Language Policies Impede Tibetan Literacy in Tibetan Majority Regions

In Tibetans Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China, Edward Wong explores how recent changes to China’s language policy in areas populated mainly by speakers of Tibetan are — intentionally, it appears — making it much more difficult for many students to attain basic literacy in their mother tongue:

When officials forced an informal school run by monks near here to stop offering language classes for laypeople, Tashi Wangchuk looked for a place where his two teenage nieces could continue studying Tibetan. To his surprise, he could not find one, even though nearly everyone living in this market town on the Tibetan plateau here is Tibetan. Officials had also ordered other monasteries and a private school in the area not to teach the language to laypeople. And public schools had dropped true bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, teaching Tibetan only in a single class, like a foreign language, if they taught it at all.

If this trend continues, then the logical next step for Tibetan speakers is to push for more money and resources to be funneled into the teaching of Tibetan, even if it is taught separately and not used as the main language of instruction during the school day.

Policies regarding the teaching of non-Han languages have not, contrary to what one might expect, been consistent since 1949. As recounted in English, a coming-of-age-novel by Wang Gang set in Xinjiang at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, middle school students — including Han — were originally taught the Uyghur language. This made sense, since outside Urumqi, many towns and villages in Xinjiang then were majority Uyghur.

But as far as I know, nowadays few if any Han students are “forced” to learn any languages except Chinese and English, even if they live in an area where they are effectively a minority ethnic group. I still recall my Kashgar-born-and-raised Han driver in Kashgar, Xinjiang, which is overwhelmingly Uyghur, who only spoke enough of this Turkic tongue to haggle over items in roadside markets.

On a not so subtle level, the signal this policy sends to the population at large is that our language is Chinese, and other languages — be they Uyghur, Tibetan, or Dai — are for them. One result is that the study of non-Han languages (tho’ English remains “cool”) is stigmatized even among native speakers. For example, see Mongolian Fluency Drops among Minority Students in Hulunbuir for details on  the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论).

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