The Language of Research

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

The language of research

Pratyoush Onta

Feb 10, 2018-Every now and then, some member of the academic community in Nepal raises the issue about the language in which our social science researchers should be doing their research and producing their output. Such folks seem to suggest that since English has become the de facto dominant language of academia across the world, all our social science researchers enrolled in Nepali universities should also produce their work in English. This will enable them to communicate their work to their non-Nepali colleagues, these advocates add. As one former dean of Tribhuvan University (TU) put it some years ago, those who do not do their PhD research in English are handicapped when it comes to presenting their work outside of Nepal. Other advocates have suggested that Nepali researchers should write in English for the convenience of their international readers at large. Yet others hint that since countries with distinguished research traditions of their own (eg, Japan) are now providing incentives to their researchers to put out their work in English, we might as well do the same here in Nepal. This debate is an interesting one for Nepal at the current juncture.

First let us look at the issue about PhD research in the social sciences in Nepali universities being done in languages other than English. At the oldest university in Nepal, TU, one can opt to write your dissertation in a language other than English. In most social science disciplines, functionally this means writing in Nepali. This flexibility reflects a correct approach: Students should have the freedom to write their dissertations in the language in which they are most proficient.

Let us look at PhDs done in my discipline—history—at TU. Of the 63 PhDs in history that had been completed by 2013 at TU, only 24 had been done in English (that is less than 40 percent). If the English-only rule had been in place, then many of those who opted to write in Nepali would not have, in all likelihood, written their doctoral dissertations because of a language handicap. That would have meant that their academic careers would have impeded in part by the fact that they did not have of terminal degree (PhD) to boast.

Let me make this more concrete. Among the history PhD dissertations that were written in Nepali at TU about mid-20th century Nepal, the ones done by the likes of Rajesh Gautam (on Nepal Praja Parishad), Surendra KC (on the early days of the Nepal Communist Party), Bhaveshwar Pangeni (on Dr KI Singh), and Govindaman Singh Karki (on anti-Rana mobilisation in Bhojpur) and many others would not have been written for the PhD degree if the English-only rule had been in place. Given that these senior colleagues opted to write their doctoral dissertations in Nepali and then have been very productive in terms of publishing books and articles (also mostly in Nepali), the English-only rule would have had deleterious consequences in their academic careers. If the publications resulting from their doctoral research and from their post-doctoral research had not seen the light of the day, it would have been a great collective loss for the Nepali academic community and the reading public at large. Surely not writing in English has meant that these academics might feel handicapped in not being able to participate in conferences in which English is the language of communication. But that handicap has not stopped them from generating dozens of books in Nepali and participating in seminars and conferences in Nepal.

Second, let us look at the suggestion that Nepali researchers should write in English for the convenience of their international readers at large. Well this raises the question: Whose convenience should we be worried about, the convenience of the Nepali researchers to produce researched writings or the convenience of the members of the international research community who want to read Nepal-related research? This is no brainer for me: The convenience of the Nepali researchers of course. Prioritising their ability to do their research in their first working language is more important than the need for videshis to understand their work. If the videshi colleagues really feel the need to understand the work in the languages of Nepal, they will certainly have to invest their time and energy into learning the skills to read those languages. It is as simple as that.

If the priority is to increase the number of good Nepali researchers, then clearly making it convenient for them to complete the formal degree requirements in the language in which they are most proficient is the way to go. Here, the fact that among the 418 MA theses in history done at TU until early 2014, a whopping 87 percent had been written in Nepali (source: Descriptive Catalog of Master’s Thesis in History, 2014) clearly indicates student preference to be not English. Let me add one more point here: When young researchers gain confidence as academics by writing their initial academic pieces in their first working language, some of them will gain analytical competence and confidence to work in English in their later years if they so desire. I have seen this transformation from up close in the case of a few Nepali students in the past 20 years.

Third, the Japanese story is more complicated than what most think. Yes it is true that the Japanese government has institutionalised an incentive mechanism to support Japanese social scientists to publish in English. Hence some Japanese researchers get additional research money if they publish in English. However, many young Japanese students continue to write their MA and PhD theses in Japanese and not English. My long time friend the anthropologist Tatsuro Fujikura is a professor in the Department of South Asia and Indian Ocean Studies at Kyoto University, Japan. When asked about this theme, he wrote back to say, “I’ve been on the committees of almost 30 Japanese PhD students. None of them opted to write in English. I have supervised as many MA students. Only one student tried to write in English, but ended up writing in Japanese after he realised he didn’t have enough English writing skill.” Getting the research and writing done in the language in which the students are comfortable and proficient is clearly important at Kyoto University.

What is also interesting is the case of another Japanese anthropologist who used to teach at Kyoto University until 2016 and now teaches at the University of Tokyo. Akio Tanabe wrote his PhD dissertation in English but opted to publish the book based on that research in Japanese (Translated title of that book: Caste and Equality: Historical Anthropology of Local Society and Vernacular Democracy in India, 2010). In his case, it is clear that having written the doctoral dissertation in English, it would have been much easier to publish the book based on it also in English. But the linguistic dynamics of accumulating academic capital among researchers based at the leading universities in Japan mean that many still choose to write in Japanese, not English. Despite the incentives to publish also in English, it is important to note that among the Japanese scholars who currently do research on Nepal, most have written their monographs and published edited volumes in Japanese. Tatsuro Fujikura’s book Discourses of Awareness: Development, Social Movements and the Practices of Freedom in Nepal (Martin Chautari, 2013) is an exception. So clearly the Japan example is not one of an exclusive English-oriented research scene. The more complicated Japanese situation as hinted here is certainly worth a deeper look for further debates on this topic in our country.

Finally, I know that it is not enough to simply say that students should be allowed to write in the languages in which they are most proficient. We need seminars and conferences that support presentations in these languages. As far as Nepali is concerned, we are already there. Even though some of the organisers of the biggest conferences held in Nepal insist on holding their proceedings only in English, there are many other conferences that allow presentations in Nepali. However, the scene is not so encouraging for the other languages of Nepal. With respect to reference resources—textbooks, monographs, edited volumes, translated volumes, etc—needed to support academic work in the languages of Nepal, the scene is quite depressing for the case of most social science disciplines. Here individual scholars, academic NGOs and our universities need to do a lot more to come up with these resources to help our students. Funding agencies such as the University Grants Commission and universities should allocate dedicated funds each year to help produce such books. Collectives of Nepali commercial publishers could also re-invest a part of their profits to help finance the content production of such academic books in the languages of Nepal. But is anyone listening?

- The author tweets at @pratyoushonta


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