The Two-World Problem: The Language of Archaeology in Southeast Asia

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I’ve been thinking about the language of archaeology in Southeast Asia for some time now, and it’s summed up in this article in the Mar-May issue of NSC Highlights entitled The Two-World Problem: The Language of Archaeology in the Post-Colonial Landscape. Basically, I think that the knowledge of Southeast Asian Archaeology exists in two worlds, in English (as the international language of science and academic publishing), and then in the non-English languages (typically local, e.g. in Thai, Myanmar, Khmer, Bahasa). These two sets of knowledge sometimes do not correspond, and in some instances our understanding of the past can be quite different depending on the language you use.

Take this blog for example – English is the primary language of this website (and also my first language), but English is not the first language for most people in Southeast Asia. Occasionally I highlight news stories in non-English languages but it is usually dependent on readers alerting me to such. Last year when I ran the informal poll about the most influential books in Southeast Asian Archaeology, the majority of books suggested by a mixed audience of Southeast Asians and non-SEAsians were also in English. This suggests there is a bias towards English as the language of archaeology in the region.

Why is this a ‘problem’? But it means for a large portion of Southeast Asians, a good portion of archaeological knowledge isn’t really accessible. Besides the dominant language barrier, books can be really expensive and academic research published in journals is often locked behind paywalls. It doesn’t help that most professional academics (including those from Southeast Asia) are increasingly under pressure to publish in English and in (often-paywalled) journals as part of their professional requirements.

There are other aspects of this problem that I am still trying to articulate. For example, I know very little about how archaeology is taught in the region, so my sense of which local-language texts are being used (if any) is limited. There is the difficulty in translating archaeological terminology, and in this regard I’d like to highlight the Southeast Asian Archaeological Vocabulary by the Institute of Southeast Asian Archaeology as an ongoing project to translate archaeological terms from English into multiple Southeast Asian languages and vice-versa. If you are a regular reader of this website, I would love to hear your thoughts about this Two-World Problem. I don’t think that it is a single problem to be ‘solved’ but rather trying to find ways to mitigate systemic imbalances and improve communication across cultures.

For most part, I think most archaeologists and researchers in this region would like to have their research made more accessible. As a small starting step in trying to address this imbalance in language I would like to encourage my colleagues to start including dual-language titles and abstracts in their research – in English and in the relevant local language – and also start insisting that journals publish titles and abstracts in two languages. This small tweak in the way we present our research would have the instant benefit of allowing the text to show up in internet searches and reach a larger and more relevant audience.