The theme of the 2011 celebration of International Mother Language Day on 21 February is The information and communication technologies for the safeguarding and promotion of languages and linguistic diversity Nothing could be closer to the heart of Dr Febe de Wet, a principal researcher at the CSIR Meraka Institute, whose passion is resource gathering and localisation of human language technologies (HLTs) for South Africa’s resource-scarce official languages.
De Wet, an electronic engineer, holds a postgraduate diploma in clinical engineering, a Master’s degree in electronic engineering and a PhD from the Radboud University, Nijmegen. Both her postgraduate degrees focused on aspects of HLT. She was also the recipient of a scholarship from the Dutch Study Fund Foundation for South African students abroad.
Supporting South Africa’s languages for the greater good
As part of the CSIR’s HLT research group, de Wet is keen to use her skills and experience to help in making a “huge difference to South Africa’s languages.” She explains, “Mature technologies and generous funding are available for widely-used languages such as English (British and American varieties), German and Japanese, to mention a few. We need to come up with smart strategies to achieve local prototypes in under-resourced environments. Thanks to the work done by my colleagues in the CSIR HLT group on project Lwazi, we have basic technologies for South Africa’s 11 languages.”
Basic technologies comprise automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis. A Department of Arts and Culture-funded initiative, the Lwazi project was completed in 2009.
De Wet’s particular field of research interest is English (South African variety) and Afrikaans. Her vision is to help realise, through her research, information access for people with basic literacy to vital resources such as government information on health and education.
She says, In most developing countries, mobile phone penetration seems to be much higher than Internet penetration. Although most modern mobile phones basically delete the difference between these two concepts, mobile phone-based Internet is still relatively expensive, compared to SMS, for example. Voice-driven information access services can therefore be very powerful in developing countries like our own, because they can be used together with phones.
She highlights the potential of voice-driven solutions to develop aids for the handicapped. “HLT can help make a huge difference in the lives of a few people,” she asserts.
“More ideas than hours in a day”
Since January 2011, De Wet has been part of the CSIR’s HLT group, a critical mass of researchers whose knowledge and experience in the fields of ASR, TTS and applications development have contributed to numerous successes. Her experience in research has made her invaluable in strengthening the group’s hand in engaging with funders and collaborators.
Apart from more senior researchers, the group is also home to a number of postgraduate students and has a lively flow of conversation and debate on research topics going throughout the day and sometimes the night. “Having knowledgeable colleagues who are prepared to share and learn has helped to keep our younger staff members engaged,” she confirms. “We all get our research hands dirty.”
At the same time, the group’s efforts remains firmly focused on achieving research outcomes. “When we develop applications, we ask the questions, ‘Why do people use it?’ and ‘Why does it break?’.”
Keeping up local and international contacts
Oral proficiency testing using ASR
De Wet serves on the HLT expert panel that was established by Ms Lulu Xingwana, who was the Minister of Arts and Culture in 2008. The role of the panel is to advise the department on HLT matters.
During the course of her PhD studies, De Wet was awarded the I.B.M Frye Scholarship for auspicious female PhD students from the Radboud University. “I used the money to spend a month at a Swiss institute as a visiting researcher,” she explains.
She is active in the domain of international collaboration between the Dutch Language Union and other countries where Dutch or languages related to Dutch are used.
“The Low Countries – the Netherlands and Belgium – are keen to foster relationship and collaboration on language-related matters, especially in the field of HLT,” she reveals. To date, a letter of intent has been signed by the Department of Arts and Culture as part of the process of strengthening this collaboration. De Wet sees benefits from this collaboration for all South African languages.
She lectured at the universities of Pretoria and Cape Town, and also at the Tshwane University of Technology. She was a senior researcher at the former Stellenbosch University Centre for Language and Speech Technology where she worked with the head of curriculum studies, Prof Christa van der Walt, on automated oral proficiency testing for students in the education faculty. This was a dialogue system that prompted the user to respond to a set of exercises.
De Wet is using some of this expertise in her work to develop web-based language games for language exercises in French, Dutch and English in collaboration with colleagues from Europe. The HLT group is also working with a local language school to incorporate ASR technology into their computer-assisted language learning (CALL) software to facilitate automatic pronunciation exercises and evaluation. “Automated pronunciation practice, for example, is far less daunting to learners of a new language than the classroom or lecture situation,” she says.
She collaborates with Prof Thomas Niesler of the University of Stellenbosch and Prof Gerhard van Huyssteen of the North-West University on projects of mutual interest in the HLT domain.
De Wet is married to Jac Wilsenach; the couple has three children, Albert (6), Ella (3) and Christiaan (8 months).
A devoted wife and mother, she works hard at maintaining a balance between priorities at work and spending time with her husband and their children.
News contributed by Biffy Van Rooyen, CSIR Strategic Communications and Stakeholder Relations