Teaching Mongolian in the PRC: Written Trumps Spoken & Befuddles the Foreign Learner

The khanbaliqist has written an informative and witty post, Spelling Pronunciations as a Method of Teaching, based on his own experiences learning Mongolian on the ground . . . in Inner Mongolia, I believe.

His description of how written Mongolian is emphasized—almost to the point of banning spoken Mongolian from the classroom—reminds me of my mother’s unhappy schooling in Taiwan many years ago.  Her teacher, whom I referred to as a “Beiping antique” (北平古董), was born in pre-1949 Beijing and taught strictly “proper” Mandarin.  The vocabulary she insisted on was so passé that my mother, whose Chinese was actually not bad, often found that the locals hadn’t a clue what she meant.

She eventually quit school out of frustration.  “The only people who speak Beijing hua here in Taipei,” she said at the “farewell” lunch to which she kindly invited her living-fossil teacher and me, “are you and my son.”

But back to the way Mongolian is taught in China. Writes the khanbaliqist:

After discussions with Inner Mongolians I know, I’ve discovered that this approach to teaching [in my class] mirrors the normal method for teaching to children to read in Inner Mongolia. Mongolian-speaking children start out learning to read words exactly as they are spelt. This means that, even though they speak Mongolian at home and already have a basic proficiency in the language, children are initially taught to read texts using spelling pronunciations, not the normal everyday pronunciations. It is only in the third year that pupils are quite explicitly told to switch over to the spoken pronunciation. The objective of this method of teaching is clear. In a language like Mongolian, where the spelling of the traditional script is in many ways far removed from the spoken language, this is a way of ensuring that correct spelling habits are put firmly in place.

The implications of this approach for the perceptions of language are interesting to contemplate. While speakers of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia can communicate with each other quite freely (allowing for differences in pronunciation and vocabulary), perceptions of writing and spelling appear to differ markedly between the two. Despite the primacy that linguists give to speech, it stands to reason that the habits acquired when learning the script as a child last a lifetime and cannot help but mould the way that words and their ‘canonical forms’ (including acceptable variation) are perceived. My impression from admittedly limited experience with native speakers is that the different writing systems have a subtle impact on the way that language is perceived and handled. This is a topic that appears to have received virtually no study.

For non-native speakers learning the language, the consequences are less subtle. With ordinary spoken language banished from the classroom, an important aspect of language acquisition is blocked out until a much later stage in the learning process. This effectively postpones acquisition of the spoken language for several years and makes it difficult for teachers to develop even simple verbal strategies at an early stage to help students acquire the language, for instance by using spoken Mongolian for certain aspects of communication in the classroom.

Echoes of Samarkand: Salar Literary Conference Held in Qinghai

A conference highlighting writing by Salar authors  (撒拉族文学) was held in January 2013 in Xunhua County (循

The Registan in Samarkand

The Registan in Samarkand

化), Qinghai Province, home to most of the 100,000 Salar  (撒拉族) who consider themselves descendants of Muslims who migrated in the 13th century from Samarkand (present-day Uzbekhistan, and once home to Omar Khayyam) in search of religious freedom.

Subsequent contacts and intermarriage with Han Chinese, Tibetans and Hui have created a unique culture and strongly impacted the Salar language. Wikipedia notes that there are two large dialect groups: one branch influenced by Tibetan and Chinese, and another by Uyghur and Kazakh vocabulary. [Read more…]

Eight Peoples of Northeast China Featured in Ethnography Series

The first 8 of 55 volumes—one for each officially recognized ethnic minority in the PRC—have been jointly launched by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Liaoning Publishing Group (辽宁出版集团). The series is titled <走进中国少数民族丛书> (Inside China’s Ethnic Minorities).

Each book focuses on the culture and history of one ethnic group located in the northeast: Manchu (满族), Chaoxian (朝鲜), Mongol (蒙古), Xibe (锡伯), Daur (达斡尔), Oroqen (鄂伦春), Evenki (鄂温克) and Hezhen (赫折).

