The South African Centre for Digital Language Resources has resources and expertise

Published On: 11 October 2021|

At the recent Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Higher Education, Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) at North-West University (NWU), and Chairperson of USAf’s Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL), spoke on Computational Resources for the Implementation of the New Language Policy Framework for Higher Education.

Professor Khumalo (left) was the second of three speakers lined up to explore the broader topic: Resources for the Implementation of the Language Policy Framework, during one of the Colloquium’s sessions. Stellenbosch University had hosted this online event from 28 to 29 September, under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). The Colloquium, attended in the main, by vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts from all 26 public universities, was a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).

SADiLaR is one of the 13 research infrastructures of the Department of Science and Innovation’s South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap, with a broad mandate to develop all 11 official languages.

The hub at NWU, which focuses on developing text resources, is linked to various nodes throughout the country:

  • the University of Pretoria, which is focusing on the digitalisation part of SADiLaR’s work;
  • the University of South Africa, which is focusing on semantics and terminology;
  • the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment (ICELDA), a cohort of universities, which is developing language tools for teaching and learning;
  • the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is developing speech technologies; and
  • Stellenbosch University, the newest node, is developing child language research.

“SADiLaR can be used as one of the national infrastructures to address what we are dealing with here, which is finding the necessary resources required to implement the framework,” said Professor Khumalo.

SADiLaR has two main programmes. The first is the digitalisation programme, which straddles the second programme, digital humanities.

Effectively, SADiLaR creates, manages and distributes digital language resources, as well as applicable software, in all South Africa’s official languages, to stimulate and support research and development in the humanities and social sciences. And its resources are available for free.

“SADiLaR has a lot of resources,” said Khumalo. “If you go to our website, you can go to the resources page and check our resource index, check our student data repository, check the technologies that are available, and of course, the resource catalogue. There’s a dropdown menu and you can access many of our resources that sit in the portal.”

He said many universities are generating a lot of data. And some are developing technologies and need support on the protocols required to support these resources. SADiLaR can help.

He said SADiLaR could fund an audit of language resources, which should be the first step in implementing the new policy framework. “We must know what is being developed, at what level, at which university. When we have this comprehensive resource audit, we can then grow the strategy towards developing these resources that can effectively be accessed by the academy, and drive implementation of the framework,” said Professor Khumalo.

We cannot ignore the e-environment

Dr Daniel Adams (left), Chief Director of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), spoke on DSI-funded research infrastructures as strategic centres in supporting the New Language Policy Framework.

He spoke about the dynamic and fast-growing e-environment of social media and mobile apps. “The policy is a little bit quiet on these paradigms, and where the future is going in terms of these key enablers for the implementation of the language policy,” he said.

He said these drivers of change, and in particular the worldwide web and its enabling technology, have resulted in an increase in communication and computation capabilities, and produced devices that have changed the relationship between people and knowledge. This is the environment in which the policy will be taking shape.

There was a need to build services and spaces for new forms of teaching, research and learning. “And this has been brought to the fore by the outbreak of CoViD-19 where the system was forced to go into blended learning, for teaching and training; as well as the need for shifting resources to support this digital imperative,” he said.

Research infrastructure is about facilities, resources and services used by the research community to conduct research. It is not only about scientific equipment, but also about knowledge-based resources, collections, archives, and scientific data.

And research infrastructure is important because it plays a central role, and is also an integral part of the so-called knowledge triangle of education, research and innovation.
Research infrastructure has now become focused on network building, to build partnerships national and internationally.

He said this was the context in which the South African Infrastructure Roadmap, which Professor Khumalo had referred to, was developed, as a way of addressing the ad hoc and siloed approach of rolling out infrastructure.

The infrastructures on the roadmap are mostly multidisciplinary. And they are long term investments, of 10-to-15-year horizons, of both capital as well as operating costs, he said, “because we need the people and the supporting services to make sure that we have sustainable implementation of this infrastructure”.

Since the roadmap was developed in 2016, the department has implemented nine research infrastructures at an investment of close to R250m per annum. SADiLaR is one of them.

“They can be proud of themselves because they have the only chair in digital humanities in the country and are using that capability to really grow that field,” he said. An example of their impact is their development of CoViD terms in all the official languages because it allowed people to participate in conversations around CoViD.

SADiLaR has used its digital humanities programme to foster transdisciplinary collaboration, and its digitisation programme supports African languages. “And in my opinion, digitisation is going to be a key element in the implementation of the framework, in terms of making the languages more accessible,” he said.

Exploiting emerging technologies such as natural language processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be key to developing “this very complex environment in which we find ourselves in, in terms of multilingualism,” said Dr Daniels.

A collaborative implementation strategy is on the cards

Dr Thandi Lewin, Deputy Director-General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), was the first in the speaker line-up on Resourcing the Implementation of the Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions. She had specifically spoken on Strategies to Harness Funding for the Implementation of the Language Framework. She said the policy was important for the country, and the government planned a collaborative implementation strategy involving other departments besides the DHET. They needed a targeted strategy and were exploring funding options.

“We need to proactively explore fundraising opportunities within the sector, in order to support the effective implementation of this policy,” she said.

Visit SADiLaR’s website

All these deliberations had taken place during a breakaway session. While reporting back on this session in a subsequent plenary, Dr Antoinette van der Merwe, Senior Director for Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Stellenbosch University, who had chaired the breakaway session, said one of her key take-aways was the “amazing resources available to all universities on the SADiLaR website”.

The Colloquium was the first in a series of consultative meetings to be hosted by universities on the revised Language Policy for Higher Education. It paved the way for individual institutions to engage further on the matter, and for universities to craft or strengthen their own implementation strategies while contemplating the resources required to successfully implement multilingualism – within the context of broader transformation and decolonisation of South Africa’s higher education.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa