Language Revitalization — A Case Study of Torwali

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Zubair Torwali*

*The author is a senior research fellow with CRSS and the Executive Director of Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi  (IBT) Bahrain Swat, KP, Pakistan.


Educational planning in the indigenous minority linguistic communities needs a holistic approach wherein it is ensured that the people of the particular speech community or communities can integrate development of their language(s) with the general development of their communities.

In Northern Pakistan over two dozen languages are spoken by the various ethno-linguistic communities. In half a dozen of these speech communities, work on the development of their languages started early 2002 which led to incorporating these languages in mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education programs in the respective communities.

This paper presents an overview of one of these initiatives; the mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education in the Torwali language that is an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the upper beautiful parts of the Swat Valley in northwestern frontier province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. The paper is an endeavor to look into this program which accompanied mother tongue education planning with strengthening of identity; and overall social development of the Torwali speech community.

Torwali language: Introduction and Background

According to Ethnologue (Hess, 2016) there are around 7,097 languages currently spoken in the world. Linguists estimate that by the end of this century, more than half of these 7000 plus spoken languages will go extinct resulting in loss of valuable scientific and cultural information.

One of the 27 highly endangered languages of Pakistan listed in the same Atlas, is the language called Torwali, which, because of not having a written tradition and the fast “language shift” towards the predominant language Pashto in the areas, is rated as definitely endangered.

Torwali is a Dardic language of Indo-Aryan family mainly spoken in the Bahrain and Chail areas of District Swat in Northern Pakistan. The level of its endangerment can also be assessed by its small community of speakers which is approximately 80,000 (Lunsford, 2001). A recent survey by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), however, found that 60 % of the respondents of the Torwali people count themselves to be more than 120,000 (Respondents, 2014). Close to half its speakers have migrated permanently to the bigger cities of Pakistan where their language is either being replaced by the national language Urdu, or by other languages of wider communication such as Pashto or Punjabi.

The language Torwali is said to have originated from the pre-Muslim Dardic communities of Pakistan (Alian & Inam-ur-Rahim, 2002). The people or community speaking this language is called Torwalik or Torwal (Grierson G. A., 1929). Like other Dardic communities the Torwalik have no idea of their origin, most of them relate themselves to either Arabs or Pashtuns. This can be due to the fact that no credible research has been done on the history of the Dardic people.

Past research on Torwali language

There have been numerous surveys done by some national and international organizations on Pakistan’s endangered languages such as Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan (Hallberg, Decker, & Rensch, 1992)) and Linguistic Survey of India (Grierson G. A., 1928).

Grierson’s book “Torwali: an account of a Dardic language in Swat-Kohistan” is perhaps the first book published solely on Torwali language in 1929. The book based on the field data collected by Auriel Stein, who visited Swat-Kohistan in 1926 has some of the Torwali text written in phonetics with English translation; and a couple of folktales of the Torwali community. Before that, in 1885, Col John Biddulf has dedicated a short chapter of his book “Tribes of Hindu Kush” to Torwali lexicon. Mention of Torwali is, however, found in many books written mostly by British writers during the colonial period in order to map the areas and their inhabitants.

Recent research

Wayne A. Lunsford; Wayne published his book ‘An overview of linguistic structures in Torwali’ in 2001 as a thesis for his master degree in linguistics from the University of Texas, USA. In 2008 Zubair Torwali wrote a Torwali alphabet book under the supervision of Wayne A. Lunsford. The same year, a team of language activists associated with Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) designed the primer in Torwali under expert guidance of linguists and educationists of Summer Institute of Linguistics—SIL International. This team also wrote a number of booklets of short stories in Torwali for children. In 2010, Inam Ullah published the Torwali-Urdu dictionary. In 2011 Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) published, Inaan, a book of folk poetry of Torwali with Urdu translation under the supervision of Zubair Torwali. In the year 2015 a team of researchers associated with IBT published three books. Aftab Ahmad compiled the first Torwali-Urdu-English dictionary while Mujahid Torwali wrote a trilingual daily usage conversation book. The third member of the team, Rahim Sabir, collected fifteen of the Torwali folktales and published them with Urdu and English translation. Earlier in 2015 Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) published a paper, ‘Vestiges of Torwali Culture’, by Zubair Torwali.