A quick look at the contents page for the Evenki volume (鄂温克族) indicates a fairly formulaic approach, with chapters on their origins, history of interaction with the Chinese empire, culture and customs, animism and folk tales and art. News reports stress that each book has been written by members of the featured ethnic group, a major break with the past where Han ethnologists were usually the authors.

The section names in the second chapter on warring periods and the “outlook for a brighter tomorrow” are an indicator of the “positioning” of the Evenki vis-à-vis Chinese dynasties across the centuries and up to our day:

  • Establishment of the Banner System under the Qing
  • Battle Over the Evenki Mink Tribute to the Qing Court
  • Defending the Chinese Homeland
  • Struggle Against the Japanese Imperialists
  • New Society, New Life

It’s unlikely that you will find much here on the impact of post-1949 PRC ethnic policies such as those documented by Richard Noll and Kun Shi in their The Last Shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China in 2004, or Richard Fraser in his 2010 study, Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer-Evenki of Inner Mongolia.

By the Numbers: Endangered Tongues in the People’s Republic

In <四成少数民族语言临危,> Wang Bo at Chinanews.com reports that up to four of ten languages native to minorities in China are threatened with extinction.

Here are a few numbers that appear in the report:

  • Non-han languages: 55 officially designated “peoples” (民族) speak an estimated 130 languages
  • Scripts in use: 40, including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Korean, Yi, Dai, Lahu, Jingpo and Xibe
  • Populations: one-half of non-Han languages are spoken by groups that number under 10,000 members, of which 20+ have 1,000 speakers or less
  • Endangered languages: Manchu, Tatar, She, Hezhen can no longer be used for conversation; another 20 percent, such as Nu, Yilao, Pumi and Jinuo are approaching that state; and a total of 40 percent are in danger of extinction in the mid-term.
  • Manchu: 11 million ethnic Manchus, but only 100 or so can speak fluently and less than a dozen read and write well.
  • Jing (京族): with a population of 20,000 in Guangxi, one-half can still speak their mother tongue.

Wang Bo notes that fluency in seven non-Han languages continues to be passed on to the next generation fairly well: Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Korean, Zhuang and Yi. He attributes this partly to the fact that they have a written script, and interpreting services are often offered at official meetings.

What he doesn’t note—like many PRC-centric writers—is the fact that except for Zhuang and Yi, these other languages are spoken and written by large numbers of native speakers outside China.

Translator Shortage and Tired Tales of Chinese Exceptionalism

Writes Dong Fangyu at China Daily in Translators Leave China Lost for Words:

Lenin's Kisses“. . . many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.

Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living,[受活]) by Yan Lianke [阎连科]. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.”

This is a claim rich in implications:

  • The Chinese language is too subtle and complex to be understood by outsiders
  • The Chinese-to-foreign-language translation task might best be left to us here in China
  •  There would be more than one Chinese Nobel Laureate if our works had been adequately translated.

[Read more…]

Chen Zhongshi’s “White Deer Plain”: Censored to Win Coveted Mao Dun Literary Prize

Au pays du cerf blanceWhite Deer Plain, a newly launched movie based on Chen Zhongshi’s novel of the same name (白鹿原, 陈忠实著), has aroused controversy both as a book and as a film. The novel tells the tale of two families, Bai and Lu, living through the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the beginning of the Republic and the rise of Communism in Shaanxi Province. It won the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 1997, but as documented in an article today (删改性写), not before the sensitive political content and sex scenes were appropriately trimmed:

《白鹿原》曾因其尖锐的历史政治观点及大胆的性爱描述,在竞选第四届茅盾文学奖前进行过一定程度的编辑和删减。据人民文学出版社副总编辑何启治(《白鹿 原》首版编辑)回忆,当时评委会负责人打电话给陈忠实,转述了一些评委要求他进一步修订作品的意见。这些意见主要认为:书中关于政治斗争的若干描写可能引 起误解,应以适当方式予以廓清;另外,一些与表现思想主题无关的较为直露的性描写应加以修改。陈忠实随后对《白鹿原》进行了适当修改。

Which makes you wonder: which version of the novel were Baoqing Shao and Solange Cruveillé working from when they translated the novel into French (Au pays du Cerf blanc)?

