NWU, Vaal Triangle Campus, News: UPSET - Overturning the established order of linguistic research

UPSET - Overturning the established order of linguistic research

If you thought the acronym UPSET refers to a feeling of sadness or a state of distress, think again! Researchers at the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal) is all but upset about the newly approved research focus area – UPSET (Understanding and Processing Language in Complex Settings). In 2010, UPSET was approved as the first-ever research Focus Area to be vested at the campus. The director of this brand new research entity is Prof Bertus van Rooy.

The addition of UPSET to the current North-West University (NWU) research entity scope is verification that the strategic commitment to broaden the NWU’s research impact – both nationally and internationally, is showing positive results. As a focus area, UPSET, conducts research in the broad field of linguistics or language studies. The specific approach in UPSET is to explore from a psycholinguistic angle how language is understood and processed in the two coherent sub-fields of linguistics, namely language practice (also called translation studies) and multilingualism (broadly based in the field of sociolinguistics). Ultimately, researchers in UPSET want to deepen our understanding of the interdependences of language and human cognition.

The researchers involved with UPSET are, clockwise: Me Mari-Leigh Pienaar, Me Fanny Lacroix, Prof Susan Coetzee-Van Rooy, Mr Goodfriday Mhlongo, Dr Haidee Kruger, Prof Jan-Louis Kruger, Prof Bertus van Rooy, Dr Gustav Butler, Dr Ia Esterhuizen, Dr Wena Coetzee, Me Sulene Pilon, Me Este Hefer, Me Melanie Law and Me Maristi Partridge. 

Eye-tracking as a window to cognition

One of the exciting developments in UPSET is the use of eye-tracking instruments as a window into the cognitive processes related to the understanding and processing of language in complex settings. Eye-tracking research in the domain of language and the mind is in its infancy in South Africa. Eye-tracking projects in UPSET range from investigations into the gaze patterns of people watching visual material (such as television programmes or films); studies of where people look when they watch visual material with subtitles; the examination of the gaze patterns of translators and editors at work; and analyses of the gaze patterns as a window on the comprehension of multilingual readers when they read comparable texts in the different languages.

The complex setting of language in South Africa

The complex setting in which language is used in South Africa provides UPSET with the ideal laboratory to conduct ground-breaking research with the potential to challenge established global theories. Traditional studies about language learning and use are often built upon the (hidden or overt) assumption that people are normally monolingual. Consequently, multilingualism comes to be regarded as a “problem”. This pre-supposition influences how researchers think about matters such as literacy development, for example. When one’s object of study is the multilingual mind and its advantages, many assumptions advocated in dominant theories of language learning and use are overturned. 

Research vision

UPSET’s vision is to systematically investigate how language is understood and processed in complex settings, specifically working in the domains of language practice and multilingualism. In this process researchers in UPSET hope to upset the established order of linguistic theories to reflect the realities of multilingual people learning and using languages in complex settings continuously. 


Published by Sipho Msolo on 28 January 2011.