Mongolian Fluency Drops among Minority Students in Hulunbuir

“News 1 + 1,” a CCTV News Channel program, recently broadcast a show devoted to exploring the status of Mongolian fluency among students in Inner Mongolia. I didn’t watch it, but you can read the transcript in Chinese here: 如何用母语诉说?. The following piece is based on the transcript, with some of my own thoughts at the end.

As of 2011, all so-called elementary and junior high “ethnic schools” (民族学校) in Inner Mongolia reportedly receive government subsidies that ensure students go to school free of tuition, and also receive an allowance plus 3rmb daily for food.  Thus things do appear to be looking up, and Hulun Elementary School located in urban Hailar has seen the number of its pupils rise from 256 in 2008 to 588 this year.

But reporter Bai Yansong, himself an ethnic Mongolian who works for Hulunbuir TV, points out that the larger trend is  more worrisome: his grandfather spoke only Mongolian; his father both Han and Mongolian, as he was the first college graduate in the family;  Bai Yansong can speak and understand some, but can’t actually host the TV show in Mongolian; and his son doesn’t know a word.

The situation overall falls neatly into what can be described as a “pyramid”: many elementary schools teach in Mongolian, but less middle schools do, and by the time students get to high school in the Hulunbuir area, out of 57,000 students, only 1,700 are in the Mongolian “stream.”

Several reasons were cited in the TV program for the drop in numbers of students opting to study at minority schools:

  • Middle school instruction in Mongolian often requires students to live in a dormitory far from home;
  • With the increasing popularity of mixed marriages where only one parent speaks Mongolian, Chinese is the language of choice at home;
  • Those students who opt to learn mainly in Mongolian are in fact forced to master three languages—their parents’ mother tongue + Chinese + English—which puts them at a disadvantage compared to Han who study just Chinese and English, languages which are key subjects for the university entrance exam.

Interestingly, the program didn’t touch on certain subjects and approaches that might occur to someone looking at the situation from “outside.” Three things in particular strike me:

  • Black-or-white approach: Right at the outset of their child’s education, parents must choose to send their children to an elementary school where Mongolian is the language of instruction, or where Chinese is the medium.  Even in families with both parents of Mongolian extraction, the tendency may be to choose Chinese because the schools are better financed, more numerous, more competitive and ensure competence in the dominant language of the nation.
  • De facto segregation by language: It is certain that “minority” schools will be peopled almost exclusively by students who have at least one parent who is Mongolian.
  • Devaluation of Mongolian: Mongolian speakers must master Han Chinese in school, but—as in Xinjiang and Tibet—Han Chinese are often not required to study the regional language, and their future employment, even as a civil servant, is unlikely to depend upon their mastery of any language except Putonghua.  These factors contribute to what reporter Bai Yansong labeled the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论) that is widespread in society.


  1. In Outer Mongolia, very few people can read or write Mongolian using the Uyghur vertical script as in China. Why? Stalin killed almost all of the native Mongolian archaeologists, historians, linguists, etc during his purge of intellectuals and his radical demographic re-population of Central Asia. And to make things easier for Soviets, Mongolian was “Russified,” meaning that classical Mongolian (using a vertical Uyghur script), was forcibly transliterated into a Cyrillic-based alphabet and phonological system (with a few changes). Now, it’s mostly foreign scholars who can read classical Mongolian. That is unlikely to change unless there is a massive investment of funds into schools so that students can learn classical Mongolian. (The attempt by the Mongolian government to make classical Mongolian the 2nd official languages has had little impact).

    The Mongolian Society based at Indian University (USA) has been doing the most to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate students who become part of the tiny Mongolian studies community. They sell language learning publications and books on Mongolian culture available at a much lower price than can be found outside of Inner and Outer Mongolia. They even sponsor an intensive Mongolian (Cyrillic) language course during the summer.

    One can say that the devaluation of Mongolian in China is similar to the situation found in Yunnan Province in the Southwest. In Yunnan, the threat to language preservation is severe. Within the next two generations I expect extinction of at least 10% of the languages spoken in Yunnan. And then there’s the problem that many of the languages are oral. Those that have a written form suffer from the same problems as those in Inner Mongolia.

    China has made some effort ins trying to preserve ethnic minority culture but given the current economy and opportunities for higher education and jobs, knowledge of ethnic languages places one in a precarious position. The incentives are aligned with the “choices” that can be made.

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