“Pamir Kyrgyz Traditional Song Conference” Held in Xinjiang’s Akto County

Just a few weeks after 40 Uyghur masters of the rhymed epic tales known as dastan gathered in Hami to stage and talk about their threatened art form (Dastan Training Session), some 60-plus performers of traditional Kyrgyz songs have gathered for a similar get-together in Xinjiang’s Akto County (阿克陶县) bordering on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

According to the article (约隆歌) re-published on the China Ethnic Literature Network, there are a large variety of these songs known as 约隆歌 (Yuēlóng gē in Chinese, and 约隆歌, I think), including those reserved just for a man or a woman, satirical ones, or to welcome a guest. Similar renditions can also be found among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia such as the Kazakh, Altai, Tuvan and Khakas.

This traditional Kyrgyz musical form was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by China in 2008, and more than 800 songs have reportedly been collected in the Pamir region to date.

Quote of the Week (Jun 26, 2012): Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on Mother Tongue

For to deny a child, any child, their right to mother tongue, to bring up such a child as a monolingual English speaker in a society where the majority speak African languages, to alienate that child from a public they may be called to serve, is nothing short of child abuse. (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenyan author, in Speaking My Language)

Oddly Monolingual Manchu Emperors and “New Qing History”

In The Charms of Qing TV, The Economist takes a closer look at the popular Qing historical dramas that are so popular on China’s video-sharing sites.

Is Mark Elliot—author of The Manchu Way, one of the first studies to use Manchu sources in the research of Qing history—bothered by Chinese TV’s monolingual Manchus?

“I’d say there is little doubt that the Manchu emperors could all speak decent Chinese. Kangxi’s was almost certainly not as good as that of his son and grandson, but he could get by just fine. Still, it seems he was more comfortable speaking Manchu, and preferred communicating with the Jesuits at court in Manchu rather than in Chinese. So the issue is not so much that the emperors are speaking Chinese, but that they are never found speaking Manchu, which they most definitely could and did do, especially in dealings with Manchu officials.”

This soap opera representation of the Manchu ruling class as curiously dependent on the Han tongue is at odds with a fresh but problematic interpretation of rule under the Manchus, known as “New Qing History.” For the details, see The Charms of Qing TV.

Translation of Century-old French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness

Published in 1908, a rare dictionary of the Buyi language—Essai de dictionnaire dioi-français reproduisant la langueDictionnaire Français-Buyi parlée par les tribus Thai de la Haute rivière de l’Ouest (布法辞典)—compiled by two French missionaries (Joseph Esquirol & Gustave Williatte) has long been slated for translation into Chinese. Attempts were made to complete the project in the late 1970s and again in 1989, but according to a recent report published on the Institute of Ethnic Literature’s web site (布依文化百科全书), for “certain reasons” they were not successful.

According to Wikipedia, the Bùyī  “live in semi-tropical, high-altitude forests of Guizhou province, as well as in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and speak a Tai language.”

The report doesn’t explicitly state the past or current obstacles to the dictionary’s translation and publication. One reason noted is the fact that it is written in “old French” (古法语), a somewhat bizarre claim given that 19th–century French is still quite understandable to your typical francophone.

Perhaps more insightful, in its own way, is this explanation offered by Guo Tangliang (郭堂亮), head editor at Guizhou Nationalities Publishing House (贵州民族出版社), who is taking part in the latest attempt to prepare this reference work’s first-ever appearance in Chinese (my translation):

. . .publishing the French-Buyi Dictionary is a big project and should be undertaken with a scientific and serious attitude. Since this book was created by French missionaries who had penetrated deeply into ethnic minority regions, the culture and customs of China’s Buyi people are seen through foreign eyes, and therefore evidence a certain bias. If it were directly translated, published and distributed, there would be issues related to matters such as its authorship, copyright and relationships between different ethnic groups.

Put bluntly, it looks like we can expect the final copy to be “edited” to ensure that we get an “unbiased” view of the Buyi and their language.

Interesting. I wonder: has the same sort of “editing” been done on classics like the still widely-consulted Kangxi Dictionary  (康熙字典)—compiled  in 1716 when foreigners (the Manchu), not the Han, ruled China?