First Lady Michelle Obama on the Edge of Tibet: Urged to Focus on Language in Education

  • First Lady Michelle Obama, will dine at a Tibetan restaurant during her visit to Chengdu (March 25-26), the capital of a province with a significant Tibetan population.
  • With the focus of her visit on education, the International Campaign for Tibet has urged the First Lady to raise the issue of the importance of a genuine bilingual policy that asserts the centrality of the Tibetan language in areas where Tibetans live.
  • State media announced, just days before Michelle Obama’s visit, plans to ensure that Chinese language will predominate over Tibetan in schools in Tibetan areas.

The visit by U.S. First Lady Obama to Chengdu, including a meal at a Tibetan restaurant, offers the opportunity to inquire about the state of Tibetan language education in the People’s Republic of China.

“We welcome the First Lady’s visit to a Tibetan restaurant, a demonstration of the long-standing American interest in the distinct Tibetan culture,” said Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet. “Given the trip’s focus on education, we hope she avails herself of the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Tibetans as they try to prevent their language from becoming the secondary language of instruction in their homeland.”

The term ‘bilingual education’ has different meanings to Tibetans and Chinese. Tibetans seek to preserve their language by giving it at least equal footing with Mandarin. To Chinese officials, ‘bilingual education’ policy provides that Chinese is the main language of instruction, with Tibetan relegated to just Tibetan language class.

As an example, on March 17, the Chinese People’s Daily reported that Tibetan schools in Tsoe, Kanlho area of Gansu province, had implemented the ‘Sino-Tibetan bilingual teaching system’ with an expansion of Chinese language teaching. On the same day, the state media reported that both primary and secondary schools had fully implemented the ‘bilingual education system’ in Dechen (Chinese: Deqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan (http://ti.gzznews.com/Html/News/KbNews/DiQing/14/03/Content_201403177621.html). (see below)

In Qinghai province, which is predominantly the Tibetan area of Amdo, government efforts to prioritize Chinese over Tibetan led to widespread peaceful protests by Tibetan schoolchildren in 2010.

In response, local educated people in Tibetan nomadic and rural areas have set up ‘pure language’ groups to ensure that even those with little education can learn and speak Tibetan. Tibetan intellectuals are risking their careers to spend their time expanding work on the Tibetan language together with modern information technology.

“Tibetans have reached a critical point in the struggle to preserve their unique language and its remarkable literary and religious culture,” said Matteo Mecacci. “But the Tibetan language, which is core to Tibetan communication, culture, religion and national identity has been steadily undermined under Chinese rule over the past six decades. The Chinese authorities are focusing on the dominance of the Chinese language to the detriment of Tibetan, and are also marginalizing the Tibetan language by withdrawing it from the curriculum.”

ICT briefing: Tibetan language education
  1. Chinese policies that undermine Tibetan language run counter to provisions in China’s own laws, specifically the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that Chinese legal protections for language and culture are not implemented in Tibet.
  2. Primary reliance on the Tibetan language creates serious obstacles for Tibetans in terms of their further education, jobs and income in the Chinese-run system.
  3. Research shows that children do better when the language acquired from birth is the teaching medium. While primary-level classes are still taught in Tibetan in many Tibetan areas, instruction as higher levels is in Chinese in all subjects other than Tibetan language classes. Tibetans are find themselves at an educational disadvantage.
  4. Tibetans want to learn Chinese, but not at the expense of the integrity of their mother tongue, in which their religious and cultural heritage is transmitted.
  5. The Chinese government spends heavily on education in Tibetan areas. A nine-year compulsory education program, in the areas where this is implemented, provides three years of free vocational education programs. The entire curriculum is in Chinese, however. Students who choose ways to learn through the Tibetan language medium at middle school must pay higher fees than those at Chinese middle schools, even while the schools are administered by the same education department.
  6. Tibetans have created non-governmental groups and small private schools for instruction in Tibetan language. These schools, where Chinese is also taught as a major subject, aim to sharpen youths’ knowledge and understanding of their linguistic and cultural identity, history, literature, poetry and other subjects.
  7. Authorities have responded negatively to some of these Tibetan initiatives. Since 2008, several Tibetan community leaders involved in Tibetan language promotion or active in civil society have been imprisoned, often in attempts to ‘cut down the tall trees’ by removing figures of influence from the community. A number of Tibetan students who participated in peaceful, moderate demonstrations to protect their language have also been imprisoned. Private schools have been closed as well.
Translation of recent articles on ‘bilingual education’