Torwali shares the same challenges and threats which its sister languages and others spoken in Northern Pakistan, from Chitral to Gilgit-Baltistan via the Indus Kohistan and including Dir and Swat, face. Some of these challenges are worth mentioning here.

The current dismal and unfavorable cultural, political, linguistic and ecological milieu adds to the ‘language and cultural shift’ among these communities. Notwithstanding these toughest challenges, there are some good initiatives carried out in these communities that are focused on reversing the language and cultural loss by documenting the languages and cultures in question, transmitting the languages and cultures to the coming generation, and by trying to make the languages relevant in pedagogical setting.

Few of the initiatives in language development of these communities

  1. Gawri Multilingual Education Program in Gawri community in Swat by Gawri Community Development Program (GCDP)
  1. Palula Multilingual Education Program in southern Chitral by Palula Community Welfare Program (PCWP)
  1. Kohistani Multilingual Education Program in Indus Kohistan by Initiative for People in Need (IPN)
  1. Khowar Multilingual Education Program in Chitral by MIER
  1. Mother tongue based multilingual education project in Hindko
  1. Language Communities Resource Project (LECP), Mashal-e-Rah and Initiative for Language Education Advocacy and Development (I-LEAD) by Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI) based in Islamabad.

GCDP has been engaged in the development of the Gawri language spoken in Kalam in Swat and in Thal, Lamuti, etc. in Upper Dir. It has established a mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education project in Kalam in 2008 (Gawri Community Development Program). Since then GCDP has been writing books in the Gawri language for adults and general readers as well.

PCWP is the community-based organization engaged in the development of the Palula language spoken in southern Chitral. They also started an early childhood multilingual education project in 2008 (Naseem, 2016).

The community based organization; Initiative for People in Need (IPN), has established the mother tongue based early childhood education in 2015. It teaches the children in their native language, Kohistani (Initiative for People in Need, 2015).

Khowar is the largest language spoken in the district of Chitral. A number of voluntary and community based endeavours have been carried out in documenting and promoting the Khowar language. It has a considerable number of books in and on it (Mumtaz, 2016). The mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education project in Khowar was started in 2015 under the community-based organization, Mother-tongue Initiatives for Education and Research (MIER).

A similar mother tongue based early childhood education project was also started in Hindko based in Abottabad. The program started in 2015 and, according to the program manager; it is progressing well (Raja, 2016)

Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI) is a non-for profit organization based in Islamabad. It is a resource center for training and facilitating the minority language communities of north Pakistan for the documentation and preservation of their languages (Forum for Language Initiatives, 2003). It has implemented two projects in the past wherein it trained the various language activists and researchers. Currently it is implementing another project titled Initiative for Language Education Advocacy and Development wherein it trains the language activists of the various languages in developing curriculum in their languages. It also trains the teachers of the various mother tongue based early childhood multilingual education projects in north Pakistan.

Among such initiatives there is the ‘identity based educational planning in Torwali language’ generally referred to as:

Torwali Language Development Initiative

Designing the orthography

Orthography is a writing module where the children and others are taught how their language is represented in the written medium. Torwali had no orthography till 2007. In 2005 work on developing orthography i.e. alphabet book and primer, started with the support of experts associated with SIL International.

Later, in March 2007, this scribe and other youth formed a formal organization, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) i.e. institute for education & development, in order to carry on work for the development and promotion of the Torwali language along with a wider mission of “transforming the most neglected sections of Pakistani society, especially the marginalized ethnic groups living in northwest Pakistan, into developed communities by active participation of people without any gender, racial and religious discrimination” (IBT, 2015). After research of two years, a curriculum for the early childhood multilingual education program was developed in Torwali. The course books included graded reading stories, reading and writing primers, listening stories, children rhymes in Torwali, basic mathematical concepts in Torwali, cultural and ethical studies and counting books. A teacher guide in Torwali was translated from English which was developed by Susan Malone, PhD, the UNESCO and SIL International consultant on literacy and education.

