Resolutions of the first Transformation in Linguistics Summit 2016

Transformation in Linguistics Summit
January 2016

Draft Resolutions


In January 2016 SAALA and LSSA (now SALALS) convened a summit of representatives from linguistically oriented departments at South African universities to discuss transformation in linguistics. This document is both a record of the deliberations at that meeting and a plan for future work.

The linguistic disciplines are articulated within a Southern African context characterized by rich linguistic diversity. However this diversity exists within spaces intersected by complex linguistic power relations, English hegemony, prescriptive linguistic attitudes, social and economic exclusion, identity and aspirations among many others. Some of these issues have been highlighted by more inclusive student demographics, by popular movements (both within higher education and in society more broadly), calls for rethinking the role of language in HE and calls for decolonizing HE. While South African institutions of Higher Education have been transforming during the past 21 years of democracy (and before), recent political developments have brought many of these issues to the fore and have contested narratives of transformation, inclusivity and change. Equally, there may be the possibility of threats to the transformational project, both from reactionary special-interest groups on left and right as well as from the imperative of the state to cater to the needs of economic development. Against this backdrop, it is appropriate for Linguists to proactively articulate the role and relevance of linguistics and the linguistic sub-disciplines within a transforming South Africa.


The aim of the transformation summit is to bring about change in linguistics as a discipline[1] in Southern Africa. Transformation is essential in terms of teaching in the language programmes offered by Southern African universities at the undergraduate and the postgraduate level, and in research and knowledge production.

Linguistics offerings have often been taught in English, and are frequently dominated by exemplification in English. We believe that transformation should embrace the diversity of languages within our multilingual South African landscape, demonstrating the relevance of this discipline to local languages. The focus of linguistics as practised in our universities should also reflect the contribution of African[2]  and Southern African languages, theorists and research, in order to relate better to the culture, heritage and languages of students who study at our universities, while acknowledging insights from Anglo and European perspectives.

We recognise that:

  • The need for authentic transformation is urgent and pervasive.
  • Students experience higher education as “alienating, disempowering with pervasive racism”.
  • Academic staff are under immense pressure to perform: the academic work space is characterized by anxiety, tension and competing pressures to produce research, undertake community engagement and professional engagement, and are often inundated by overly large classes etc. Within these contexts, academic staff often feel a loss of agency over the transformation process.
  • Issues of transformation strike at complex intersections of identities, language and self interest and we, as linguists, need to develop reflexivity and move beyond defensive and self-congratulatory postures that may inhibit transformation.
  • Transformation must often balance complex tensions (e.g. between Africanization and Globalization) and that the optimal solutions to these tensions may be different in different departmental contexts.
  • Our departments should be welcoming and inclusive spaces for all staff, especially those from previously disadvantaged groups, so that staff can achieve their full potential.
  • There are power dynamics within departments that may inhibit transformation; we should not cede agency but maintain dialogue and drive the process pro-actively.
  • We are accountable to our society and our Societies as professionals.

Transformation is not:

  • essentialist
  • vanguardist
  • parochial
  • insular.

Transformation includes the following aspects:

  • Embracing the diversity of languages in our linguistic landscape.
  • Transformation is a process and a way of being in the world, and not an end point.
  • Transformation must be a contextual response to local needs and conditions including the nature of the discipline and departmental cultures.
  • Transformation must include as a key feature the promotion of a sense of agency on the part of staff and students.
  • Transformation has been appropriated as an institutional discourse and can be used to disempower individuals. Academics must take autonomous, agentive roles in transformation, especially with respect to curriculum and research.
  • Transformation promotes non-colonial, non-appropriationist ways of knowing and being in the world.
  • Transformation requires a deep appreciation the value of multiple voices, of pluralism and diversity, and engages with the implications of this fact on every level of the academic project.
  • Transformation includes a willingness to articulate diversity in its own terms without framing it within hegemonic and colonial narratives (within the identities of the nation, within the student body, within the research community, within the global community of linguists.)
  • Transformation includes ways of acknowledging students’ linguistic repertoires.
  • Transformation actively promotes southern partnerships and southern ways of knowing, drawing on northern ways of knowing and northern partnerships where these enhance our understanding of our context.
  • Accepting diversity in terms of ways of being, not limited to language or race, but including issues of gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, economic status, nationality and so on.


