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Contributor, Editor

by fiel.sahir on 

October 30, 2016
How to NOT Sound Bule (Part 1)
How to Not Sound Bule

This is a series of articles concerning Indonesian pronunciation and vowels with audio. Check out Indonesian consonants and digraphs

When I speak Indonesian in public, I love hearing what people have to say. People don’t know what to expect because they’ve often never heard it before. The way I look tells them it should be an oriental language of some sort, but it sounds out of this world! I’ve had Filipinos try to figure out for days (during a tour) what language we were speaking. Hindustani school friends told me my parents have an Indian accent, while my friends from church love to comment that it sounds like the language of Minions. When Indonesians meet me for the first time, they are often really surprised that I don’t sound like a Bule (because I was born and raised in the states.) What’s a bule you may ask? It’s a word that Indonesians use to describe foreigners. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, Indonesians find you cute!

You decide to take advantage of this, and it seems people like your foreign ,accent, but this bothers you. Truth is, even though we all have the same mouth across different languages, people pronounce “the same letter” differently. If you have already begun learning Indonesian but don’t like the way you sound, that’s ok! Here we’ll be tackling the pronunciation of Indonesian vowels. Without further ado, here’s part one of “How NOT to sound Bule.”


Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) has 6 vowel sounds, A, E, É I, O, U. In this and following articles, audio references will be made to the typical accent of North American English speakers that learn Indonesian. In order for this article to be effective, please listen to each of the recordings and imitate. One of the main things to listen for is the length and “sharpness” of vowels and contrast them with English, this will help guide your ear and allow you to slowly adjust. 


Approximate English Word: Ah!
Indonesian Example: “Apa kabar?”: How are you/What’s up?

E/ə (Schwa)

Approximate English Word : The
Indonesian Example: “Kemana?”: Where?


Approximate English Word : End
Indonesian Example: “Emang”: Right… Exactly?


Approximate English Word : Keys
Indonesian Example: “Bumi”: Earth


Approximate English Word : Boring
Indonesian Example: “Joko Widodo”: Indonesian President


Approximate English Word : Boo
Indonesian Example: “Utang”: Debt

When learning new words, look out for the difference between words with é or e! There used to be diacritics in Indonesian spelling. But in 1972, there was a spelling reform between Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia that makes the language harder for learners (but only in this tiny regard.) Before the reforms, Dutch orthography was used in Indonesia which can be seen in the name of former president Soekarno (Sukarno), ketjap manis (kecap manis), and boemboe (bumbu). 

Here’s the first line from the national anthem Indonesia Raya:
 “Indonesia, tanah airkoe tanah toempah darakoe 
Di sanalah akoe berdiri djadi pandoe iboekoe.”
 After the spelling reform: “Indonesia, tanah airku tanah tumpah daraku 
Di sanalah, aku berdiri jadi pandu ibuku.”
 Fun to compare the difference eh? We showed you this just for fun, but these spellings are still used in the Netherlands for Indonesian products today.

On a closing note, we need to be sure to open our ears. If we cannot hear the differences between our mouth and that of a target language speaker, we can’t imitate. We cannot produce what we cannot hear. Keep listening to the recordings of sounds I’ve made, and practice with them. Train your ear, and in turn your mouth will follow.

Enjoyed this article? Check the rest of the “How NOT to Sound Bule” series concerning Consonants and Digraphs!

If you are currently learning Indonesian, we at Polyglot Indonesia want to hear from you and  answer any of your questions. You can also shoot me a personal message at  

About the author

Born to a Jakartan Father and a Bandung Mother, Indonesian-American Fiel Sahir is a classical guitar performer, teacher, blogger and language enthusiast hailing from New York City. He is currently pursuing his Master’s under Joaquín Clerch in Düsseldorf, Germany. Being a language lover he speaks English, Indonesian, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. He shares his thoughts with the world at

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