50,000 Gansu Primary and Secondary Students to Receive “Tibetan and Chinese Bilingual” Education

http://ti.gzznews.com/Html/News/KbNews/DiQing/14/03/Content_201403177621.html

“I’m currently teaching a fifth-year class. I remember the time when they started going to school: I asked one child to clean the blackboard, but instead he brought his homework to me.” At 11 AM, reporters arrived at the Gansu Province Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Tsoe City #4 Primary School for interviews. School teacher Xue Liyun said, “Tibetan students studying Chinese, and Chinese characters, are basically starting from scratch. After the school started Chinese and Tibetan bilingual education, children have an environment to study Chinese and Chinese characters, and when they reach the 5th or 6th year speaking Chinese and writing Chinese characters is basically no problem.

According to facts provided by school Party Secretary Li Kangping, this teaching model is therefore based on making Tibetan the teaching language, making use of a full-time boarding school which uses the “Five Provinces Tibetan Area Chinese Textbook” and teaches Chinese language classes. Currently the school has a total of 1,484 students, all Tibetan.

According to statistics, at the end of 2013 Kanlho had a total of 143 Chinese and Tibetan bilingual education schools, of which 125 were primary schools and 18 were secondary schools. 51,363 students are receiving Chinese and Tibetan bilingual education, which accounts for 37.08% of the primary and secondary students in the prefecture. The “Tibetan and Chinese bilingual” education model is being continuously optimized to increase the enrollment of school-age Tibetan children, to increase the completion rate and graduation rates of Tibetan students, and to win the support and welcome of the masses of farmers and nomads.

Implementation of Tibetan and Chinese Bilingual Education Achieves Initial Success in Yunnan’s Dechen Tibetan Region

http://www.mzb.com.cn/html/Home/report/14037350-1.htm

Recently this reporter entered several schools in Yunnan Province Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture which have implemented Tibetan and Chinese bilingual education. Students who are serious about studying the Tibetan language can be seen everywhere, forming a unique campus landscape.

According to facts provided by Yunnan Province Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Education Secretary Yang Hongbing, over the years Dechen Prefecture has actively promoted Tibetan and Chinese bilingual education, leaving the spoken and written Tibetan language with a strong heritage, and cultivating a large number of educated individuals for the Tibetan region. Currently there are 22 Tibetan language schools in the prefecture, with nearly 3,000 people receiving standard Tibetan language learning in schools.

In recent years, the enthusiasm for learning Tibetan has also increased among non-Tibetan students. At both the Dechen Tibetan Secondary School or the Gyalthang County Nationality Elementary School, some Naxi, Yi, Lisu, and even Chinese students are studying Tibetan. In the eyes of these students, bilingual Tibetan and Chinese is the “common language” of the Tibetan region. Dechen Tibetan Secondary School Tibetan teacher Jiayang said, “Language is an important carrier of cultural transmission, and having children study Tibetan has a positive effect on Tibetans cultural heritage. It isn’t difficult for students of other nationalities to study Tibetan, and because they often use Tibetan to communicate with classmates at school, their progress is obvious.

Dechen Tibetan Secondary School, founded in 1994, is Yunnan’s only fully bilingual school. Vice Principle Li Jixian explained that the school currently has nine middle school classes and six high school classes. More than 940 students study here, of whom over 95% are Tibetan. In order to reduce the price of studying, the government has provided 1,000 yuan living allowance per year for every student from rural or urban poor families.

Tibetan Secondary School has 6 Tibetan lessons each week, almost equal with the number of hours given to language, mathematics, and other core classes. In recent years Tibetan Secondary School has had a college entrance exam rate of more than 98%, with most students accepted after graduation by the Central Nationalities University, the Southwestern Nationalities University, the Yunnan Nationalities University, Tibet Autonomous Region University and other universities, mainly to study Tibetan medicine, teacher training, and professional Tibetan language. After graduation most people return to the Tibetan region to build their homeland.

It is understood that the Gyalthang Nationality Primary School put Tibetan language study content into the everyday curriculum beginning in 1999. In recent years the dropout rate has been 0%. From the 1980s until today, the Gyalthang Nationality Primary School has delivered a base of nearly 2,500 students with Tibetan language skills to receive higher education.

Yang Hongbing says that in order to inherit and promote Tibetan culture, Dechen Prefecture will strive to construct a completely bilingual education system in the future, while at the same time adding public and elective classes on Tibetan calligraphy, arts, and crafts, and Tibetan culture for tour guides, training more multi-talented people.

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