Prof Attie de Lange and Deputy Minister Buti Manamela shake hands after officially launching SADiLaR.

Government has established a new digital resource centre for all South Africa's official languages, opening up a number of possibilities for the creation of language-based applications in many fields, including health care.


The South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) is a platform that creates and manages digital resources and software supporting research and development in language technologies and related studies in all the 11 official languages.


It is a multi-partner distributed research infrastructure, comprising the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of South Africa, the University of Pretoria, the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment, and the NWU's Centre for Text Technology, and is hosted by North-West University at the Potchefstroom Campus.


SADiLAR is one of eight research infrastructures established through the Department of Science and Innovation under the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which is intended to provide research infrastructure across the public research system.


Speaking at the launch in Potchefstroom yesterday, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Buti Manamela, said research in the humanities and social sciences had undergone a global paradigm shift over the last two decades as information and communication technologies had advanced and access to digital resources had increased.


"This has given rise to the ever-expanding interdisciplinary domain of research and development referred to as digital humanities," he said, adding that SADiLaR was one of government's responses to the 4th industrial revolution.


Artificial intelligence, he said, was already calling into question many fundamental assumptions about the uniqueness of human communication, as the automation of speech and voice recognition opens up radically new options for dissociating languages from humans.


"SADiLaR will play a strategic role in empowering researchers to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the new era," he said.


One of the projects funded by SADiLaR focuses on children's language acquisition in all official languages. The outcome will be the availability of communicative development inventories (CDIs), which currently do not exist for the official languages.


CDIs are parent report instruments that ask parents or caregivers to report on a child's use of gestures, words and sentences. They can measure language development from eight to 30 months and are reliable and valid overall indicators of communicative development.


"This will play a significant role in aspects of speech pathology in the health sector, as well as in the development of contextual tools and instruments which could enable more effective interventions in early childhood development," said Mr Manamela.


In this project, Associate Professor and Co-Director of Child Language Africa, Heather Brookes, and a team consisting of speech-language therapists, audiologists, linguists, paediatricians, public health specialists and psychologists, are seeking to generate knowledge about young children's language development and difficulties, and use this to develop culturally appropriate tools for valid and reliable language assessment.


"If we can establish the trajectory of early language development in children and develop reliable and valid instruments for assessment, we can then identify children at risk in the very early stages of their development. Effective early interventions lead to better educational outcomes, increase life-chances and ultimately contribute to decreasing social inequality," she said.


According to Prof. Brookes, the impact of poverty and disease on maternal and child health in South Africa necessitates the discovery of valid ways to measure neurocognitive development for early intervention in the first few years of life.


So far, draft versions of CDIs have been developed for infants (from eight to 18 months) and toddlers (18 to 30 months) in Setswana, Xitsonga, Sesotho, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and South African English, and completed the first pilot studies of these tools in isiXhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and South African English in urban and rural contexts. The second main activity will be the validation of the CDIs in all the languages of South Africa.


Prof. Attie de Lange, Director of SADiLaR, said this centre would serve all tertiary institutions in the country, unlocking the full spectrum of resources to create a broader digitalised footprint of South African indigenous languages.


So far it has benefited over 1 000 students, and up to 90 researchers and developers have used resources and technologies made available through the infrastructure.

Prof Dan Kgwadi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of North West University, Deputy Minister Buti Manamela and Prof Attie de Lange view SADiLaR exhibitions at the launch