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I Am UWC: Prof Charlyn Dyers - forty years of language, education and the arts

I Am UWC: Prof Charlyn Dyers - forty years of language, education and the arts

After most of a lifetime spent making UWC great and helping South Africa’s teachers better educate non-mother-tongue learners, Prof Charlyn Dyers is retiring with a well-deserved sense of pride in a job well done.

Charlyn is one of several recently-retired University of the Western Cape (UWC) academics who started their relationship with UWC as students, continued as lecturers, and walked with UWC right up to retirement.

After completing her BA degree, an Honours degree in English and the Secondary Teacher’s Diploma, Charlyn completed her MSc degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in 1980 under the supervision of Prof Stephen Pit Corder. In March 2001, she received her doctorate in Linguistics from UWC, under the supervision of Prof David Gough, with co-supervision by Professors Stanley Ridge and Felix Banda.

Prof Charlyn Dyers began working at UWC in a permanent capacity in 1994, was promoted to Associate Professor in 2002, to Full Professor in 2015, and also served as Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 2005. She retired on 31 January 2017 as a full professor in the Department of Linguistics, ranked as a C1 researcher by the National Research Foundation.

The main focus of Charlyn’s research has been late-modern multilingualism, with particular focus on translocation and language, language attitudes and ideologies, and language policy.

Charlyn has collaborated successfully with leading international sociolinguists, including Prof Jan Blommaert of Tilburg University, and her UWC colleague, Prof Bassey Antia. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL), an executive member of the South African Applied Linguistics Association (SAALA), and a former board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

But if you ask her what she’s most proud of, it isn’t Kaaps in Fokus (SUNMedia, 2016) - the book she co-edited with Prof Frank Hendricks - or her earlier work, Drama (Oxford Resource Series for Teachers) – currently in its 10th reprint, and translated into Korean in 2006. Rather, it’s the six PhD and 19 MA graduates, including students from the Universities of Ghent and Antwerp, who have graduated under her supervision.

“I’m convinced my UWC students will make a huge impact and contribute to our society,” she says. “They are bright and vibrant and enthusiastic, and I’m really pleased with that.”

Charlyn Dyers: From the farm to the university - and beyond

Charlyn was born in Somerset Hospital, Cape Town, on 28 January 1952, the eldest daughter of Harold and Frances Wessels. She grew up among the Somerset West community, and on her grandfather Herman Engel’s farm, Sandy’s Glen, near the Moravian mission station of Elim.

In Somerset West, where her mother worked as a nursing sister and her father as a primary school principal, she attended Vergelegen Primary School and the Methodist Primary School before moving to Gordon High School, where she had the good fortune of being taught by some of UWC’s earliest graduates, including Prof Harold Herman.

She was inspired to become a lifelong educator, first as a secondary school teacher of English at Bellville South High School in 1974, then as a lecturer in English at the former Bellville Teacher Training College in 1977, and as a lecturer in English as a Foreign and Second Language in Edinburgh for 12 years.

Back in South Africa and at UWC, she served as Director of the English for Educational Development (EED) Programme, and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1999. She was also the Director of the Iilwimi Centre for Multilingualism and the Language Professions from 2001-2005, helping teachers cope with learners who speak languages other than English and Afrikaans - especially learners from the Eastern Cape.

“It was a struggle back then,” she recalls. “Our job was to teach teachers the basics of Xhosa so they would be better able to help children cope with the adjustment to a totally new language environment. Without it, it was difficult for children to cope, and this support was key to their academic success.”

Looking back, she says her contribution to multilingualism in the transitional years of this country is something she’s really proud of.

“Teachers appreciated the kind of input the University had in the community in such a direct way, and I’m glad we could be part of it all,” Charlyn remarks. “The reward from this experience is that I still have teachers thanking me for this.”

Acting Out: Multilingualism through the performing arts

An interesting aspect of Charlyn’s life, running alongside her academic achievements from the very beginning, is her active involvement in the world of theatre as an actress, director and playwright.

In South Africa she is perhaps best known for her moving portrayal in the early 1970s of the mother (Makiet) in the late Adam Small’s drama, Kanna Hy Kô Hystoe, a role she reprised at the very first Suidoosterfees in 2003.

Charlyn is an active member of the Kuils River Moravian Church and serves on its council - and believes in putting her artistic talents to use in service of the church.

In 2007, she wrote and directed the play Moeder Lena - the story of South Africa’s first indigenous preacher and teacher, the Hessequa woman, Vehettge Tikkuie - for the Moravian Church in South Africa’s celebration of its 270th anniversary. A professional production of the play followed at the Roots Festival at UWC in 2009, and the play has recently been published together with another one in a collection entitled Twee Merkwaardige Moraviese Vroue.

UWC and the arts both run deep in Charlyn’s family. Her brother, Trevor Wessels, is a retired high school principal and UWC alumnus, and her sister is the well-known evangelist and gospel singer, Phillipine. And Charlyn’s daughter, Frances, is a BA student at UWC.

When asked if she will pick up her love for the performing arts and start acting again, she expresses hesitation, but the enthusiasm in her eyes tells another story.

“It is expensive and time-consuming to stage a play at festivals - but it’s still early days, and we will just have to wait and see.”