Editor’s note: From April 12–18, 2022, Amrit Sufi will host the @AsiaLangsOnline rotating Twitter account, which explores how technology can be used to revitalize Asian languages. Learn more about the campaign here.
Amrit Sufi is a researcher and academic who is currently working on the digitization of endangered oral language and culture. She also speaks an endangered language called Angika, which is an Indo-Aryan language from the Anga region, which falls under the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Sufi holds an MA in English Language and Literature from Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Uttarakhand, India and worked as a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Doon University, Dehradun. Rising Voices spoke with Sufi about her passion for digitizing oral culture.
Angika is considered the oldest language in the Bengali family and is very similar to Maithili. Due to the predominance of the Hindi language, languages like Angika are under threat in India. Sufi believes that documenting oral languages and culture in audio and video form helps to increase the visibility of many low-resource languages. To test this, she documented some Angika folk songs on an experimental basis.
In 2021, Sufi worked as a coordinator on an Oral Culture Transcription Toolkit project, funded by the Wikimedia Foundation. The project worked with locals and experts to create an online toolkit that will allow people to download media in endangered languages, including Angika. The toolkit will help with further documentation of languages and cultures, also helping with the creation of video transcripts and subtitles.
Rising Voices interviewed Amrit Sufi via email. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Rising Voices (RV): Tell us about yourself and your language-related work.
Sufi Amrit (AS): I am a researcher and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. I have experience as an academician in English literature. I am also working as a Case Study Researcher for India for the project “Secured Technology Needs of Indigenous and Minority Communities: A Participatory Research Project” by Rising Voices.
Together with a Wikimedian friend of mine, Nitesh Gill, I created a toolkit for digitizing oral culture on Wikimedia and other online platforms. The toolkit gives detailed instructions on how to record oral culture, how to upload it to Wikimedia Commons, to create a transcript and upload it to Wikisource.
Apart from these, I regularly edit for the Angika Wikipedia incubator project.
RV: What is the current state of your language, online and offline?
AS: Angika is a vulnerable language according to the UNESCO World Map of Endangered Languages. There are attempts to include it in education at primary, secondary and university levels. Angika speakers generally have to learn a second language for educational and economic purposes. However, Angika activists are trying to bring it to digital platforms like Wikipedia and sister projects, YouTube and websites dedicated to publishing Angika literature. However, Angika’s growth on digital platforms seems slow.
RV: What are your motivations for seeing your language present in digital spaces?
AS: Angika is spoken mainly in Bihar, India. There are several negative stereotypes regarding the state, whether it is an impending crime or a lack of education. I believe these stereotypes have their roots in its economic deprivation and misrepresentation by the media. I hope that normalizing the use of Angika in digital spaces will ensure that speakers will have more confidence in their identity in both offline and online spaces. The main objective is therefore the affirmation of its identity and its pride.
RV: Describe some of the challenges that prevent your language from being fully used online.
AS: The most commonly mentioned problem with using Angika in digital spaces that I’ve seen language activists speak out about is the lack of a script. Although Angika was historically written using the Kaithi script, it is now written using the popular Devanagari script (the same script as Hindi). Using this script does not fulfill the purpose of representing some unique vowel sounds in Angika; it is also clubbed as a “Hindi belt language”. Another glaring challenge is the lack of digital material and resources such as apps in this language. This results in an automatic switch from Angika to Hindi/English.
RV: In your opinion, what concrete measures can be taken to encourage young people to start learning their language or to continue using their language?
AS: There should be government policies that create job opportunities for Angika speakers as there is a lot of migration of people looking for jobs. Making digital resources available in the language and developing Unicode to accommodate the sounds and symbols of the language would be a good first step. Ensuring digital security and privacy would also be encouraging for users.
In November 2021, Amrit Sufi co-hosted a series of linguistic digital activism workshops for India organized by Rising Voices. In December 2021, Sufi joined a Rising Voices panel at the IGF-2021 session Building the wiki-way for low-resource languages.