Stellenbosch University's (SU) Dr Alexander (Alex) Andrason has achieved the exceptional once more: This hyper-multilingual lecturer who speaks ten languages and a global nomad who has already resided in eight European and African countries has recently added a third PhD degree to his academic repertoire.
In March this year, Andrason got tears in his eyes when the University of Iceland awarded him a PhD in General Linguistics - experiencing the same gratitude as when he received a PhD in Semitic Languages from the Complutense University in Madrid (2010) and one in African Languages from SU (2016).
"The three PhDs are a natural progression and testament to my unconventional scholarly and life profile," said Andrason. He is currently a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences' Department of Ancient Studies, teaching Afro-Asiatic languages, linguistics (Hebrew, Aramaic, Egyptian), and other modules dedicated to multilingualism and academic writing.
Prior to joining SU in 2012, his activities included teaching general and cognitive-linguistic courses at various universities in Asia (Turkey), Africa (Morocco, Gambia, and Tanzania), and Europe (Iceland, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia).
Elaborating on passing his PhD in Iceland on 4 March, he describes it as one of the most beautiful days of his life. "I argued for my views, appreciated critique and criticism, smiled continuously and even laughed at times. In the end, the university put up the Icelandic flag for me, and I had tears in my eyes," recalled Andrason.
PhD remains a challenge
Earning a PhD remains a challenge and is not easily achieved, he emphasised. "Some people think writing a doctoral thesis comes easy to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Completing a PhD is always a challenging experience that requires a lot of work, time, and self-discipline and is inevitably marked by moments of positive and negative thoughts and feelings."
He described himself as an eternal scholar and multidisciplinary academic and a teacher who “refuses to stop being a student and welcomes the wisdom of others by pursuing studies at various new universities."
For this reason, he will never have studied enough. “I will continue studying till the day I die. Currently, I plan to enrol in a PhD in anthrozoology and later in another one in education," said Andrason, explaining that to embark on a new PhD study is exciting because it means entering a relatively new study field'.
Lecturer and researcher
According to Andrason, his PhD studies have run concurrently with his teaching and other research duties, especially to enhance his teaching and research.
"Every year, I publish between ten and 15 articles; teach between five and seven courses/modules over 150-180 lecture hours; direct between five and eight international research projects; supervise postgraduate students, and lead at least one community involvement activity. To find time to design and complete another original research program leading to a PhD and write some 400 pages of a monograph is really challenging."
In the end, his mission is to offer the best training to students. "As teachers, I wish for students to develop and cultivate the qualities that human beings should have, such as respect for one's own and others' freedom(s), the recognition of universal equality of people and their inalienable agency, a celebration of creativity and, perhaps most importantly, the cultivation of care and compassion," says he.
“Therefore, in my classes, I focus on self-government, the use of reason instead of doctrine, non-formality, equality of participation, and freedom of choice. I invite students to co-design the curriculum, participate in knowledge production, and contribute to cooperative learning and teaching. I allow students to pursue their curiosities and interests and replace teacher-student coercive hierarchy with persuasion. I am always open to being challenged. I do not lecture. Instead, I facilitate the learning process, encourage, and provoke," said Andrason.
One of the motivations for him to learn a new language, especially the language of his students, is to allow them to be inclusive in the communication and learning process in class.
Currently, his language repertoire draws on 40 languages, ten of which he can speak with native or native-like proficiency. “I use most of them regularly because of my international research and teaching activities, like joint research projects, fieldwork, classes taught as a guest lecturer, and teaching classes," said Andrason.
When he travels to a new country, he will learn at least the basics of the people of that country's language. For this reason, he knows to a large extent isiXhosa and Afrikaans. "I also try to learn languages that my SU students (undergraduate or postgraduate) speak. I have also acquired some basic knowledge of Oshiwambo, Sotho, Maasai, Swahili, Lari, Korean, Japanese, and Romanian. Crucially, to me, the languages spoken by students are not empty tokens or superficial anecdotes."
Andrason is currently also learning Oromo (a language from Ethiopia) and Sango (a language from the Central African Republic). Adding to his passion for learning new languages, his favourite pastime is working towards doctoral degrees, authoring articles, conducting collaborative research, and reading grammar books.
When he is not working, he spends time with his family and does “exceptional" work in the kitchen. "I cook a full meal for my family every day, and they absolutely love my cooking!"
Photo: Sandra Mulder