Friday September 30, 2022

Forum for language

March 05, 2016

When we look at the cultural diversity of Pakistan we see a beautiful bouquet of diverse cultures and languages, embedded in the rich history of the ancient Indus Valley, Gandhara and Darada civilisations, with influences from both South and Central Asia.

But when we look at the institutional arrangements of the state to preserve, promote and protect this bouquet, we witness a criminal apathy towards our roots, identities and heritage. There is hardly any notable state institution to look after the more than 60 dying languages and cultures. Not only has the state been apathetic towards this diversity, it has also tried to kill cultural pluralism by imposing a superficial homogeneity, in its project of ‘nation building’. The syndrome of ‘nation building’ on the basis of religion has now dragged the country into a state where nothing but extremism flourishes.

In this vacuum, it is refreshing to see some private endeavours by individuals who have realised the need to protect the dying languages and cultures. Among such initiatives is the Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI) – a non-profit organisation run by language activists working on the ‘minority’ languages of Pakistan, especially those spoken in northern Pakistan.

By ‘minority’ languages we mean the endangered and vulnerable lesser-known languages, rather than the so-called provincial languages of Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and Punjabi. These provincial languages, though they are not recognised by the state, have effective political clout, which has been expressed through the various language movements associated with these languages in the history of Pakistan.

The Forum for Language Initiatives has been gradually working on the documentation, preservation and promotion of these languages and cultures by focusing on four main areas: research, training, education and advocacy. In the field of language research, the FLI has contributed to the development of scripts for the endangered languages of northern Pakistan. It has also carried out linguistic surveys of dying languages and helped language activists develop working orthographies for the languages in question. There are over two dozen languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir.

Since its establishment in 2002, the FLI has trained five batches of language activists and researchers in a one-year course called Discovering my Language and Culture. The course runs for a year and includes subjects such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, orthography, grammar, research methodology and cultural anthropology, along with field work in each module. The course is a one-year diploma programme. Syllabi are developed by renowned field linguists and anthropologists.

Recently, the modules developed for this course were adopted by Kabul University, to be taught at its linguistic department. This course deserves to be accredited by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan because in the majority of our universities, ‘linguistics’ is just taught for the English language, which is of no real worth to our cultural milieu. The FLI’s course is nothing less than an academic diploma, which is accompanied by real fieldwork.

Along with this one-year diploma, the FLI also trains researchers to develop orthographies for the languages that have no written tradition. It hires the services of foreign linguists and educationists who have decades of working experiences and volumes of articles and books to their credit.

In the field of education, the FLI brought forth innovative concepts in the Pakistani context. These new approaches to inclusive education have already produced good results in Southeast Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.

The new concept is the inclusive early childhood education for children who are disadvantaged because of language barriers, as none of the languages that they speak are taught at the state-run schools that they are forced to go to. This approach is known as ‘mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education’. The forum has facilitated the development of orthographies in these spoken languages, which has led to the production of course books for children in their native languages.

The FLI has so far facilitated six such projects in Chitral, Swat and Indus Kohistan. These models not only provide an effective and amicable educational environment for children belonging to linguistic minorities, but also help revitalise the endangered languages and cultures.

The advocacy of any cause in Pakistan becomes very political. This politicisation often jeopardises the cause itself. Since language is too political a topic in Pakistan, the FLI advocates for a shift in the attitude towards language, primarily in the affected communities and groups. The FLI has also been trying to influence policymakers by presenting models to them. This makes the organisation unique, as it focuses on examples that have produced tangible results.

For long-term sustainability, the federal government needs to recognise such initiatives through the HEC.

The writer heads an independentorganisation dealing with education and development in Swat.Email: