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Unisa linguist wins big at international conference

Unisa’s Linguistics and Modern Languages Department received high recognition and praise at the 7th Annual International Conference for Language, Literature and Linguistics (L3). This is thanks to Napjadi Eugene Letsoalo, who received the Best Student Paper award at the conference which was held in Singapore from 25 to 26 June 2018.

Beating out students from Singapore, the USA, UK, China, Japan, UAE, Indonesia, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Hong Kong, Spain, Sweden, India and Sri Lanka, Letsoalo said even though he was nervous, he was happy that he could proudly represent his department, the College of Human Sciences and Unisa at such an esteemed international level.

The conference, he explained, examined various issues and factors that intervene at the interface of language and literature, technology and the digital humanities, not least, the diverse cultural context(s) in which all of these are situated. The conference attracts scholars from all over the world.

‘Presenting for the first time at an international stage in a foreign country was terrifying. I was not sure if delegates from foreign countries would be interested in my research let alone relate to what my presentation was about, but surprisingly I overcame the fear and everyone in the conference room enjoyed my presentation and found it interesting with new insights. The question session after the presentation was phenomenal and full of passionate questions.’

Letsoalo’s paper was based on the development of political terminology for South Africa’s indigenous languages. It critiques the traditional and common method of developing terminologies, then proposes an alternative model and presents sample terms developed using the model.

‘Winning this award means a lot to me. Having won the young linguist awards last year (2017) at the Conference of the Language Associations of Southern Africa, it gives me confidence to continue with research. In a space of 12 months, I was recognised at a Southern African conference held in South Africa and an International conference held in a foreign country. I aspire to be the best in my field, these two awards means that I am on the right path, and if I continue in this pace I will one day be one of the best linguists.’

Aside from the win being a personal achievement, Letsoalo speaks on what it means for Unisa, as the university aims to become a leading centre of African knowledge production and solutions for African problems.

‘This recognition at an international stage means that the Department of Linguistics at Unisa is one of the change agents. Its contribution in the field doesn’t go unnoticed. This contribution aligns with the aim of the institution of being the centre of African knowledge production. One of the arguments in the paper is that during the development of terminologies, our indigenous cultures should be seen as the source of terminology creation not the target where the first resort is to translate terminologies from European languages into our languages.’

As part of his win, his prize package includes recognition on the L3-conference website, one-year free membership of the Global Science and Technology Forum, publication in the conference proceedings and a certificate.

Speaking on why the field of linguistics is important, Letsoalo says language is one of the most important tools at the disposal of people. Through language, people have been able to communicate important messages that lead to the transformation of the universe.

‘It is because of language that we are able to understand almost everything happening around us. But we have also seen that language barriers are very dangerous to any society hence we currently have concepts such as decolonisation and Africanisation. All these debates centre around language. So linguistics helps us to understand more about this tool we use in our everyday lives yet we take for granted.’

He said that linguistics is a science. ‘It challenges me to find solutions to societal problem without many and expensive resources.  It pushes me beyond my reach. Just by listening to normal everyday conversations I am able to detect individual’s language problems that may lead to societal problems. And it is also through how people use language that I am able to think of possible solutions.’

Letsoalo, whose research interest are sociolinguistics, phonology and morphology, said he specialises in syntax, phonology and phonetics. He is currently enrolled for a PhD in Linguistics that looks at the syntax of Sepedi. He conducts research that focuses on the development of South Africa’s indigenous languages. His newly found interests include language used by young people in the streets which led him to conduct research about SePitori, a popular multilingual register in Pretoria. He is also working on a research project that looks at the misconceptions on youth language or street language in Pretoria.

‘The famous Nelson Mandela quotes goes, ‘if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’; the university aims to find solutions for African problems, what a better way to focus on the youth since they are the future of the continent. And the most effective way to get to them is through their language. If decision makers are aware of the language of the youth, then we are one step closer to solving societal problems.

He added: ‘I am also currently working on a research project that looks at language usage in the construction of gender and culture. Language plays a pivotal role in constructing and shaping reality to produce meanings and to understand people’s culture. Thus, societal expectations are instilled in members of a society through language as part of their socialisation process. The upbringing and socialisation of children determine their behaviour as they grow up, and language is used to reinforce the expectation that a certain gender plays a dominant role.’

Addressing the perception that the study of languages and linguistics is for certain groups of people and not for young black people, Letsoalo said: ‘Most people think that language is about formal usage and the prescription of rule on how to learn languages or studying the old structures of language. But that is actually not the case. There are different fields of linguistics, and one of the interesting fields is sociolinguistics where we learn about language and society; how the society that you come from has shaped the way you speak and how your language can shape your society.

The field of linguistics at Unisa has a big role to play and have embarked on their journey with young colleagues not only focused on teaching and learning but also in research. ‘With South Africa being a multilingual country is it of paramount importance that its languages be researched in order to produce indigenous knowledge of our cultures because language and culture are closely related. Once the knowledge is produced them we can find solutions for our social problems.’

* By Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester 

Publish date: 2018/09/13