Tibetan Language Diminished as Schools Switch to Mandarin

Children in the Tibetan Autonomous Region are losing fluency in the Tibetan language as schools in the region are increasingly teaching subjects in Mandarin on Chinese government orders, according to Radio Free Asia.

China formally introduced a policy of “bilingual education” in 2010 for schools in all minority areas in China, an approach to minority education considered appropriate internationally when it promotes competency in both the local and the national language. The official position of the TAR authorities is that both Tibetan and Chinese languages should be “promoted,” leaving individual schools to decide which language to prioritize as the teaching medium.

According to an anonymous source Tibet in Shigatse (Chinese Rìkāzé) the switch to Mandarin in primary and middle schools had resulted in reduced competency in Tibetan due to diminished usage.

“After school is over even, the students prefer to use Chinese instead of Tibetan, even in their daily conversations,” the source said.

“As such, the standard of the Tibetan language of Tibetan kids is very poor.”

Another source, a mother who requested anonymity, told RFA, “For tests and exams, the children are more inclined to get better grades in Chinese and other subjects, with little care or attention to Tibetan.”

“This trend of Chinese priority over Tibetan is worrying to us,” she said.

In an Op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times, HRW’s China Director Sophia Richardson wrote, “Ordinary Tibetans have expressed widespread concern about the increasing loss of fluency in Tibetan among the younger generation as a result of changing school policies.”

“While many favor Tibetan children learning both languages, there is considerable opposition to Chinese authorities’ approach, which erodes the Tibetan language skills of children and forces them to consume political ideology and ideas largely contrary to those of their parents and community,” she added.

A source who requested anonymity in Tsang, the region west of Lhasa that is considered the Tibetan cultural heartland, said, “It is true that Chinese has become the lingua franca in Tsang, and Tibetan students are becoming more interested in Chinese, so the Chinese language is widely used among the students.”

A primary teacher in Tsang Thong county middle school in Central Tibet was quoted by the Tibet Times as saying, “A few days ago some of my close students informed me via phone that the school started teaching math and physics in Chinese.”

“When the news hit my ear I was very surprised, anxious and felt deeply sad,” said the teacher.

A March 5, 2020 report by Human Rights Watch details a growing emphasis on Chinese-language schooling in Tibet, calling the trend “an assimilationist policy for minorities that has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.”

Tibetans already endure pervasive restrictions on their rights to free speech and religious belief, political participation and cultural expression. Since China’s “bilingual education” policies were formally introduced in 2010, Tibetans have repeatedly protested against them, mostly in Qinghai province in northwestern China. They have also demonstrated virtually by publishing online letters and petitions.

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