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Hiding behind the Language Barrier

There is growing linguistic turmoil in academia.

To understand why, you need to recognize the growing importance of academic publications, both for individual scholars and for educational institutions.

The average workaday university teacher has two major academic responsibilities: teaching and research. 

Good teaching, which you might think was the core competence of a teacher, is difficult to measure in a reliable way.  Student ratings quickly become beauty contests and measuring by exam results can be skewed by the incompetence, or recalcitrance, of the students.

But the other function, research, can be assessed in the form of publications and these easily lend themselves to mathematical manipulation. 

So, by the lazy logic that whatever is easiest to measure automatically becomes the most important thing measured, teachers find themselves faced with publication quotas to fulfil. 

But they not only have to produce so many scholarly articles, they have to get them published in the right places.  An article in a flagship, peer-reviewed international journal obviously carries more weight than something in a home-grown newsletter from the teacher’s own institution, where the distinction between academic research and typing practice can be hard to see.

With the bulk of academic writing now on the internet, the computations become even more refined.  There are apps that will count how many times an academic paper is viewed and downloaded. 

And crucially, there are citation metrics.  These look at how often a research paper is referred to in other books and articles.  The idea is that a seminal work that many later scholars refer to in their research is more valuable than a screed that no one finds particularly useful.

These statistics are used not just by university bosses at contract renewal time, but also by the agencies that publish the rankings of universities that make newspaper headlines.  And boy, does the educational world love league tables.

But a Thai academic looking for promotion, and his institution looking for a boost in the international rankings, both face a language problem.  None of the journals that earn top brownie points publish in Thai.  So scholarly work must either be written in English, or translated into it.  (Journals in languages other than English form a miserly minority in almost all fields.)

Now there is a small minority of Thai acharns who can write with near-native fluency in English, but for many it is a time-consuming process that will necessarily reduce the volume of their output.  More can, with a struggle, produce something in a sort of English that a competent editor can turn into a finished article. 

But many simply can’t write English of a high enough standard, and their only way of getting published in a first-class journal is with the help of a translator who knows English, Thai and their academic field.  Most such people, of course, are academics themselves and are busy trying to pump out their own stuff. 

Competent editors and translators are not just hard to find.  They tend to be expensive.  It is not difficult for a good translator to earn more than a good teacher.

Within a Thai university, this language handicap is fairly evenly spread around, so the jockeying for career advancement is not particularly affected.  But when it comes to comparing Thai universities with the outside world, this language barrier may make them look worse than they really are.

But in another way, it may also be hiding their faults. 

Almost everything written in Thai is curtained off from international scrutiny.  An academic who produces substandard work in Thai is exposed to criticism only from Thai colleagues.  There are precious few non-Thai academics who can or do read scholarly articles in Thai.

In many fields, however, there is this scattering of Thai academics to do publish in English and are measured by international standards.  Their presence tends to ensure that standards in their field, even among Thai language material, do not sink too abysmally low.

But it turns out that there are two academic fields where insularity reigns, because the subject matter is itself Thai.  These are history and language, both of which resonate strongly in nationalist ideology.

Suppose you claim that some spectacularly patriotic episode that is enshrined in the history textbooks never actually happened because the historical evidence simply does not exist.  You will not only find it hard to get a job in a History Department, you could even end up in court.

And suppose that as a fluent speaker of Lao, or Khmer, or Malay, or Karen or any other of the mother tongues of millions of Thai citizens, you apply for Thai citizenship.  Sorry, you still have to learn the Central Thai of the ideological elite.

While there are Thai linguists and historians of international stature, the bulk of academic output in these fields outside of grad school is permeated with a hodgepodge of jingoism, myth and misunderstanding that would rightly earn international ridicule.

Except that it is all in Thai.  So no one knows.


About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).