Axel Fleisch: There is potential in the isiNdebele language

Gauteng is South Africa’s smallest, yet most populated province. Its capital is the economic hub Johannesburg. Further to the north lies Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital with the seat of the South African government. A team with members from Helsinki, Gothenburg, Pretoria and Cape Town is currently carrying out research on language contact in the extremely multilingual and dynamic peri-urban areas close to these major South African cities.

The speakers of South African isiNdebele who live there strive for the development of their language. While isiNdebele is one of the country’s official languages, there is little by way of linguistic analysis. Translators in courtrooms, hospitals and the parliament, however, need to do their work. School teachers are supposed to educate the next generation of South Africans battling against the persisting socio-economic imbalances – a legacy of the apartheid system.

All of them know that South Africa needs skills and these can ultimately only be gained when people are taught in their own language.

African colleagues are working hard to promote their languages, to build the resources and raise the necessary awareness: Their fellow South African citizens need to recognize the full potential which lies in the use of the African languages for building a shared future. We support these processes with our language analysis of isiNdebele and our research into the sociolinguistic dynamics of that language.

Bringing academia to the society

Academic success is mainly defined by research output, and international visibility is increasingly important. However, especially in the humanities, we have additional responsibilities, some of which are relevant at a more local level. We are to safeguard cultural heritage, disseminate academic insight to the Finnish public, and strengthen national assets – the things that are unique about Finland. Aligning these two big requirements in everyday life is not always easy. Here is how I try to pursue this:

In Finland, cultural and language studies relating to the African continent form a small field. It is therefore very important to maintain close links to colleagues abroad. This goes beyond the kind of international networking meant to disseminate research results. Our international collaboration targets all layers of academic life including joint research activities with colleagues at the University of South Africa and the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town.

On the other hand, international collaboration needs to be firmly anchored in the local Finnish context, if it is meant to enrich the academic life at the University of Helsinki. In order to achieve this, I am engaged in the Helsinki Area & Language Studies (HALS) research community. HALS wants to be an inclusive support structure for students and researchers at all levels to promote language studies that are culturally and historically grounded. Therefore, we organize seminars with scholars from abroad in order to push for theoretical advances in areas such as language ecology, ethnolinguistics and language contact. We arrange joint field trips to Asia, Africa and Europe, and develop strategies to secure funding for this kind of work in order to contribute to the maintenance of linguistic and cultural diversity.

In 2013, the University of Helsinki began to structure doctoral training into specific programmes. I am a board member of HELSLANG – the doctoral programme for language studies at the Faculty of Arts – another way of trying to promote high quality research which is, after all, often carried out by PhD students! The range of strategies for international visibility and outreach is completed by NJAS – The Nordic Journal of African Studies, in close collaboration with the Nordic Africa Network, hosted by the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala.