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Language research underway in World Cup host country


Zuleika Henderson
23 June 2010
As thousands of soccer fans flock to South Africa to watch the World Cup, one researcher is investigating the ‘pride and prejudice’ of one of that country’s most controversial tourist attractions.

Southern Cross University PhD student Stephen Smith is researching tourist motivation and reaction to the 'Afrikaanse Taalmonument' (translated 'Afrikaans Language Monument'), a monument just outside Paarl, some fifty kilometres from Cape Town, built specifically to celebrate the Afrikaans language – the language traditionally associated with apartheid.

Mr Smith, who has just returned from three months in South Africa where he conducted observations, interviews and surveys with domestic and international visitors to the Monument, said the Taalmonument inspired a strong sense of pride for many South Africans, as well as generating a degree of debate.

“The Taalmonument is unique because it is the only monument in the world that was constructed as a totally symbolic, non-functional building purely to celebrate a language and nothing else,” said Mr Smith.

“It’s a calm and peaceful place where families often go simply to have picnics or admire the spectacular view, and where the number of international visitors has increased recently thanks at least in part to the World Cup.

“Many of the overseas visitors are really not aware of the significance of this tourist attraction in terms of its uniqueness or importance in the cultural and linguistic heritage of South Africa. In South Africa, language is an emotional and political issue—much more so than I had expected.

“I use the phrase ‘pride and prejudice’ to describe the many different reactions I received from people in regard to their perceptions of the Monument. The word ‘trots,’ meaning ‘pride’ or ‘proud’ was used continually by Afrikaans-speaking South Africans I interviewed, but despite this there is equally as much prejudice because to some it is still seen as a celebration of the ‘language of the oppressor’.

“In fact, if you look at the history of the Monument, the original intention was always more about celebrating the language itself rather than the politics of the Afrikaans-speaking people, although it might be argued that it was later ‘taken over’ as a symbol of Afrikaner identity and culture.

“Further controversy has been caused by criticism of the Afrikaans language itself - one recent review of the Monument by a British magazine described it as the ‘ugliest language in the world’ - but I think it is a very pretty language and one favoured by many for being the language which, with its use of imagery, subtleties and nuances, can best describe the unique South African environment and landscape and the personality of its people.”

Mr Smith, who speaks French and has studied Italian, has been studying for his PhD entitled Monumentalising Language – Experiencing Language Monuments, through Southern Cross University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management since 2008. Having completed the first part of his studies thanks to a scholarship offered through the School, he has just been offered an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship to continue his research.

Mr Smith said he hopes his work will extend the literature available on the tourism experience as well as helping to increase our understanding of languages under threat.

“At only 300-years-old, Afrikaans is the most modern spoken language in the world and is the second most widely spoken language in South Africa, yet it is a language facing an uncertain future given the prevalence of English and other languages in the country,” said Mr Smith.

“My research will have implications for other minority languages which I hope will provide some ideas of things to do and to avoid doing in similar situations.

“An important aspect of my research is also looking at what the experience of the visitor is from a broad sensory point of view – body language, what they look at, whether they touch the monument and so on - which will contribute to the body of research available on tourist behaviour analysis incorporating all the senses.”

Photo: Stephen Smith at the Taalmonument in South Africa (high resolution image available on request)