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Friday, June 9, 2023

Chinese crackdown on Tibetan language

Throughout the human civilisation, countless languages have emerged and at the same time countless have been wiped out. Languages carry not only the messages but also cultures and traditions from generations to generations. If a language of certain community nears its extinction, the traditions of that community would perish too. The 7,200-year-old Tibetan spoken language and almost the 1,500 year-old Tibetan writing system currently nears its extinction because of various eco-linguistic, socio-linguistic and psycho-linguistic factors under the Chinese government. Writers, singers, and artists promoting Tibetan language have been frequently detained by Chinese authorities, with many handed long jail terms, following protests that swept Tibet.

Before the Chinese Communists took over in 1950, Tibetan was the only official language in the territories under the Lhasa government’s administration. Chinese was completely unknown to the Tibetans except to a very few Tibetan intellectuals and traders. One of the first tasks of the new Chinese government in the Tibetan areas was to carry out the enormous task of translation into Chinese of many modern texts, particularly those of a political and technological nature. It also led to the publications of bilingual dictionaries. In spite of these positive factors, Tibetans have been witnessing, especially since the early 1990s, a very marked decline of the usage of Tibetan language in almost every walk of life. Academically, since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady decline in the use of Tibetan andconversely, Chinese is becoming dominant.

Under the constant modification of linguistic policies in Tibet in past few years, the reach of Chinese language and its usage in Tibet have enhanced. The cultural-homogenisation strategy had played a crucial role in shrinkage of Tibetan usage in parts of historically claimed Tibetan areas other than TAR. As far as TAR is concerned, while public statements by the authorities remain ambiguous, there are increasing signs that they are using a range of indirect mechanisms to pressure schools in the region to switch to Chinese-medium teaching. These measures require Tibetan schools to increase Tibetan children’s immersion in Chinese culture and language. They include “mixed classes”, “concentrated schooling”, the transfer of large number of Chinese teachers to Tibetan schools, sending Tibetan teachers for training to Chinese provinces, where Chinese is dominant language, and requiring all Tibetan teachers to be fluent in Chinese.

China’s constitution enshrines the languages of its minority groups on paper, but authorities have increasingly placed restrictions on their usage in the education system, while those with limited proficiency in the Chinese language often encounter barriers to employment and other services offered by the state. These measures improve Tibetan children’s exposure to Chinese language but at the same time weaken children’s access and familiarity with their own language. The imposition of teaching practices that encourage the switch to Chinese-medium instruction in the schools in TAR is the result of increasing moves by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For instance, recent ban imposed by the Nangchen (Kham) government suggests that officials are trying to stop school-children from having contact with monks for even non-religious activities such as classes in Tibetan language. It also shows that officials are attempting to restrict children’s religious activities in eastern Tibetan areas such as Qinghai province. Previously, the restrictions applied only to schools in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where restrictions are generally tighter. Moreover, after the introduction of “Bilingual Education Policy” by communist party, Tibetan language loses its significance inside Tibet. Although Tibetan was not officially and publicly banned by the authority but it was indeed, systematically.

This new trend can in part be explained by a series of measures which were taken particularly in the field of education. Earlier this year in January, the TAR Director of Legal Affairs Committee Shen Chungyuao announced that schools in “minority areas” were not allowed to teach in their own languages and deemed such education to be “unconstitutional”. The move was in direct contradiction with the founding provisions of the Bilingual Education Law passed in 1951.

On July 21, China shut down the Sengdruk Taktse middle school, located in Taktse county of Lhasa City, and all its students were told to enrol in government-affiliated schools in the region where education is designed to ‘Sinicize’ the Tibetan people and their culture. No official reason was given by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for ordering the school’s closure.

Meanwhile, according to a notice issued by the Ministry of Education in the Malho, Tsolho and Yulshul Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, new �School Admission Entrance Exam’ will now be weighed equally to those for Chinese and English. In prior years, Tibetan language scores were weighed the most heavily among all other subjects in grading the exam and placing students in middle and high schools. Reducing the weight of Tibetan language scores on entrance exams for students in Tibetan areas of China has made it more difficult for them to gain admission in secondary schools where they can pursue formal study of their native language. Earlier, Tibetan students often seek placement in national-level secondary schools that offer studies in Tibetan as well as Chinese and other languages, but the bar to acceptance in these institutions will now be more difficult because in the change of exam scoring, said a Tibetan from Qinghai, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

National middle and high schools are considered more reputable, as the grades obtained in these schools carry greater significance upon graduation. The new scoring system will have a chilling effect on native language proficiency among Tibetans living under Chinese rule. Due to the requirement of a high score margin to gain admission to these national schools (which are the only that teach Tibetan), many Tibetan students who wish to enrol in them are not able to make it. Instead, they have to enrol in schools where more than 90 per cent of the instruction is in Chinese and that poses a long-term threat to the Tibetan language. Tibetan language instruction is largely phased out in Tibetan areas, leaving Tibetan students with few options to pursue formal studies in their native tongue.

As a result of such policies and system, the lack of interest in Tibetan can be observed through several external signs. In the cities, over the past decade, the mixture of Tibetan and Chinese has become considerably more pronounced. This Tibetan-Chinese mixed language is so widespread that many young people in the urban areas are incapable of forming a sentence in Tibetan without using Chinese words. Tibetans, on the other hand, were more and more concerned about their fading language and are attempting different ways to pressure it. Hence, Informal classes taught by monks during school holidays have become popular in Tibetan areas. However, the objection from the authorities was immediate. The schools and local education bureaus have issued bans on children attending such classes and even warned about severe repercussions. The education policy maker describes informal classes run by monks as “ideological infiltration among the young,” “dangerous”, and “harmful”. It calls on local officials and Chinese Communist Party cadres responsible for managing monasteries to “understand the harmful nature of monasteries running open schools”, and to stop them from doing so.

It seems that the education experts in China have not weighed up the heavy socio-linguistic consequences of a linguistic policy that targets only the development of Chinese language and neglects Tibetan Language. In less than fifty years, Tibetan, which is currently part of the cultural heritage of China, has become an endangered language. It is therefore urgent that the Party’s cadres and the education experts in China rethink their linguistic policy in the Tibetan-speaking regions. It is time for all who believe in human rights to listen to Tibetans who have raised the alarm about this policy and to challenge Beijing directly.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed)

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