Beijing’s prohibition on Tibetan language and endangering it to disappearance

Dawa Tsering

Throughout the human civilization, countless languages have emerged and at the same time countless have been extinct. 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. 7200 years old Tibetan spoken language and almost 1500 years old Tibetan writing system is currently on the verge of its extinction because of various eco-linguistic, socio-linguistic and psycho-linguistic factors under the current state of Tibet under Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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 Tibetan population except to a very few Tibetan intellectuals and traders. The linguistic situation was more complex outside the areas controlled by the Lhasa government in so far as Chinese-speaking people had already been settled there for a long time, living side by side with the Tibetans, especially in the border regions. One of the first tasks of the new Chinese government in the Tibetan areas was to carry out the enormous task of translation of many modern texts, particularly those of a political and technological nature into Chinese. Through this monumental work stretching over several decades, many neologisms were coined to translate the new scientific, technical and political concepts that had been completely unknown in Tibetan until then. It also led to the publication of bilingual dictionaries. The neologisms were mainly based on calques or expressions drawn from classical Tibetan language. The number of literary borrowings from Chinese language has remained very low.

Tibetan has benefited considerably from the input of Chinese in these areas, exceeding many of the South-East Asian languages in its lexical inventions. In spite of these positive factors, we have been witnessing, especially since the early 1990s, a very marked decline in the usage of Tibetan in almost every walk of life. The real threat hovering over Tibetan has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese authorities. Recently, the Chinese authorities in Tibet have issued regulations which aim to protect the language entitled ‘Degrees, Use and Development of the Tibetan Language’. The simple fact that the Chinese authorities are protecting Tibetan language through the introduction of legislation underscores the gravity of the situation.

Tibetan language instruction is being largely phased out in Tibetan areas of China beginning in secondary school, leaving Tibetan students few options to pursue formal studies in their native tongue. Recently, according to a notice issued by the Ministry of Education in the Malho, Tsolho and Yulshul Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, a new announcement reducing the weight of Tibetan language scores on entrance exams for students in Tibetan areas has made it more difficult for them to gain admission to top tier secondary schools. 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 of  acceptance in these institutions will now be more difficult because in the change of exam scoring. Instead, they have to enroll in schools where more than 90 percent of the instructions are in Chinese and that pose a long-term threat to the Tibetan language. The new scoring system had dashed the dreams of pursuing education at a top tier secondary school and continuing to learn Tibetan. Earlier, Tibetan language scores were weighed the most heavily among all other subjects in grading the exam and placing students in middle and high schools.

A week after the centenary celebration (July 1, 2021) of the CCP, the Chinese government officials ordered the closure of Sengdruk Taktse middle school in Darlak County, Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture  (TAP) on July 8 without giving any reason for the shutdown. The students were advised to enroll themselves in government-affiliated Chinese schools in the region. This school had done nothing to offend the Chinese government, except to teach young Tibetans their own language and culture. The motive behind the closure is ‘political’ as the school’s primary language of instruction was in Tibetan, and the government run schools are required to teach in Chinese language.

Moreover, after the introduction of “Bilingual Education Policy” by communist party, Tibetan language loses its significance inside Tibet. Academically, since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady decline in the use of Tibetan and, conversely, a bolstering of Chinese which is becoming dominant. This new trend can in part be explained by a series of measures which were taken particularly in the field of education. These include an increase in the amount of time for Chinese in the curriculum, and its introduction at an earlier age (at the present time, it is taught right from the first class of primary school in the main cities). Young Tibetans are confronted with numerous cultural challenges: From the earlier age, for instance, they will have to learn three writing systems. Tibetan (which offers few professional openings in present-day society), Chinese (which is the most difficult system in the world), and the Latin alphabet (which is used to learn Chinese phonetic transcription as well as English). 

Under the constant enlargement and modification of linguistic policies in Tibet on different years, the reach of Chinese language and its usage in Tibet have enhanced. The cultural-homogenization strategy had played a crucial role in shrinkage of Tibetan usage in parts of (historically claimed) Tibetan areas other than TAR. As for TAR, 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 provinces where Chinese is dominant language, and requiring all Tibetan teachers to be fluent in Chinese.

All these measures improve Tibetan children’s exposure to Chinese but can weaken children’s access to and familiarity with their own language. The imposition of teaching practices that encourage the switch to Chinese-medium instruction in the TAR is the result of increasing moves by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP or the “Party”) since 2014 to shift away from encouragement of cultural diversity, which had been the official policy towards minorities since the early 1980s, including respect for the distinctive cultures and languages of minorities. Tibetans, on the other hand, were more concerned about their fading language and attempted different ways to inherit it to newer generations. Hence, Informal classes taught by monks during school holidays have become popular in Tibetan areas, particularly to teach the Tibetan language, which is used less progressively in many government-run schools.

However, the objection from authorities was immediate. The schools and local education bureaus 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 CCP cadres responsible for managing monasteries to “understand the harmful nature of monasteries running open schools,” and to stop them from doing so.

For instance, The Nangchen ban conforms to earlier reports of similar bans in Tibetan areas. The language used 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 were applied only to schools in Tibet, where restrictions are generally tighter. Human Rights Watch has copies of notices issued by Tibetan schools ordering parents not to allow their children to take part in religious activities or to visit religious places such as monasteries. A notice to parents from the Jebumgang Primary School in Lhasa, dated May 27, 2019, instructed them not to allow their children “to engage in any superstitious or religious activity” during the fourth month of the lunar calendar, when many Tibetans visit monasteries or perform religious rituals. The notice also ordered parents to “understand that they have a responsibility not to engage in such activities themselves.” A similar school notice, issued on May 14, 2020, by a kindergarten in Chamdo, the third largest city in the TAR, warns parents that, “if your children miss any days of school, and are later found to have been secretly taken to a monastery or religious festival, your family will be reported directly to the city education bureau.” The notice said that the reason for the ban was to promote “critical thinking” in the children’s education and added that “the higher authorities will be covertly watching, and those who break regulations will be dealt with.”

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. In Tibet, this phenomenon is referred to by the term “speaking half-goat half-sheep”. This Tibetan-Chinese mixed speech is so widespread that many young people in the urban areas are incapable of forming a sentence in Tibetan without using Chinese words, despite the fact that most of the time the Tibetan equivalents exist. Borrowings from Chinese affect more particularly certain linguistic categories (essentially substantives and more infrequently verbs and adjectives, etc.) and lexical fields.

It seems that the education experts in China have not weighed up the heavy sociolinguistic consequences of a linguistic policy that targets only the development of Chinese and neglects Tibetan. In less than fifty years, Tibetan, which is currently part of the cultural heritage of China, has become an endangered language, condemned to an irreversible decline, and is doomed to outright extinction within few years, if the present linguistic policy is maintained.

It is therefore imperative that the Party’s cadres and the education experts in China rethink their linguistic policy in the Tibetan-speaking regions. It is likely that the present regulations on the Tibetan language will have no significant impact and that only a far-reaching reform introducing a real Tibetan-Chinese bilingualism will be capable of changing the eco-linguistic situation. If this does not eventuate, the Chinese government’s responsibility in the predicted disappearance of Tibetan will not be easily brushed aside.

News Desk

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