Fascinated with the Indonesian language and its vernacular languages, John Bowden decided to visit Maluku in 1993 — the year when he learned the language through conversing with people on the streets. His choice of Maluku over other provinces was motivated by his passion to research the South Halmahera language spoken there.
Though he had spent a year learning Indonesian at the University of Melbourne, Bowden felt that direct interaction with native speakers of the language would be much more effective in helping him grasp Indonesian.
Having lived in Indonesia for almost twenty years, Bowden admits that he still encounters difficulty in understanding written Standard Indonesian.
“Frankly, I have to take a look at the Indonesian dictionary whenever I come across difficult words printed in most Indonesian newspapers,” he said during an interview with The Jakarta Post at his office.
Fluent in colloquial Indonesian as well as other vernacular languages found in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, Bowden formerly worked as both a lecturer and researcher at the linguistic department, research school of Pacific and Asian studies, of the Australian National University (ANU).
At this university, he taught mainly linguistic field methods of a vast array of vernacular languages such as Rotinese and Uab Meto from West Timor, Makasai from Timor Leste, and Bugis from South Sulawesi. He is particularly passionate about the application of linguistic fieldwork to real world problems such as maternal language education.
Apart from lecturing and conducting research on the description and documentation of Austronesian and Papuan languages at the ANU, he supervised master and doctorate linguistics students hailing from various countries in the world including Indonesia.
Now as a director of the Jakarta Field Station Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig, Germany, the outgoing Australian-born linguist has been researching South Halmahera language with a focus on linguistic typology, language contact, grammaticalization and the linguistic representation of space.
Bowden’s commitment to researching the typology of world’s vernacular languages as well as endangered languages won him a UNESCO Endangered Languages Fund Award in 2000 and other competitive grant awards from different worlds’ institutions.
He is best known for his published scholarly works such as Taba (Makian Dalam) of a South Halmahera Language, Behind the Preposition: The Grammaticalization of Locatives in Oceanic Languages, and A Journey through Austronesian and Papuan Cultural and Linguistic Space.
Asked about the plummeting numbers of Australians studying the Indonesian language in most universities in Australian, Bowden says that this phenomenon is only part of the general problems faced by the majority of Australian universities.
“The decreasing number of Australian students learning Indonesian should come as no surprise, as we also see a significant drop of our students studying other foreign languages such as Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish
offered by Australian universities,” he explained, adding that “Australians have now become pragmatic because as they see people around the world using English as a lingua franca, why bother learning Indonesian and other
Unlike previous years that saw some 200 Australians learning Indonesian at the University of Melbourne, this year the number has unfortunately plunged to 50, a quite significant drop that has created concern for the Indonesian government.
Still related to this drop, Bowden does not rule out the possibility that political motives might have been behind the lack of interest among Aussies to study Indonesian.
“The relationship between Indonesia and Australia has become strained due to two bloody incidents: The gross human right violation in Timor Leste that caused the death of an Aussie journalist and the Bali bombings that claimed hundreds of lives of Australians.
This can be the other possible reason that results in the negative sentiment among the Australians to learn Indonesian.”
Yet, Bowden is quick to point out that the political motive is only an ancillary factor that explains this phenomenon. For him, pragmatic reasons for the decline are more reliable.
When most Indonesian scholars have expressed their worries about the bleak future of the Indonesian language both abroad and at home, Bowden is upbeat that the language will never vanish.
He said that even when most Indonesian youngsters are fond of learning and using English, the influence of Indonesian as a national language will surely withstand against the test of time.
“As a second language, Indonesian has a strong influence as a unifying language among Indonesian people who come from different languages and races,” he added.
Bowden also explains that as a Malay dialect, Indonesian has been rated as one of the recognized languages in the world, and is being widely spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, South Thailand and the Philippines.
With many countries still using Malay-Indonesian as a means of communication, he sees no reason to think that Indonesian will be in a moribund state, let alone die out in years to come.