Tibetan teachers write petition in support of Tibetan language; fears for students after detentions

Tibetan students in Rebkong protest

Tibetan students in Rebkong protest new measures that will increase Chinese-language medium teaching and undermine Tibetan language study.

Several hundred Tibetan teachers and students in Qinghai have written a detailed letter to the authorities, enclosed with this report, setting out the reasons why the teaching medium should remain Tibetan rather than Chinese, following proposed education reforms that sparked protests last week involving thousands of students.

Protests by Tibetan school and college students over plans to change the language medium of instruction spread from several areas of Qinghai to Beijing last week, involving thousands of Tibetan students in the Rebkong and Chabcha areas of Qinghai and several hundred Tibetan students at Minzu (Chinese: Nationality) University of China who protested to express their concern about the downgrading of the Tibetan language. (ICT report, Protests by students against downgrading of Tibetan language spread to Beijing and video footage by Radio Free Asia).

Security has been intensified in the areas where students protested, with sources in the area reporting the detention of more than 20 students from the Tibetan Middle School in Chabcha (Chinese: Gonghe) on Friday (October 22). Tibetan sources in exile in contact with others in the area said that some Tibetan schoolchildren and students may have been detained inside their schools in Chabcha, which is in Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, the Tibetan area of Amdo. One Tibetan source said that it was believed the authorities were carrying out investigations on students who participated in the peaceful demonstrations, which are the most significant in Amdo since protests broke out across Tibet from March 10, 2008.

The protests in Qinghai were caused by new measures that focus on Chinese as the main language of instruction with the Tibetan language to be treated only as a language class, and with less time allocated to it in the curriculum. This reflects the Qinghai authorities’ emphasis on enforcing the importance of the Chinese language for Tibetans, which strikes at the core of Tibetan fears over the survival of their identity and culture.

Petition expresses Tibetan concerns on reform of language policy

A petition obtained by ICT and signed by more than 300 teachers and students from Qinghai expresses their view that while learning Chinese is essential for students in Tibet today, the main language medium for teaching should remain Tibetan. The letter was written by teachers from elementary and middle schools from the area, and also signed by some students, following a conference held in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) from October 11-16, before the protests.

The letter points out that there is a “difference between teaching a language and the language of instruction.” It has been widely acknowledged by scholars and researchers that for a genuine bilingual education to be successful, the introduction of the second (non-native) language – in this case Chinese – must be gradual.

In their letter, the Tibetan teachers support a genuine bilingual language policy, in which the teaching of the Chinese language is strengthened, but subjects are taught through the Tibetan language medium. But the Qinghai authorities are setting in place what they also characterise as a “bilingual” policy but which appears to mean in practicean education imperative which is designed to transition minority students from education in their mother tongue to education in Chinese. New measures to “forcefully develop ‘bilingual’ pre-school education in the farming and pastoral areas, strengthen teaching of the Chinese language in the basic education phase, [and] basically resolve nationality students’ fundamental ability issues in speaking and understanding Chinese” were outlined as part of a ten-year plan for 2010-2020 in Qinghai in June.

The Tibetan teachers write: “An individual’s wisdom and their ability to analyze problems is intimately connected to the development of their language abilities. Therefore, in order to raise the quality of teaching and education and to amply reveal a person’s intelligence, we should use a language of instruction most easily understood by the students, at the same time as strengthening the teaching of language itself. Therefore, all [signatories] maintain that it is scientific to continue using the mother tongue as the language of instruction.”

The teachers’ contention about the importance of teaching in Tibetan is borne out by numerous studies, even within China. David Germano, Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, says: “[Studies] have shown consistently that Tibetans who train and test in Chinese medium contexts persistently perform worse than when they are able to train and test in Tibetan. By using their own mother tongue for training, education, and testing, they perform markedly better on standard intelligence and other tests than they do when they are forced to use Chinese.” Professor Germano points out that the scenario of Chinese becoming the professional language and a literary language is “one that simply consigns Tibetans to oblivion and to perpetual second class status.” (Transcript of the full Congressional-Executive Commission on China roundtable, Teaching and Learning Tibetan: The Role of the Tibetan Language in Tibet’s Future). Also see blog by Tenzin Dickyi, Special Assistant to the Dalai Lama’s Representative to the Americas, in the Huffington Post today, who says: “Forcing students who grow up speaking Tibetan to study the concepts of science, social science and mathematics in a second language is to disadvantage them from the start: a handicap that will place certain stumbling blocks in their educational development.”).

