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Nancy Kula: ‘Languages are very diverse’

Nancy Kula has been Professor of African Linguistics since 1 February. Now is a good time to hear more about her field of expertise and academic interests.

‘One of my areas of expertise is in the cognitive representation of sound systems,’ Kula explains. ‘I specialise in the sounds of approximately 600 Bantu languages spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’m particularly interested in how these languages relate to each other and their underlying structures. By comparing the Bantu language structure to that of English or Dutch, we can expand our existing knowledge of variation across languages.’

Tone and sound

Bantu languages distinguish themselves from other language families through their use of tone. ‘This is similar to stress in Dutch,’ Kula explains. ‘However, while Dutch typically has only one stress per word, each syllable in Bantu languages that use tone carries its own emphasis, its own tone. In this respect, Bantu languages are similar to Chinese, where altering the tone on the same syllable can completely change the meaning of a word.’

A challenging aspect is the notation of these tonal differences: ‘Many African languages don’t explicitly mark tone in their written texts, as these texts are primarily intended for native speakers. However, in linguistics, we annotate tone because it is a crucial area of study. I also train my students to recognise and mark the various tones in the languages they study. The more you engage with a language, the better you become at identifying these nuances. This skill applies to learning any language: you have to immerse yourself in it.’

Emphasis on practical skills

Kula encourages her students to collect primary data, so that they can really engage with the language in the communities where they are spoken. ‘I learned the most about languages during my research in different parts of Africa, where I investigated the use of distinct sounds and structures that characterise these Bantu languages. Working with communities provides an opportunity to interact with people who speak the language and also better understand the context and culture of language use. It’s a chance not only to hone your linguistic skills but also to learn how to engage with individuals from diverse communities. Languages are very diverse and I aim to prepare my students for that diversity also in their future careers.’

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