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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Research > Foundation Phase Literacy in African Languages

Len Lanham’s legacy: The literacy vs linguistics connection (Mark de Vos)

Date Released: Wed, 18 June 2014 12:25 +0200


When Prof. Len Lanham died in 1997, he left behind him an enduring legacy to thesis that one person really can make a difference.  A gifted polymath and linguist, he was a talented phonologist --he wrote “Comparative Nguni Phonology” (1960) -- although he is perhaps better known for the development of the Molteno Project/Institute and  “Breakthrough to Literacy” a grounded programme for literacy in African languages.  Breakthrough was “grounded” in the sense that it was a literacy programme grounded in linguistic description and empirical facts of African languages.  It is no coincidence that Prof. Lanham was (primarily) a phonologist and that Breakthrough is phonically grounded.  What made Prof. Lanham somewhat different to other gifted academics is that he was able to cross over disciplinary lines.  I do not mean this to mean that he merely had eclectic and unintegrated interests but rather that he was able to link together general, theoretical and applied views in coherent ways.  This is very different to modern debates which position applied linguistics as a separate discipline in a Kuhnian sense from general or theoretical linguistics.   I’d like to argue that taking his legacy forward should be located within a disciplinary space created by (a) theoretical grounding in language description (b) a focus on African languages as well as English and (c) literacy studies. 

Unfortunately, it is my view, that this type of research is relatively uncommon in South Africa.  De Vos & Van der Merwe (2013) argued that more than 66% of all literacy research in South Africa focusses on English and Afrikaans; only 6.2% on isiXhosa.    When one examines the proportion of research done on language-specific linguistic issues in literacy such as phonological awareness South African research is just 21.56% of the equivalent international proportion while morphological and syntactic awarenesses are just 0.26% and 1.5% respectively.   This suggests that Prof. Lanham’s legacy is something that cannot be taken for granted; it is a legacy that we will have to promote much more aggressively, if we are not to lose it completely.


Source:Mark de Vos