Greeting the audience at a recent ‘Fellow in Focus’ discussion in the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Ideas Space, Professor Carson explained how the two scholars had met a few years previously as project partners in a European Union funded initiative on multilingualism.

Since that initial meeting, the two linguists have been working on a project, led by Professor Carson, looking at comparative perspectives on language policy in Ireland and South Africa, two societies in transition.

Professor Antia said he welcomed the opportunity to deepen this relationship through his fellowship at Trinity. He then led a fascinating discussion on the ways in which language is used and misused in everyday life, and outlined some key projects in his career in applied linguistics that had yielded real world impact.

Bassey Antia Edem and Lorna Carson in conversation

Translation and access to information

Speaking about his work as an applied linguist in Nigeria (a country home to 520 indigenous languages according to Ethnologue), Professor Antia illustrated the crossover between translation and “real world issues.”

He spoke about the work he has carried out in translating news bulletins in English on radio and TV into Nigerian languages, arguing that the poor-quality translations were exacerbating a divide in access to quality information. Capacity-building in translating, as he had been involved in, was important in bridging the information divide.

He said he is also concerned with “broadening” the pool of participation in politics in multilingual democracies, particularly where English is predominantly used in parliament. The visiting fellow said that language should not be a barrier for people to get involved in political participation, and described his work on developing ‘abstruse’ parliamentary terminology in African languages. 

Highlighting how linguistics can have a big impact in the area of health, he said his work here ranged from veterinary consultation, public health, messaging in pandemics, to regulatory pharmacy. In one particular project in which he became involved, he was shocked at the high rates of childhood deaths attributed to diarrhoea in Nigeria.

 “I couldn’t understand why in spite of the simplicity of the solution, we still had this huge number of deaths”. Working with paediatricians and practitioners of public health, he carried out text analysis on the information caregivers are typically given about how to manage childhood diarrhoea in the home.

“One of the things we found was that the messaging consistently focused on how to prepare the salt-sugar solutions (which was good) but in the process other important aspects of case management in the home were neglected,” said Professor Edem Antia, alluding to what might be causing diarrhoea in the first instance.  He said following their intervention, nursing bodies agreed to change their curriculum and process around case management. “We are not doctors but we’ve done something relevant to society.”

Education and multilingualism

Social justice and multilingualism in higher education have been the focus of much of Professor Antia’s work over the past 12-13 years, the linguist said. As a society in transition, South Africa provides a key example of why “the issue of multilingualism in education is an important one.”

Although the physical barriers to higher education have been removed post-apartheid, he highlighted how language can still pose an impediment. “When you have new demographics coming in, how equipped are they to have access to the knowledge on offer?”

“What we have been doing is to research, to develop, to use material produced in other languages to ensure that our students can also have access to the goods on offer.” Professor Antia is also the National Project Manager for a government initiative in South Africa around the implementation of a new National Language Policy Framework for universities.  

Decolonizing the curriculum

Professor Antia’s current project as part of his Trinity Long Room Hub fellowship sees him carrying out a deep analysis of the “reciprocal legitimation between power and knowledge.”

His project, ‘From understanding the mechanisms of colonial hegemony to decolonizing the curriculum: Insights from Apartheid-era school textbooks in South Africa’, draws on a number of areas in applied linguistics. Speaking at the Fellow in Focus discussion he said he was engaging in a “close reading” of apartheid-era textbooks used for teaching history in schools in South Africa with a view to identifying “traces of apartheid ideology embedded in the text”.

He argued that the “educational system transmits certain values, norms, beliefs that are supportive of whatever the prevailing orthodoxy is in society.”

“With this research I’m trying to find out what the hidden curriculum was like in these textbooks and how these textbooks legitimised the dominant ideology of the state.”

Alluding to the trust children place in their teachers, Professor Antia described the states’ use of textbooks “as a very subtle instrument to naturalise an oppressive ideology.”

From what started as a very powerful movement across university campuses, Professor Antia commented that “decolonization is in something of a crisis mode now.” With respect to that part of the crisis dealing with a thin empirical database to support the tropes of a colonial politics of knowledge production, he argued that Applied Linguists can offer “fine-grained” analyses of colonial-era texts in order to illustrate the scope of the colonial and decolonial projects.