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9 June 2021
Language And You: An Everyman's Guide To The Joys Of Linguistics

Linguistics is one of the most misunderstood fields of academic study – yet it has a lot to tell us about ourselves, and the challenges we face every day. That’s why University of the Western Cape linguist Humphrey Kapau has made it his mission to bring linguistics to everyone with his Language & You column.

“Society is suffering from language malnutrition,” he says. “Most people aren’t linguists – so most individuals, really, think that those who study linguistics only study how to speak good grammar … that we’re all about verbs and nouns and dictionaries, and the like. Such a perception is far from the truth about what linguists actually do. Truth is, linguists also concern themselves with other language issues such as how language is wired in our brains (neurolinguistics), the psychological foundations of language (psycholinguistics), language’s relationship with society (sociolinguistics) – to name but a few. And if we as linguists don't share that beyond journals and lecture rooms, we starve the common man in society of valuable information useful to his or her daily life, especially on language issues that affect him.”

Humphrey is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at the University of Zambia. And as a columnist for The Mast, one of Zambia’s foremost independent news sources, he’s turning jargon into joyful entertainment.

“Knowledge is not truly knowledge until it can be simplified for – and understood by – non-experts,” he notes. “We cannot continue starving the public of credible insights on the many issues affecting society by limiting our knowledge to jargon shared in lecture rooms and academic journals. We need to reach out to the public as well so that they directly benefit from us and see our relevance.”

Language & You has drawn attention – and praise – from readers from all over the world, from Algeria to China to Zaire, and from all walks of life. Linguists, of course, and academics of all stripes, engineers and policy makers, doctors and teachers, from rural villages to major metropoles talk about the column.

The column has covered topics like the benefits of being multilingual (for countries as well as people), recovery patterns of language in people who have had a stroke, what a mother tongue really means (a lot of things, really) , the secret language of twin babies (or baby twins, if you prefer), preschool language disorders and how to handle them as parents (oh yes, the language disorders in those little ones),  and whether you can learn languages while you sleep (find out for yourself) or use linguistics to solve crime (forensic linguistics - it’s a thing).

In short, like language itself, the column is  for everyone.

“It’s all about language, in terms of facts and myths about it,” Humphrey notes. “I love being able to explore the complexities of language through thought-provoking topics like “does handedness reflect one’s areas of linguistic intelligence?” In many ways, such topics are more useful to the current needs of society than those that just focus on communication.  Even someone selling bananas at the market would find such topics useful and look forward to seeing their child pursue linguistics at tertiary level.”

Mixing Letters: A Lifelong Linguistic Journey

Humphrey M. Kapau is the fifth born from a family of six (three males, three females). He was born at a missionary hospital called Mangango in a remote part of western Zambia. He grew up and was schooled there, and later became the first pupil from his village to qualify for tertiary education at the University of Zambia (UNZA). His academic journey since then has been a labour of love.

“I studied linguistics because I wanted to document my mother tongue Lozi – a Bantu language spoken in western Zambia and very similar to Sotho and Tswana,” he explains. “I felt I had a duty to preserve and know the language of my ancestors. Also, coming from a poor family in western Zambia, mum once told me that if I mastered the art of mixing letters of the alphabet to make different words, I would go far and see the world beyond the hills of our village. And she was right - and what an exciting journey it’s been!”

The journey is far from over. There are so many interesting questions linguistics allows us to pose, so many potential problems to solve, that he’s not going to be running out of column topics anytime soon. And at the same time, he’s not turning his back on academics - he’s already working on his Chemical Phonology Model (CPM), a model to language that simplifies speech sounds by relating them to elements of the periodic table in chemistry – a model that will redefine the frontiers of applied linguistics.

“My dream as an academician is to be remembered for making a significant contribution to the field of linguistics, especially when it comes to bringing language issues closer to the common man, in simplified language,” he says. “Linguistics is a living field - and a life lived with linguistics can be very rewarding.”

Want to know more? Check out Language & You for yourself - and learn to love language (and its many mysteries) again.