  • Transformation goes beyond demographic representation and a narrow conception of curriculum as `course content’.
  • We see curriculum as broadly construed to encompass the totality of structured learning experiences of a student, including:
    • modes of interaction and learning
    • philosophies of teaching and learning
    • assessment criteria and practices
    • the selection of theory and analytical paradigms
    • outcomes, intended or not
    • the object of study and the language of exemplification
    • access and institutional culture.
  • A transformed curriculum is not a threat to or at odds with any particular linguistic sub-discipline: all forms of linguistics, language teaching and language practice can be carried out in ways that are transformative.
  • Transformed curricula equip students to explore and analyse the languages around them.
  • Curricula are replete with political choices at every level about what to include, what to exclude, how to undertake and assess the teaching and learning process. In addition, curricula are aligned with particular goals and communities of professional practice. Every one of these choices presents an opportunity for transformation.
  • Transformation is not only a process of curricular change but must also include the willingness and ability of academics to explicitly articulate their curricular choices and how these further transformation. These articulations must become part of the teaching and learning process.
  • Pedagogy is student-centred, without being shaped around assumptions of homogeneity in the student body.
  • Transformed practice is mindful of the value systems implicated via the selection and omission of theory, content and skills.
  • A transformed curriculum balances local needs and identities with the requirements of internationalisation.
  • Students must also be exposed to scholarship which is relevant to their own lived experience, which equips them to be relevant and knowledgeable language practitioners in their home context, which validates ideas and identities without constant recourse to the global north.
  • Transformed curricula avoid the privileging of hegemonic languages as the sole objects of study and display a willingness to study and research indigenous languages.
  • Students must be empowered to be active agents in their own learning, to take ownership of theory, to theorise and to produce new knowledge.
  • We should identify and mentor students with potential to further transformation of the academy demographically.
  • We should create an enabling departmental culture which is not alienating but which provides a nurturing environment for transformation.
  • Transformed curricula encourage the participation of a diverse student body in the co-production of knowledge, thus inducting them into the academic community of practice.

The Role of Language and Linguistics Societies in Southern Africa

In furthering transformation, the societies will strive to:

  • Build networks and relationships with associations and institutions across Southern Africa and the continent
  • Collaborate and build more links between scholarly societies in the region
  • Facilitate sharing of departmental outlines of our curricula, with the aim of promoting articulation between departments, including student transfer (to be put on society websites). By being aware of other departments’ offerings, we gain insight into transformational solutions.

Research and Knowledge production

  • Research and the production of knowledge is at the core of what we do and should reflect our context
  • The theoretical emphasis in our writing and our selection of research for use in teaching and supervision often serves to privilege the global north, in particular the English-speaking research community, to the detriment of the global south and our own languages. This is reflected in the local journals, our joint conferences and the content of our courses.

We can valorise southern work by:

  • citing it in our research
  • including it in course reading lists, to ensure greater representivity
  • drawing attention to it and its applicability beyond the continent (in class, in publications, at conferences)
  • being mindful of not positioning southern work and our work in particular as parochial, inferior or as merely a response to a northern contribution
  • making the effort to seek out and engage with African research for a diversity of sources
  • ensuring representivity at conferences and in journals – in terms of language of study, locale of research, keynote speakers and the like
  • training students to see value in contributing as knowledge producers to the southern African research project and intellectual community.

Therefore we undertake to:

  • Meet again – at least annually – to assess progress and to collate feedback
  • Disseminate these discussions and broaden discussion to others by, for instance, feeding back to our departments, publishing this document online, to mailing lists of departments and societies, holding meetings with cognate departments and relevant stakeholders, surveying students
  • Put transformation on the agendas of our departments, including at least one meeting annually
  • Organise a session at the annual joint conference to report back to members about these discussions and to involve more voices
  • Create contexts for collaboration and support between our PG students e.g. online portal, Facebook page, list of PhD students and topics on societies’ websites
  • Promote local research and researchers
  • Create some form of accountability that gives departments and individuals agency in making transformation happen
  • Collaborate within and across departments, between Societies, and across the region to further transformation
  • Include transformation and highlight our transformed curricula and outcomes explicitly in our course outlines
  • Create a mailing list of interested parties to continue this conversation after and between meetings.


“The Transformation of South African Higher Education: Concept paper prepared for the second national Higher Education Transformation Summit, 2015”. The Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation in South African Public Universities, September 2015

[1] We use the term linguistics inclusively to refer to the full range of linguistically oriented disciplines, including applied linguistics, general linguistics, language practice and all related areas.

[2] We use African to refer to geo-political area and all its people, not as a term of racial classification.