.
Most menus in the restaurants are at least bilingual or sometimes even only in English, and some won’t even have an Indonesian one. If you are Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Russian you can try to ask for a menu in your language; you might get lucky at restaurants in Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua and Seminyak.
Bali has a large and vibrant expatriate community and many foreigners who have settled on Bali and opened restaurants and small hotels. Their businesses, more often than not, do cater somehow to guests from their home country. You can even find a “LOCAL” Gazette in French or small newsmagazine in German. These free magazines usually can be picked up in some of the supermarkets, bakeries or restaurants.
Some foreign languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French or German, are often used for multilingual signs or promotional flyers targeting foreign tourists. You can book tourist guides who speak one of those languages quite well and who will escort you on sightseeing tours. They do charge a slightly higher fee for their services than guides who speak “only” English.
Particularly guides who speak Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Korean can be found more easily now than 20 years ago. Local travel agencies will help you with that.
These days, Chinese and Russian are gaining more importance as more and more guests from these countries come to the Island of the Gods.
Quite a few tourists, particularly the returning visitors and of course some residents have acquired an adequate level of Bahasa Indonesia. You don’t need to be fluent, but if you manage to speak even only a few words in Indonesian, your Bali experience will change drastically. You will have it much more comfortable when bargaining or telling the cab drivers to switch the meter on. Balinese will be even more friendly, engage with you more, etc… it’s fun and worth it to learn 20 words of Bahasa.
Bahasa Bali & Bahasa Indonesia
Most Balinese are bilingual if not trilingual (Indonesian, Balinese, English). Although every Balinese speaks the language of his mother island, Indonesian is the most common language – particularly in the tourism sector. Because many Javanese and Indonesians from other islands have entered the tourism sector and live and work here, Bahasa Indonesia is the language that you hear on the streets a lot.
Bahasa Indonesia, which is very close to Malay, is also taught in schools and is the language spoken in all government offices. It is relatively easy to learn language unites all Indonesians spread across this vast archipelago with more than 13.000 islands and hundreds of different cultures, and more than 350 other languages and dialects.
There are several different indigenous Balinese languages, and there are various ways how to communicate between the casts and clan members. Balinese society has deep feudal roots, and in many ways, it’s even today still “quasi-feudal” and some social protocols and customs of the times of the kings are still in effect. Most Balinese belong to the Sudra caste (anak jaba, outsiders) and speak the common Balinese language among themselves. Outsiders, because they live outside the palace.
The high or HALUS Balinese is essentially the “language of the court” and derived from Javanese. Generally, one speaks to strangers and social superiors in high Balinese.
And there is KAWI, the language used in priestly rituals and the ancient stories and dramas around the deities. And there is SANSKRIT, the language of Hindu prayers and scriptures.
But most Balinese will these days use the most widely spoken option: “modern Balinese”; some rules of how to communicate between the casts are ignored or altered.
Kawi and particularly Sanskrit are also commonly used by some Hindu priests.
Bali in Other Languages
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