 Initiating a mother tongue based education program

When the course books in Torwali were ready for pre-school kids; Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), established the first ever Torwali based early childhood multilingual education school in Bahrain, the main semi urban hub of the Torwali community, in August 2008. To date 8 similar schools have been established in different locations of the Torwali people. About 445 children have so far benefited from these schools by starting their early education in the language they speak at home, Torwali. Owing to the overwhelming importance given to English and Urdu, these schools initially could not attract a large number of children as their parents, having grown in a linguistic milieu where their language was considered as inferior speech by the dominant language communities, were reluctant to send their children to these schools. The main excuse the parents would have was that ‘their children already know Torwali, therefore, they need not to learn it at schools (Parents, 2008).’ It was obvious that the parents were not literate themselves and they had no idea what language proficiency actually meant. Similarly, it seemed that the ‘loss of their language’ was no concern for the majority of its speakers. Obviously the main concerns that could move the community were others like economic and social development for which they considered learning English and Urdu as essential.

Adopting a holistic approach to identity based community development

After two years of the Torwali school, IBT learnt that ‘mother tongue development program in the indigenous communities doesn’t work well in isolation’. It, therefore, needs to be integrated with community development. Given the lessons learnt, IBT adopted a holistic approach to community uplift in all its spheres: language, education, culture, identity and physical development. Unless and until a sense of confidence in and towards their languages and culture within the people is fostered, the fast language shift is difficult to slow down.

In order to achieve this end IBT broadened its scope to all people: children, adult women and men. A few robust initiatives were designed and implemented which are worth mentioning here:

Celebration of culture

Language is not operated in isolation. It is very much embedded in the culture. Language and culture are very much connected with the world around the community. It is often seen that indigenous people often disregard their languages and cultures, not because the languages and cultures deserve that, but owing to other factors which are linked to economic opportunity, power dynamics and, most importantly, the treatment of these languages and cultures by the state and the dominant communities. In many contexts of the indigenous communities their language endangerment is not considered a problem at all. When planned in isolation many good attempts on language development fail because the communities do not own it. So to bring a change in the attitude an inside-out development strategy needs to be initiated and as the Hangzhou Declaration on ‘Placing Culture at the Heart of Sustainable Development’ suggests integrating culture within all development policies and programs (Smith & Wisbey, 2013), IBT devised its plan to keep celebrating culture for strengthening identity within the Torwali community. Celebration of their own inherent culture can help develop self-esteem in the community.

Holding of cultural festivals

For ethno-linguistic communities who suffer a marred identity, cultural festivals can reaffirm their identity giving them opportunity to voice it within and outside (Smith & Wisbey, 2013). Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), therefore, started holding cultural festivals in the Torwali community. A large indigenous culture festival was held in July 2011 in Bahrain with the name Simam, meaning celebration and dignity in Torwali. Over 9,000 people participated in this festival during its three days and took part in their folk music, traditional games and dances. The festival revived the traditional games abandoned six decades ago. The poets in the festival sang songs of pride in their identity and culture.

Promotion and rejuvenation of folk music

Given the onslaught of popular media, particularly television channels, the folk music of the indigenous communities cannot survive because the new generation has become used to the ‘world of colour and light’ where modern music is played with all its attractions. Realizing this fact Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) undertook the innovative task of promoting Torwali melodies (The Friday Times, 2016). Local concerts were held with poets and singers. A local cable TV channel was sponsored so that Torwali music could be broadcasted for a larger audience sitting at home. And recently Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) produced a DVD containing Torwali melodies with state of the art technology wherein the originality is not compromised yet a modern touch is given to it with the help of modern musical instruments and video shooting. The video is named Manjoora – gift in Torwali. This DVD became so popular that almost 90 percent of the Torwali population watched it.

