Applied linguistics research from Thailand: Quantity, quality and societal needs

Richard Watson Todd1, Punjaporn Pojanapunya1, Angvarrah Lieungnapar2 and Kornwipa Poonpon3

1 King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi
2 Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University
3 Khon Kaen University


To commemorate the inauguration of the Thai Association for Applied Linguistics, this presentation examines the history of applied linguistics research originating in Thailand. From 1981 to 2007, Thai applied linguistics research was stable with one to three articles published in Scopus-listed journals every year with most in Q1 journals. Since 2012, the number has increased massively to around 20 articles per year, but only about a quarter are in Q1 journals. The most common focuses of Thai research articles are English learners’ language use and ELT classroom activities, but these are also the topics with the lowest proportions of articles in Q1 journals. Articles on ELT teaching content and curricula and on Thai language are more likely to be in Q1 journals. To see the extent to which this research meets societal concerns, we compared the research topics with the topics of news articles related to applied linguistic issues in the Bangkok Post and with postings on relevant topics in Pantip. While the research focused on university learning, the news articles were more concerned with schools and Pantip postings with independent non-formal learning. Such independent learning outside class was also mentioned in a few news articles, but rarely covered in the research. The news articles often focused on teacher training, but again this was the focus of very little research. The findings suggest that there should be less research emphasis on classroom activities. Instead, greater attention should be paid by researchers to independent learning outside class and to teacher training.

This paper commemorates the inauguration of the Thai Association for Applied Linguistics (TAAL). TAAL’s mission includes promoting scholarship and research in applied linguistics (AL) in Thailand, and facilitating greater public understanding of the field. To achieve the first goal, an understanding of the historical and current state of Thai AL research is needed. Two research purposes of this paper, then, are to find out what AL research has been conducted in Thailand and to identify the trends in publishing AL research. For the second goal, promoting public understanding of AL research would be easier if the research addresses issues of public concern. In addition, as an applied discipline, AL research often has practical applications, but it is unclear whether these applications serve the public interest. Our third research purpose, then, is to see whether AL research in Thailand meets societal needs.

The history of Thai applied linguistic research

Applied linguistics is the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue. Given the centrality of language in AL, the field draws heavily upon work in linguistics. The focus on real-world problems means that other disciplines such as sociology and psychology also provide input into AL.

Historically, AL has been closely associated with English language teaching (ELT), and, as we shall see, this is still the case in Thailand. Thus, real-world problems in ELT are a common focus of AL research. The Thai AL research articles analysed later in this paper include an investigation of the factors affecting Thai primary English teachers’ uptake of tablet technology, and creating a system of identifying the words it would be most beneficial for a teacher to focus on in a specific-purposes ELT class in Thailand.

AL is not restricted to ELT or even investigating English, however. Other real-world problems that Thai AL researchers have addresses recently include analysing the language used to identify lying in Thai online chat, and uncovering hidden meanings in Thai political campaign posters. There is, then, a wide variety of possible focuses in AL research, but the commonality is that the research investigates language use in real-world contexts.

To examine Thai AL research, we decided to focus on research published in international journals in major databases as these are the benchmark of research quality. We decided to use Scopus (the best-known database of international journals) as the source since this allows searching by author affiliation. Searching for articles in the domain of ‘Arts’ with authors affiliated to Thai institutions, we restricted the results to those journals which publish AL research. We found 244 articles of Thai AL research with the first published in 1966. In the following, we restrict our analysis to those articles published from 1996 onwards, since changes in publication practices mean that many of the papers published before then would not be considered research.

Our first analysis was to examine the number of Thai AL research articles published year on year and the findings are shown in Figure 1. From 1981 (not shown in the graph) to 2007, Thai applied linguistics research was stable with one to three articles published in Scopus-listed journals every year with most in Q1 journals (the top 25% of journals). The pattern shown in Figure 1 indicates a large recent increase in the amount of Scopus-published AL research from Thailand, especially since 2012. This suggests a more professional, motivated and vibrant research community.

While being published in Scopus is an achievement, some argue that the true measure of an article’s worth is being published in a Q1 Scopus journal. We therefore looked at year-on-year Q1 publications and these are shown in Figure 2. As with Figure 1, there is some recent increase, but this is less noticeable for Q1 publications than for all Scopus publications.

To compare quantity and (high) quality, we combined Figures 1 and 2 into the single graph shown in Figure 3. This suggests that the recent increase in published Thai AL research is largely driven by publishing in less prestigious journals. To some extent, Figure 3 represents the increase in the number of journals included in Scopus. However, it also implies that, while the overall increase in Thai AL publications suggests a more active research community, there may be some prioritising of quantity of publications over quality.

