Looking back on a lifetime of language

Professor Charlyn Wessels Dyers has retired from UWC.

After four decades as a lecturer, playwright, author, and more, Professor Charlyn Wessels Dyers is proudest of one thing: the many students she’s supervised and guided, and the contributions they will continue to make to multilingualism and social development.

Professor Dyers, from Kuils River, 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 who continued their walk at UWC right up to retirement.

She began working at UWC in a permanent position in 1994, was promoted to associate professor in 2002, to full professor in 2015, and also served as deputy dean of the arts faculty in 2005. She retired at the end of January as a full professor in the department of linguistics.

Before joining the department, she was director of the Lilwimi Centre for Multilingualism and the Language Professions, helping teachers cope with pupils who speak languages other than English and Afrikaans – especially pupils from the Eastern Cape.

“It was a struggle back then,” she recalled.

“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 said her contribution to multilingualism in the transitional years of this country was something she was 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,” Professor Dyers said.

“The reward from this experience is that I still have teachers thanking me for this.”

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

She has collaborated with leading international sociolinguists, including Professor Jan Blommaert of Tilburg University, and her UWC colleague, Professor Bassey Antia. She is 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 Professor 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 said.

“They are bright and vibrant and enthusiastic, and I’m really pleased with that.”

An interesting aspect of Professor Dyers’s life, running alongside her academic achievements from the very beginning, is her 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 Adam Small’s drama, Kanna Hy Ko Hystoe, a role she reprised at the very first Suidoosterfees in 2003.

Professor Dyers is a member of the Kuils River Moravian Church and serves on its council. She 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.

She was born on January 28 1952, the eldest daughter of Harold and Frances Wessels.

She grew up in Somerset West where she completed her primary and secondary education.

She was inspired to become a lifelong educator – first as a high school teacher at Bellville South High School in 1974, and then as a lecturer in English at the former Bellville Teacher Training College in 1977.

Having completed her BA degree, an Honours degree in English and the Secondary Teacher’s Diploma, the professor was awarded a British Council bursary in 1979 which allowed her to complete her MSc degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in 1980 under the supervision of Professor Stephen Pit Corder.

In January 1993, she returned to South Africa and UWC.