The Torwali language and its new Android keyboard

Editor’s note: We invited Zubair Torwali, ​Executive Director​ of ​Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi​, an organization that works to promote northern Pakistan’s languages, to tell us how the new Torwali language Android keyboard will help preserve the language.

Torwali, a Dardic language with around 80,000 speakers in the Swat Valley, is one of Pakistan’s 27 highly endangered languages. With mounting pressures to speak the dominant Pashto language, Torwali is neither used at the public schools nor part of the formal curriculum.

For a long time, Torwali had no written alphabet, and therefore, little in the way of a written tradition. Around a decade ago, however, a team of language activists associated with Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi designed a spelling system (orthography) for Torwali under the expert guidance of linguists and educationists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics. The orthography was adapted from Arabic, much like Urdu, Pakistan’s national language.

Torwali needs four special phonemes (distinct units of sound) which are not in Urdu:

/ɶ/; /ɕ/; /ʐ/; /ʂ/

represented in Torwali writing as

“ݜ", “ڙ” , “ڇ”, “ٲ”

In the Swat Valley, people primarily use Android smartphones to get access to the Internet and interact on social media.There are special keyboards for writing Torwali on computers, but only a few people in the Swat Valley have access to PCs. The question is then, how can people write in Torwali on their smartphones to communicate in their own language?

Wanting to make a specific Torwali script keyboard on Android smartphones, we contacted Google and worked with engineer Richard Sproat. Richard had experience building Tibetan and Khmer keyboards, and he helped us build  a Torwali keyboard into the Android Gboard keyboard. So now anyone with an Android phone running Jellybean or higher will be able to type in Torwali. To turn it on, just go to Settings in Android and then choose Languages & input > Virtual keyboard > Gboard > Languages > Torwali. (If you don’t have Gboard already, you can always download it from the Google Play Store here.)

Now people in the Swat Valley can use the keyboard to text their friends and family or update their status on social media. Endangered languages like Torwali can only be maintained by linking them with modern information technology, and a Gboard keyboard for Torwali is one step toward that goal​.