“Adhere to the mother tongue as the dominant language”

The full text of the letter by the teachers and students, written in both Tibetan and Chinese, is translated below into English by ICT:

Raising the quality of nationality education requires adhering to teaching the mother tongue as the dominant language

Under the correct leadership of the Qinghai Province Department of Education, Tongren County in Huangnan Prefecture arranged and held Tibetan Language Course Reforms Training from October 11 to 16, 2010 for elementary and middle school teachers. More than 300 teachers from Tibetan elementary and middle schools across Qinghai province attended the training, and the outcomes of the training were exemplary. However, trainees engaged in deep discussions during the training, and consider that there must be thorough changes to the backward state of Tibetan education, requiring adherence to teaching of the mother tongue as the dominant language.

Violating regulations on teaching and study and not using a scientific medium of instruction are major factors restricting the quality of teaching and study at nationality elementary and middle schools. Our province’s Tibetan students come from the vast farming and nomadic areas and have never been in a Chinese-language environment. Even though they have studied Chinese for several years by the time of their elementary school education, they cannot communicate in Chinese. If our province were to address such a group as this by adopting Chinese-language tuition, the outcome would be that the students would not understand what the teacher is saying, not to mention be able to actually learn anything. The choice of language of instruction should depend entirely on those being taught. The purpose of education is for teachers and students to convey and receive knowledge by the most easily understood means between teachers and students. As far as the Tibetan students in our province are concerned, they are not familiar with Chinese and so they are not able to think about or express their ideas in Chinese, not to mention being able to use Chinese to creatively analyze problems. However, in daily life the Tibetan mother tongue is the most familiar tool for analyzing problems and expressing ideas, and therefore it should be the most effective tool for study in their lives at school. As an example, with regard to normal middle-school students, their mother tongue is Chinese, the language they are most familiar with, and they take to teaching in the Chinese language like a fish to water. But what would happen if the language of instruction we used for ordinary middle school students was English, with which they are unfamiliar? Obviously, the quality of education for the vast majority of ordinary middle school students would suffer significantly.

Using the mother tongue as the language of instruction for nationality elementary and middle school students does not imply a weakening of the Chinese language. Quite the contrary: aside from teaching classes such as Chinese and English using the mother tongue, the study of Chinese should be strengthened, and the study of English should gradually be strengthened. A Tibetan scholar put it well: if one wishes to stand up, one must study one’s mother tongue well; if one wants to leave one’s home, one must study Chinese well; if one wants to go out into the world, one must study English well – there is no point therefore in belaboring the importance of the Chinese language and script and the English language. Relatively speaking, in accordance with the realities in Tibetan areas it is more important to study Chinese. At present, there are many problems with the Chinese language and script as taught in Tibetan elementary and middle schools, such as with the teaching methods and the chosen teaching materials not conforming to the real conditions of Tibetan students. In many places in our province, Tibetan students have studied Chinese for 10 or more years – from elementary school until upper middle school – but they are still unable to communicate in Chinese. In order to thoroughly change this situation, we must renew our understanding of how we can effectively teach Chinese to Tibetan students, and even carry out research into this topic. In many countries in the west, there has been much research into methods and materials for teaching English as a second language. As a result of this research, there have been positive outcomes in English teaching in non-English speaking countries. In recent years, our country has also adopted these teaching concepts and there have been great changes in English language teaching from the teaching methods to the teaching materials, which has made English language teaching more practicable, and increased students’ interest in study. Such progressive foreign teaching methods should also be used for Tibetan students studying the Chinese language, and for teaching the Chinese language and script as a second language. The relevant education departments should formulate appropriate measures to this end, and focusing on the real conditions of Tibetan students, compile Chinese language and script materials and train Chinese language teachers in the new teaching concepts and practices, thereby making Tibetan students’ study of the Chinese language more effective and more practical.

But we cannot sacrifice the study of other subjects for the sake of properly studying the Chinese language and text and the English language. We should understand the difference between teaching a language and the language of instruction. The choice of which language is used for instruction should be decided entirely upon which language is not an obstacle to the student’s studies. An individual’s wisdom and their ability to analyze problems is intimately connected to the development of their language abilities. Therefore, in order to raise the quality of teaching and education and to amply reveal a person’s intelligence, we should use a language of instruction most easily understood by the students, at the same time as strengthening the teaching of language itself. Therefore, all trainees maintain that it is scientific to continue using the mother tongue as the language of instruction.

The entire body of trainees at the Qinghai Province Elementary and Middle School Tibetan Language Course Reforms Training Class

October 15, 2010

The names and affiliations of the trainees are as follows: [names and affiliations withheld]

New plans that sparked protests “maintain focus” on Chinese

The catalyst for the protests in Qinghai and Beijing was the announcement of new plans downgrading the Tibetan language and asserting the importance of Chinese in education. The current Party Secretary of Qinghai province Qiang Wei recently outlined the importance of the Chinese language over Tibetan, stating at a conference in education in September that: “Qinghai province has vigorously implemented state common language [Chinese] teaching in compulsory education while extending the ‘bilingual’ teaching of minority languages and scripts, making people of all minority nationalities grasp and use the Chinese language and script, thereby achieving ‘intercommunication between ethnics and Han’ [minhan jiantong].” He added that strengthening “bilingual” education, which asserts the importance of the Chinese language, is “an important political duty.” (Translation into English by ICT, of People’s Daily article, ‘Qinghai Province Party Secretary Qiang Wei: Make “bi-lingual” education a livelihood project’, September 30).

