In 1975, John Hartmann, a young professor of Thai language and culture at NIU, received his first research grant to conduct linguistic fieldwork in, of all places, Iowa.
Turns out, that’s where large numbers of Lao refugees had been air-lifted following the Vietnam War.
Hartmann soon compiled a dictionary of Tai Dam, a minority language with origins in northwest Vietnam.
With leftover grant money, he hired a graduate student to write a computer program converting the alpha-numeric field data into printable Tai Dam script, which previously could only be reproduced by hand with Chinese brush and ink.
It wasn’t long before the National Security Agency, which was trying to develop its own computer-aided instruction programs, contacted the young researchers, asking them to produce a much-needed font for standard Thai — an historic first.
So it was that the seeds of Hartmann’s academic career — one that has taken him across the globe and deep into the languages of Southeast Asia — were sown in the Midwest. The Tai Dam project demonstrated the first glimpse of Hartmann’s sweeping vision of language learning and technology, setting him on a path-breaking course. It also initiated a career-long friendship and partnership.
The graduate student, George Henry, is now NIU’s assistant computer science chair. Hartmann, along with Henry and his wife, Patricia, a foreign languages professor, went on to create SEAsite, a worldwide online resource for Southeast Asian languages and cultures. All three are faculty associates of NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Over the years, Hartmann and his many collaborators have received more than $3.3 million in funding — from the likes of the National Science Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, Thai government and U.S. Department of Education — to create online instructional tools benefitting students and teachers around the globe.
Hartmann’s scholarship includes 80 professional papers and 40 published articles. He speaks five languages, sits on editorial boards for academic journals published in Thailand and has served on numerous thesis and dissertation committees, including for Thai students at U.S. and Thai universities.
“Professor Hartmann is a leading figure in the field of Thai Studies,” says Professor Boike Rehbein of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. “His name has to be included in any list comprising the founding fathers of Tai linguistics.”
Hartmann also contributes scholarship on other Southeast Asia cultures, and his work frequently crosses disciplines. In recent years, he and NIU geographers were the first scholars to apply GIS mapping to the study of place names in Thailand and southern China.
Named a Presidential Teaching Professor in 2006, Hartmann’s commitment to students, who are often key collaborators, also is legendary.
“In his research and teaching, John has never been afraid to think outside of the box,” says Katharina Barbe, foreign languages and literatures chair. “Nor has he ever been afraid to take risks by helping others.”
Hartmann regularly teaches a heavy load of courses, ranging from beginning Thai to graduate-level studies. And he has been known to help newly minted graduates find jobs — including one who now works for NASA and another who fled Laos as a child and now serves as executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Lao Studies, which Hartmann helped found.
That many former students are now peers is among Hartmann’s greatest accomplishments.
“Countless scholars of my generation have been nourished by his unbounded generosity,” says Professor Theodora Bofman of Northeastern Illinois University. “John Hartmann is the very heartbeat of Thai scholarship in the United States and abroad.”