Strengthening identity

When people have a clear sense of who they are and the ability to express their identity within their own environment and outside they can establish a more confident relationship within the community and with outsiders. With this confidence in expressing their identity, the people of the particular community can perform better within a lager social environment, whether at educational institutions or in markets. The Torwali community had no idea regarding who they really were. Most of the Pushtuns regarded them as a ‘guest community’; and it seemed the Torwali community had taken it for granted. Researchers and activists associated with IBT began to voice their identity aggressively within and outside the community because of the research they had done on indigenous communities. This scribe, for the first time in 2006, began to write Torwali with his name. There was a time when we were afraid to show who we were during our college education as the colleges were in the dominant community hubs. After IBT’s assertion of the Torwali identity, the Torwali youth formed Torwali students unions at these colleges. Now hundreds of youth proudly write Torwali or Kohistani as their names on social media. They can now proudly voice their identity; and whenever anybody mocks their language they teach him/her that their language is an advantage for them. One such story is reproduced here. When his fellows mocked Nisar Akassh Torwali, a Torwali student at the Quad-e-Azam University, in the federal capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, over his different language, he confidently called a meeting. He asked them how many languages they could speak. The answer was three—their mother tongue (Pashto/Punjabi), Urdu and English. Nisar Akaash told them that he could also speak these three languages but he had one advantage over his fellows and that was his mother tongue, Torwali. He told them he could speak four languages while they could speak three (Akaash Torwali, 2014).

Mother tongue based adult literacy

IBT has been running the aforementioned 8 schools known as mother tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) schools for children but it is evident that children reflect their parents’ attitude. So IBT realized that for an effective mother tongue based early education it was imperative to change the ‘language attitude’ in the child’s home. In this regard, IBT started weekly literacy sessions for the mothers at the MTB-MLE schools, later named as Innovative Learning Model Schools. The mothers would come for two hours and learn how to read and write their own language along with some basic Urdu. On a larger scale, IBT designed and implemented a bilingual—Torwali and Urdu— literacy program for 2,000 adult women in the community in 2013 with the support of United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This project has greatly changed the language attitude among the women along with giving them opportunity to learn Urdu and be aware of social issues.

Right-based approach to the development of the Torwali community

Unfortunately the Pakistani constitution doesn’t recognize any indigenous groups in Pakistan despite being signatory to some of the international conventions regarding indigenous people and their rights. The only minorities the Pakistani constitution recognizes are the religious ones. But the fact remains unaltered that communities like the Torwali are the least developed in human development, as the governments in Pakistan have not thought about them, as they deserve. This has triggered poverty, ignorance and disintegration within these communities. Our organization started advocacy in the community so as to get more and more access to education, to protect forests and land and to advocate conservation of natural resources. IBT launched a campaign for formal education in the area. It has organized the people using the traditional platform of Jirga (The News International, 2015) or Yarak*. IBT mobilized and organized the people in a Swat-Kohistan Qaumi Jirga i.e. Swat-Kohistan National Council for the purpose of advocating and lobbying for an integrated development of the people. IBT is continuously holding large Jirgas (councils) with the people and mobilizes them over issues they face and their right to hold the government accountable for neglect and apathy. These Jirgas have also further strengthened unity among the people. Since its organization, the Jirga meets with the stakeholders and demands education and social development for their area, Swat-Kohistan (The News International , 2016).

Promotion of Torwali literature and music on social media

With the recent emergence of social media among the Torwali living in the area or elsewhere in Pakistan or abroad, IBT has been using the social media, particularly Facebook, for the purpose of promoting the literacy of the Torwali language, its culture and music; and for strengthening the identity. A number of pages are run on Facebook (Literature and Music of Torwali, 2013) and YouTube (YouTube, 2015) wherein Torwali speakers are sensitized about their language and the overall development of their area. A number of Torwali poets and writers have begun to write their poetry on Facebook. Recently, when IBT shared video songs of Torwali on these pages, the songs got thousands of views and hundreds of shares. In addition, to the social media, the IBT team regularly writes articles in English and Urdu dailies in Pakistan on the indigenous languages, cultures, general issues of Northern Pakistan and on Torwali literature. Recently, a Torwali keyboard was also developed with the help of Google for android mobile phone sets. Now people with android mobile phone sets can write Torwali in texting and on social media.