Topics of Thai applied linguistics research

In addition to quantity and quality of publications, if we want to see whether Thai AL research addresses societal needs, we need to examine the topics that the research focuses on. To do this, we created categories of topics through a recursive process and found six major focuses of Thai AL research. The numbers of articles concerning each of these topics, divided into Q1 articles and other articles are shown in Figure 4. To illustrate what sorts of focuses can be found in each category, the titles of two Q1 journal articles on each topic are given in Table 1.

Table 1 Example of articles in each topic category

Topic category Example articles
Learner language Competencies needed in oral communication in English among Thai undergraduate public relations students: A substantial gap between expectations and reality

Suffix knowledge: Acquisition and applications
English language A comparison of rhetorical move structure of applied linguistics research articles published in international and national Thai journals

How to say “Good-bye” in Second Life
Thai and other languages Speech intelligibility tests and analysis of confusions and perceptual representations of Thai initial consonants

The wide use of mai-pen-rai ‘It’s not substantial’ in Thai interactions and its relationship to the Buddhist concept of Tri Laksana
ELT activities Blog-based peer response for L2 writing revision

Do scaffolding interactions exist in the Thai classroom?
Curricular issues Reconsidering compulsory English in developing countries in Asia: English in a community of Northeast Thailand

Implementing education reform: EFL teachers’ perspectives
Teacher and student characteristics Teacher trainers’ beliefs about feedback on teaching practice: Negotiating the tensions between authoritativeness and dialogic space

Multiple goal orientations and foreign language anxiety

From Figure 4, we can see that the two most frequently researched topics – ELT activities and learner language – are also those topics where the proportions of non-Q1 journal articles are highest. These are also the areas which are most directly related to the work of the authors who are English language teachers. It should also be noted that the majority of the publications in the English language category are also directly related to the authors as they concern the genre characteristics of academic writing. Generally, those focuses less closely related to teachers’ work are more likely to be published as high-quality articles.

Societal concerns related to applied linguistics

If the published research tends to address the authors’ own work concerns, then it is unlikely that the research would also address the broader societal concerns of the general public, since English teachers are not particularly representative of the general public. It may be the case that the AL research community in Thailand is somewhat insular, focusing solely on its own concerns and not attempting to meet wider societal needs. While nearly all published research is only read by other researchers in the same discipline, research can provide input into evidence-based policy decision making. For research to have such a wider impact, it would need to address societal concerns. We therefore need to find out what societal concerns there are in Thailand which are relevant to AL, and we can then examine whether the published AL research addresses these concerns. To identify societal concerns, we used two sources: news articles and social media postings.

News articles relevant to applied linguistics

For news, we examined articles published in the Bangkok Post in the second half of 2017. We found 24 articles relevant to applied linguistics and then categorised these in two ways. First, since most of the news articles concerned language education, we looked at the number of articles concerning each of the different levels of education, and these are shown in Figure 5. Second, similar to the topic categorisation of research articles, we used a recursive procedure to identify six main focuses of news articles, and these are shown with their frequencies in Figure 6.

From Figure 5, we can see that the news articles are dominated by concerns at the school level (perhaps not surprising given the larger number of school students than students at other levels). Examples of such articles include ‘UNESCO says schools failing kids’ and ‘Homework cut gives life to students’. In Figure 6, what actually happens in the educational institutions is not a major concern. Rather, outside class learning (e.g. ‘Debating championship encourages young to speak up’) and teacher training (e.g. ‘4-yr teacher course plan wins backing’) dominate.

Social media postings relevant to applied linguistics

While news articles provide some indication of societal concerns, they may over-represent the concerns of powerful actors (such as UNESCO and the Ministry of Education). To ascertain the societal needs of the general public, we examined social media postings on the Pantip discussion boards relevant to applied linguistics. Focusing on postings using the tags ‘English language’ or ‘foreign language’ over a six-month period from late 2017 to early 2018 and discarding repeated and irrelevant postings, we found 892 postings. These were also categorised into topics, attempting to make the topics as compatible as possible with the topics from the previous analyses. The frequencies of postings under each of the seven topics are shown in Figure 7.

From Figure 7, we can see that the social media discussions are dominated by issues of language usage and language development. Language usage mostly concerns questions about the correct usage of specific linguistic features (e.g. “So, Therefore, Thus ใช้ เหมือนหรือต่างกันอย่างไร ครับ” [How are “so”, “therefore”, and “thus” different?]; “root yourself to the ground เเปลว่าอะไรครับ” [What does ‘root yourself to the ground’ mean?]), while language development is mostly about how people can improve their language skills outside of formal educational settings (e.g. “จำคำศัพท์ภาษาอังกฤษยังไง ให้ได้เยอะๆ คะ??” [How can I memorize a lot of vocabulary?]; “มีใครฟัง Podcast เพื่อฝึกภาษาบ้างงง มีอันไหนสนุกๆ แนะนำหรือเปล่าครับ” [Anyone using podcast to learn English, can you recommend anything fun?]).

Comparing applied linguistic research and societal concerns

To see if the focuses of the AL research meet societal needs, we need to compare the AL research, on the one hand, with the news articles and social media postings, on the other. There are three comparisons we can make. First, we can compare the educational level in the AL research articles and the news articles. To do this, the AL research articles were categorised into the educational levels identified in the news articles. Many of the AL research articles did not directly concern formal educational contexts, but 100 of the articles could be categorised. The percentages of the news and AL articles at the different educational levels are shown in Figure 8.

Second, we can compare the topics of the AL research articles and the news articles. To allow a direct comparison, the AL articles were re-categorised using the topic categories of the news articles. In this case, 97 of the research articles fitted with the topic categories of the news articles, and the comparative percentages are shown in Figure 9.

Third, to compare the topics of the AL research articles and the social media postings, again the AL research articles were re-categorised using the topic categories of the social media postings, resulting in 153 AL research articles re-categorised. The comparative percentages for these are shown in Figure 10.

From these comparisons, the first key finding is that the predominant contexts in the three data sets are different. The AL research focuses on tertiary education examining language use and language learning at universities; the news articles are far more concerned with language learning at schools; and the social media postings generally focus on individual language learning and use with no reference to formal education contexts.

We can also summarise the comparisons of the topics of the three data sources as shown in Table 2. The concerns in the three sources are clearly different. The only points of agreement are the use of technology in language learning in the AL research and the news articles, and the focus on learning outside class in the news articles and the social media postings. Table 2 also emphasises the extent to which the AL research focuses on issues directly related to the researchers’ work contexts.

Table 2 Comparison of predominant topics in the three data sources

Focus AL research News articles Social media
Learner language use Strategy use Error analysis Learner problems
Descriptions of English Genre analysis Academic discourse Grammar and vocabulary
How to teach Classroom activities Using technology Using technology
Teacher training Pre- and in-service training
Independent learning Learning outside class Learning outside class Self-development


From our analyses, we can draw four main conclusions:

  • There has been a recent large increase in the amount of Scopus-published Thai AL research, which bodes well for the Thai AL research community.
  • There is a less marked increase in the amount of Q1-published Thai AL research, suggesting a prioritisation of quantity of research over quality.
  • Much Thai AL research focuses on issues directly related to the researchers’ work contexts, such as learner language, classroom activities and academic discourse.
  • Several areas of societal concern are vastly under-represented in Thai AL research, notably, learning at the school level, learning outside of the formal education system, and teacher training.

We believe that these conclusions suggest directions for future AL research in Thailand. We should stress, however, that we believe the most effective research is that which the researchers are personally interested in and that imposing research topics on researchers is ineffective. We also believe that researchers should be free to disseminate their work however they want. Nevertheless, we would like to suggest three guidelines which researchers may wish to consider when deciding about research in the future:

  1. Researchers should aim to produce high-quality research publishable in Q1 journals. We acknowledge that not all research is suitable for Q1 publication and that publishing in Q1 journals requires a serious investment of time and effort. Nevertheless, Q1 research generally has a much greater impact and is more likely to be cited making the effort worthwhile. Aiming for Q1 publication can also help the AL research community in Thailand become more professional and more recognised internationally.
  2. In choosing topics for research, researchers should consider doing research outside of their own immediate contexts. While we acknowledge the developmental benefits of context-dependent action research and the practicality of working within one’s own context, there is a danger that the Thai AL research community may become inward-looking and produce little of value to wider society. It is also the case that much of the work within one’s own context is not publishable at the highest levels.
  3. In considering research topics outside of their immediate context, researchers could give serious consideration to conducting research either within school contexts, or focusing on self-development and independent non-formal learning, or looking at teacher training. In these cases, the research is more likely to address societal needs, and the AL research community is more likely to make beneficial contributions to Thai society.
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