Why universities need to start sharing language resources

Published On: 7 December 2022|

Even though universities thrive on competition, they need to stop competing in every single innovation. If, say Rhodes University is doing something about developing isiXhosa, and so are Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town, they need to share these resources. “Let us unlock a new model that is going to work for all universities,” said Professor Langa Khumalo.

Khumalo, who is the Executive Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) at North-West University (NWU), and the outgoing chairperson of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL), was speaking at the recent Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium at the University of Pretoria (UP).

The session in which he made these comments was about defining the range of resources and strategies needed to enable the implementation of the language policy framework. The policy aims to uplift marginalised African languages in South Africa’s public higher education institutions and is in the process of being implemented.

Dr Kea Seshoka, Director of the Language Directorate at North-West University, chaired the discussion, which largely took the form of a Q&A.

Who owns the copyright of universities’ language resources

Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of Humanities at Stellenbosch University, asked about copyright. SADiLaR is conducting an audit of the language resources at South Africa’s public universities, commissioned by USAf, and he wanted to know whether the materials SADiLaR is identifying are open source or if the institutions hold the copyright.

Professor Monwabisi Ralarala (left), Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), said the question should be directed across universities, and not only to SADiLaR. Institutions were working on developing resources but “we don’t seem to consolidate and share the work so that we can push the implementation agenda to a higher level”, he said.

This was counterproductive, he said, and suggested SADiLaR guide the sector in terms of the strategy required and ask specific universities to present their case studies, which everyone could learn from.

Mr Juan Steyn (right), Operations Director at SADiLaR, said a university owned the Intellectual Property (IP) of what it generated. He said institutions viewed “this terminology, this dictionary, this app, as ours. It cost money to develop, we don’t want to just give it away”. But Steyn said it needed to be viewed in terms of gain theory: “If everybody contributes, everybody will gain”.

Steyn said even if a university’s intellectual property (IP) policy is licensed under Creative Commons that allows people to reuse and build on it, which is how NWU had recently revised its IP, “there are ways to still show this is something that was developed by North-West University or by UP, but it is shared — it’s open.

“We need to change our mindset around open access,” he said.

The role of SADiLaR

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Dean of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the incoming CoPAL Chairperson as from 2023, asked about SADiLaR: its mandate, what resources it has that are available to be shared with all universities, and how institutions are benefiting from its work.

Professor Khumalo (right) said SADiLaR’s broad mandate is to identify, develop or share digital language resources for the development and use of African languages in the academy, and to develop technologies in other sectors. It has two programmes:

  • digitisation, which is about Natural Language Processing (NLP) and the development of Human Language Technologies (HLT) for African languages; and
  • digital humanities, which is about identifying and training people in the humanities and social sciences to develop technologies for use in the development of African languages.

They now needed to look at how they could use SADiLaR’s infrastructure to enable the implementation of this policy.

When it came to identifying resources as part of its on-going audit of institutional institutions, SADiLaR had to consider what Language X, for example, needed, to function as a language. This included resources such as orthographies and multimodal lexicons, linked to technological tools such as spelling checkers, grammar checkers, and speech-to-text technologies for it to be used in the context of teaching and learning. “We need to think how to harness this whole gamut of resources,” said Khumalo.

Steyn said SADiLaR could look after certain resources in the sector to make sure people knew about them in order to be able to access them. He said SADiLaR “plays the role of a non-competing aggregator, so we don’t take copyright ownership of things that are hosted with us, but we can take care of things that are there”.

Other suggested strategies

Those delegates who were attending the colloquium in person came up with ideas of how universities could help implement the language policy framework. Seshoka hailed their suggestions for being practical, not just theoretical, and said delegates now needed to “go back to the drawing board and implement the strategies”, which included:

  • Regional collaboration as CoPAL has previously suggested;
  • Inter-regional collaborations, with the consideration of what is the potential red tape that could prevent universities working together and creating a joint resource;
  • Endorsement, by universities’ senior management, of collaborations and resources sharing in the same way USAf had endorsed SADiLaR’s audit of universities;
  • Using YouTube to share resources by captioning videos in different languages so that a student studying at an institution in one province could watch a lecture in a different one;
  • Emphasising human capacity development. One university might have translators and technological experts, but it needed to be able to support another institution that did not have those resources;
  • Creating a structure within the office of the vice -chancellor with representation from Council, to report on the progress of the implementation;
  • Establishing language centres across universities. A portion of the budget for the allocation of resources to universities should be given to language centres whose activities would be designed to drive the language development agenda;
  • Rethinking and overcoming the misperception that anything to do with languages at universities should be executed in the humanities; this affects students in all disciplines;
  • Continuing the discussion with non-linguistics colleagues because other academics also have a wealth of knowledge and can play a big role in developing these languages;
  • Finding ways of involving and mobilising students;
  • Recognising that students who speak certain languages such as Setswana or Xitsonga do not stay in specific regions and so some universities have large numbers of students they cannot support because they don’t have the manpower and the capacity to do so, unlike their fellow universities;
  • Capacitating language managers, because the position requires people who understand its complexities, which range from understanding finances and technological advances, to the ability to liaise with academic departments in executing the mandate;
  • Establishing a language directors’ forum to focus on the management of languages; and
  • Establishing structures that create language awareness for all people on campuses, from the executive to the cleaners, so that every faculty, school and departmental meeting has an item about language upliftment, which will ultimately inform the institution’s annual report to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Incentives for sharing resources

Dr Phethiwe Matutu (right), the CEO of USAf, picked up on the concept of mobilising resources through a shared platform in her closing remarks: “If we talk about sharing platforms, what do we mean? What scale are we looking at? What can be shared at a national level? What can be shared at a provincial level? And if we are thinking along the lines of collaboration, there needs to be incentives and rewards”.

She said institutions such as USAf and DHET need to stop thinking in terms of individual institutions and start to think at a sectoral level. If the higher education institutions had the resources, “how do we create incentives and enablers for these resources to be properly mobilised for the greater good of the country?” she asked.

An example of successful sharing of resources in the higher education landscape included one in the field of nanotechnology, where UWC had worked with the University of Johannesburg and University of Zululand, mobilised by incentives such as funds provided by the Department of Science and Innovation.

The USAf CEO said sharing resources “requires us to think broadly about where we want certain things to be located and why. And then we need to start to look for funding, whether it’s local or international funding,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.