About Us

Understanding and Processing Language in Complex Settings, or UPSET in short, is a research focus area at the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University that investigates how humans use language in the complex, multilingual setting of South Africa. We do not shy away from unusual forms of language, or unusual users, and certainly do not restrict ourselves to any mythical, and probably non-existent, native speaker in some fictitious homogenous speech community, whose language is unaffected by such supposedly irrelevant factors such as being human or living in reality.

Language practice (translation, editing, subtitling, interpreting and even more) is one of the complex settings in which we work. We want to know how texts travel from one environment and in one code to another, while making sense (or not), and how these various texts that are transmitted enable people to participate in society and academia with greater ease.

We embrace the multilingual nature of South African society, and assume that most societies are multilingual. Therefore, any applied linguistic investigation has to be embedded in the authentic context of the linguistic reality in which we live. Our research on language acquisition, maintenance, policy, teaching, reading and writing and academic literacy is embedded in the multilingual context in which we live.

South Africa provides an excellent laboratory of language contact settings in which indigenous and colonial languages come into contact, and influence one another. We investigate the linguistic consequences of ongoing language change, especially looking at English and Afrikaans as they formed and changed in the past two centuries in South Africa. We do this by collecting corpora and interpreting the data from usage-based perspectives, as part of the ongoing development of a framework we call “Constrained Language”, which looks at linguistic, individual-psycholinguistic and social constraints that shape linguistic form.

Research in UPSET is organised in three sub-programmes, and within these subprogrammes, in various research projects. The subprogramme Applied Linguistics is led by Gustav Butler, and focuses on two themes, multilingualism and academic literacy. The subprogramme Language Practice is led by Ella Wehrmeyer, and focuses translation, editing, subtitling and interpreting. The sub-programme Linguistics is led by Johanita Kirsten, and mainly adopts a corpus linguistic approach to the study of Afrikaans and native and non-native varieties of English, from usage-based perspectives. The three sub-programmes share methodologies through the use of eye-tracking and corpora, while there is cross-pollination in the ways that solutions to research problems in the one domain are developed with methodologies and perspectives that are drawn from another domain.

The subprogramme Applied Linguistics focusses on the multilingual settings in South Africa, and explores the implications thereof for the choice of languages and the challenges that ordinary language users have to face in their daily lives, including the part of their lives spent as students at universities.

In the multilingualism project, the choice between languages in different domains is investigated, together with changes over time in these choices. The languages include the official languages of South African, but also the languages brought by immigrants to South Africa and languages such as Fanagolo that are associated with specific domains. In the academic literacy projects, the academic reading and writing skills of students, as well as appropriate methods to test these skills are investigated.

The subprogramme Language Practice investigates the processes and products that result from the activities of language practitioners. The product data include corpora of translated and untranslated texts, edited and unedited texts, as well as sign-language and court interpreting. Process data, often collected by means of eye-tracking and/or EEG, allow access to how viewers watch subtitles, people read translations, or translators and editors go about their tasks of translating and editing. Researchers aim to develop a deeper understanding of how these processes work, and what the properties of the products are from the perspective of end users. Projects in language practice, which include a focus on interpreting and subtitling aim to offer guidelines for improved training and practices, beside descriptive and theoretical goals.

In the subprogramme Linguistics, we focus on real language data drawn from a range of settings: ordinary writing and speech, corpora of historical writing, while we also collaborate with researchers in language practice on translated and edited texts, in comparison to untranslated and unedited texts. We develop grammatical descriptions of contemporary Afrikaans and English, and also trace the historical development of these languages, while at the same time refining linguistic-theoretical constructs within a broadly functional/usage-based approach. The Constrained Language project conducts comparative linguistic research on written, spoken, translated and edited language in order to develop models of language structure and language use that account for the properties of language across such a range of contexts.