Part of our initiative is writing books in and on Torwali language, culture, problems and history. In December 2015 three books were published (Khaliq, 2016). These books are: 1) Torwali—Urdu English Dictionary; 2) A book of Daily Usage Conversation in Torwali, Urdu and English; and 3) Book of Torwali folktales in Torwali with Urdu and English translation. Prior to these publications IBT has published a book of classic Torwali poetry with Urdu translation, and a book in English on the Torwali culture (Sen Roy, 2011).


The ‘myth of community’

(Smith & Wisbey, 2013, p. 23): It is generally held that a ‘community’ shares a common knowledge and agenda. Although it is true that the community shares common histories, geographies and languages, yet there always exist sub-groups within the community who interpret these in their own way, serving their own interests. These sub-groups can be defined in terms of gender, economics, politics, jobs, caste, religion, age, etc. Usually the community development activists overlook the varying agendas of individuals and sub-groups and the local ‘power’ structures within the community. While planning identity based initiatives in these communities, the sub-groups need to be understood as well. Otherwise they may emerge within the community creating hurdles and jeopardizing the overall integrated development.

Disconnect between the older generation and youth

It is often observed that today’s youth is disconnected from the older generations because of many factors. The youth may gain access to the national education system and alternative forms of entertainment. This disrupts the natural points of connection between the young and the old within the community and, consequently, there is a gap in cultural transmission. This gap must be kept in mind while planning education in the indigenous communities. The elderly are to be engaged in classrooms so that they may speak to the youngsters and vice versa. This can be part of making culture a part of the education curricula. The elders can tell stories to the youngsters. Another approach is ‘family literacy’ where all the members of the family are involved in mother tongue literacy.

The complex issue of identity

Globalization has posed critical questions of identity and identity construction. It is a complex issue, especially in the context of a rapidly imposed external change. While culture and identity share many things, they are not the same all the time. Though culture is an important part of identity, yet it is not the whole of it. Identity is very much political as well. While planning identity-based education in indigenous communities ‘peace’, ‘pluralism’ and ‘coexistence’ within and with other communities need to be considered. There is always a danger from sub-groups within the community of exploiting their strengthened identity for political goals, which may consequently result in a clash between the indigenous communities and others. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the state, in Pakistan, is reluctant to recognize ethnic communities.

Reluctance of policy makers to recognize indigenous languages

It poses a big challenge to us in Pakistan where the governments are afraid of giving any ground to these ethno-linguistic communities. Given the fear escalated with the disintegration in 1971—when East Pakistan became Bangladesh—it is very hard to convince policy makers to, at least, recognize the educational and cultural value of the lesser-known languages.


While planning for the development of the endangered languages in Pakistan the language activists of the respective communities and the concerned departments of the government need to adopt a holistic approach to carry out such actions. Language development can be an effective tool for inclusive social development. In the same way the overall social development ventures in these communities prove more effective and sustainable when integrated with the language and culture development in communities. Education planning, both on the state and private levels, should inculcate an inclusive approach wherein the cultural identity and social esteem of the target people is strengthened. Indigenous languages and cultures should be deemed as facilitators rather than obstacles in social development of a community, particularly the language of minorities.

The case of Torwali is encouraging and can be used as a model. We know we have yet to travel miles to achieve our goals but what we have achieved so far has good visible impact. Given our committed struggle we now see many youth and elderly people write and read their language. We are getting requests from other villages to establish the mother tongue based schools in their areas. We now see a growing trend of our youth on Facebook and other social media where they update their status in Torwali. Even the Torwali community who have permanently migrated to cities like Karachi, Quetta, Hyderabad or Rawalpindi—and who are more prone to alien languages and cultures— request us to establish similar schools there. We are equally concerned about digitalization in this era of fast growing information technology. Our aim must be community empowerment; and that motivates us to undertake some innovative but difficult initiatives.


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