For the love of languages

July 17, 2022

A Lahore-based group of high-school students is making a breakthrough in documenting and reviving the endangered Wakhi language

Team Linguistic Preservation Task Force. — Images: Supplied
Team Linguistic Preservation Task Force. — Images: Supplied


arly this year, a bunch of high-schoolers, most of them friends or acquaintances, got together and formed an organisation, inspired by a shared love for languages. Thus, Linguistic Preservation Task Force (LPTF) came into being.

A Lahore-based, non-profit organisation, the LPTF is led by Haadi Aftab, Kiran Rao, Ghaania Usman and others who began with their research in four languages of Gilgit-Baltistan — namely, Wakhi, Shina, Khwar and Burushaski. To aid them in their endeavour, they hoped to have an educated party overlooking the process. Help came from Zulfiqar Mannan, a Yale alumnus, currently working in Lahore; and Sohaib Wali, a professor at Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore, who grew up in the Ghizer district of Gilgit Baltistan and boasts specialised knowledge of the region’s languages. After thorough deliberations, it was decided that the organisation would focus on Wakhi in the first place.

The high-school students, however, did not slow down there. They gained official collaboration status with 7000 Languages, an international organisation that works to make ethnographic research and preservation of endangered languages by creating online courses for those languages. The youngsters also managed to collaborate with Living Tongues, an organisation that creates online dictionaries for endangered languages.

As Aftab puts it, “It’s an endeavour we hope to pursue.”

Talking about how they came together for the project, he says, “We all grew up with our own inclinations towards different languages and disciplines of study. Ghaania and my connection stems from our love of history and anthropology; Zara and Kiran share a love for all things Urdu. When we saw that languages were being discarded and no action was being taken, we took the job on ourselves.”

Soon the group was recognised as cultural ambassadors by the Wakhi Cultural Association (WCA). They now serve as the main agency working for the preservation of this language in Pakistan. Next, they are hoping to forge a collaboration with the Oral History Project of the National History Museum. The idea, according to Aftab, is to create an archive of the data they hope to collect.

Seeking professional help.
Seeking professional help.

Their goal when they started out was simple: “to document as much of the language as we could, in limited time,” in the words of Aftab. They “hoped to meet with Wakhi scholars as well as locals to record their language. We also hoped to formalise a script for the language, a feat that would be extremely difficult for us to achieve within the time we had.”

With proper tutelage and concrete collaborations, the task force headed off to Ghizer and Phandur districts of Gilgit-Baltistan for ethnographic research on Wakhi.

“After tireless work and countless interviews, we had met all requirements the collaborations had laid out for us,” Aftab says.

Their findings about the language were peculiar. “When we visited the local schools, we found that Wakhi was either banned from being spoken in classrooms or heavily discouraged,” he adds. “More noticeably, Wakhi was not a part of their curriculums.”

Another part of the project was to classify the status of the language, how endangered it was. The locals believed that the language was becoming extinct and being taken over by Urdu and regional languages like Khwar and Shina.

The LPTF documented the language, formalising a script, which no other organisation before them had done, and also documented the culture that the language is embedded in. It included collecting voice clips of songs, videos of festivals, clothing and trinkets.

They are now working towards formalising an online dictionary for Wakhi, and creating an online course for anyone who wishes to learn or relearn Wakhi, through 7000 Languages. They are also looking at holding an exhibition of local culture at the National History Museum in Lahore.

The writer is a student based in Lahore

For the love of languages