A translation into English by ICT of an outline of mid to long-term plans for the reform of education in Qinghai, enclosed below, reveals a focus on “making the state’s common language and script [Chinese] the language of instruction”. (http://www.qhnews.com/index/system/2010/09/17/010199743.shtml).

In a new development, the new Qinghai outline also specifies the support of construction of “[…] kindergartens for pre-school bilingual education in nationality areas, actively promote ethnic and Han joint campuses, and combined ethnic and Han kindergarten classes.” This indicates that there will be more of an emphasis on learning through Chinese language even at kindergarten level. Research shows that it is key for children to build confidence and mastery of their own native language in the first three or four years of primary education, and then gradual, year by year, introduction to the other language. Until now, teaching at kindergarten-level has been largely through the Tibetan language, although this is increasingly being undermined.

Education through Chinese in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan) is already well advanced from kindergarten-level onwards, to the detriment of the Uyghur native language. Qinghai’s governor Ms Song Xiuyan was apparently so impressed with the ‘bilingual’ rollout of the education policy in Xinjiang that she sent a delegation to tour the province – just before protests and riots against Chinese policies broke out in July, 2009.

A China Daily report stated that: “Mandarin is now widely taught in pre-schools and kindergartens [in the XUAR] to prepare children for school life in a second language environment.” In the same article, governor of the XUAR Nur Bekri even claimed that: “Teaching Mandarin to students in the remote Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was helping the fight against terrorism.” He was quoted as saying: “Terrorists from neighboring countries mainly target Uygurs that are relatively isolated from mainstream society as they cannot speak Mandarin. They are then tricked into terrorist activities.” (“Mandarin lessons in Xinjiang ‘help fight terrorism’,” June 4, 2009, chinadaily.com.cn.).

Amendments to the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law in 2001, aimed at assimilation rather than protecting ethnic distinctiveness, have created further pressure on efforts to protect the Tibetan language. The amended Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law increased state support for ethnic minority education but reduced the state’s commitment to the preservation and use of ethnic minority language such as Tibetan. A result of the amendments is that Tibetans must compete academically with Chinese who enroll in ethnic minority institutes, and compete with them for jobs after graduation. Language that authorized preferential treatment for Tibetans and other minority nationalities to compete for employment against the Chinese was also removed in the amended Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Annual Report, Tibet: Special Focus for 2007, available at www.cecc.gov and ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon, at: http://www.savetibet.org/documents/reports/tracking-steel-dragon).

The promotion of the standard Chinese language (putonghua) has been strengthened across the PRC. The central “Law on the Common National Language” passed on October 31, 2000, stated “Local governments and other relevant organs at all levels must adopt measures to popularize puntonghua and to promote standard Han characters.”

Qinghai Province Mid- to Long-Term Plan Outline for the Reform and Development of Education

A translation into English of key points by ICT follows below:

http://www.qhnews.com/index/system/2010/09/17/010199743.shtml

Qinghai Province Mid- to Long-Term Plan Outline for the Reform and Development of Education

[…]

11) Nationality Education. Comprehensively implement the Party’s nationality policies and the stat’s relevant laws and regulations, strengthen a step further nationality education work, and conscientiously resolve the special difficulties and prominent issues faced by minority nationalities and educational undertakings in nationality areas of our province. Adjust structures, optimize distribution, improve teaching conditions, raise the levels of school management, and enhance the operating efficiency of teaching. Forcefully promote the reform and development of “bilingual” education. Maintain the focus on using the state’s common language and script at the same time as properly studying nationality languages and scripts, making the state’s common language and script the language of instruction, making minority nationalities basically familiar with and able to use the state’s common language and the nationalities’ own languages and scripts. Support construction kindergartens for pre-school bilingual education in nationality areas, actively promote ethnic and Han joint campuses, and combined ethnic and Han kindergarten classes. Strive for donor aid provinces and centrally administered municipalities to construct a batch of model “bilingual” kindergartens. Encourage nationality elementary and middle schools and ordinary elementary and middle schools to integrate resources and implement ethnic and Han joint schools, to change the teaching environment and optimize modes of training. Strengthen “bilingual” teaching materials, teacher training, and basic infrastructures. By 2015, elementary schools will have realized “bilingual” education based on the state’s common language and script with the nationality language as the guide, and the pace of implementing education in the state’s common language and script for minority nationality middle school students with be quickened, with the additional teaching of the nationalities’ own languages and scripts. Strengthen nationalities’ preparatory courses. In accordance with regulated and systematized thinking, combine our province’s high school preparatory course materials, and raise the quality of training for elite minority nationality personnel. Formulate favorable policies to encourage and support high-school and college graduates to assume teaching positions in nationality areas. Support the development of distance learning in nationality areas, and extend the coverage of high-quality education resources. Broaden off-site education within the province and beyond, and in Xining run high-level nationality middle schools and vocational middle schools, and strive for donor aid provinces and centrally administered municipalities to provide nationality and ordinary middle school classes and nationality vocational middle school classes. By 2015, the number of students studying outside of the province will be over 6000; by 2020, the number of students studying outside of the province will be over 12,000.

Tibetan as the ‘lifeblood” of a nationality

The following blog, written anonymously in Chinese, appeared on the popular ‘My Potala’ site – www.mybudala.com – and is translated into English by ICT below. It is a passionate appeal for Tibetans to do everything they can to protect and preserve the Tibetan language.

Professor David Germano from the University of Virginia echoes the concern of the blogger in a statement to a roundtable in Washington, DC, about the importance of the preservation of the Tibetan language. Giving suggestions on measures to protect the language, he said: “The general idea is, of course, to promote the Tibetan language and culture in the educational system and to establish a real Tibetan-Chinese bilingual education, not as it is now, a monolingual Chinese society, but a real bilingual society. It also means advertising the [May 2002] Chinese law [regulations on protecting the Tibetan language, the first to be instituted for any ‘ethnic’ language in the PRC] and exerting pressure so that it is really implemented. […] Promoting standard spoken Tibetan is extremely important because there is a high rate of unemployment and also an incredible level of illiteracy. It is important to promote standard spoken Tibetan, which is the vernacular language […]. It is possible, for instance, to fund projects that will publish classical texts in the vernacular language. […] There are even some very concrete things we can do from the West. For example, the creation of literary prizes and awards for Tibetan writers. The support of artists and writers who would travel in the countryside and meet the peasants and organize cultural festivals. We could also support radio broadcasting so that they could broadcast the classics of Tibetan and foreign literature. Pay teachers in Tibet so they can collect tapes of traditional music and folk tales that have not been recorded. Help to create calligraphy competitions and spelling competitions. These are all very concrete steps. Anything that makes the Tibetans feel that their language and culture does have prestige.” (http://www.cecc.gov/pages/roundtables/040703/index.php).

The blogger warns: “Our nationality’s culture is rich in content, it has a long and glorious history, it is imbued with richness and beauty, it has a distinct and unique style, and it holds an important position in China’s cultural treasure-house. However, with the passing of the times, more and more people cast their own nationality’s history and culture apart from their nationality’s soul in order to satisfy immediate interests.”

My Tibetan compatriots, please put out your hands and together let us rescue our mother tongue – Tibetan!

Tibetan is known as the world’s second most concise script because it has 30 letters and four tones, which is only four more letters than English, the most concise; but its power to express is in no way inferior to English. It can describe all things and declare all thoughts. The Tibetan script was created by King Songtsen Gampo’s great minister Thomni Sambotha and is based on Sanskrit, and although its history is not as long as that of English or Chinese, it is as valuable as other nationalities’ languages.

A script is the lifeblood of a nationality, it a fundamental catalyst for a nationality’s culture, and it records the historical path of a nationality’s development. In my opinion, a nationality requires three minimum conditions in order to be complete: first, its own language; second, its own script; and third, its own culture. And we Tibetans have all three, and so we can be called a proud nationality. Our nationality’s culture is rich in content, it has a long and glorious history, it is imbued with richness and beauty, it has a distinct and unique style, and it holds an important position in China’s cultural treasure-house.

However, with the passing of the times, more and more people cast their own nationality’s history and culture apart from their nationality’s soul in order to satisfy immediate interests.

There are billions of people in the world studying or using English; there are more than a billion people in China studying Chinese, and how does that compare to Tibetan? In the Land of Snows, the home of Tibetan, how many people are truly studying and researching the Tibetan language? In fact, with the wave of “Tibet chic” abroad, it’s the blue-eyed and blond-haired foreigners who are studying and researching Tibetan, and is this not a tragedy for our Tibetan nationality? When someone among their own nationality says “There’s too much new stuff to study in this era, and I simply wont study something like Tibetan that you work on one day and don’t use the next at all.” Listen, listen, listen. Can people such as this still call themselves a person of that nationality? Even people of our own nationality speak like this. They fail to cherish it. So who can we look to cherish it? Those foreigners? Or…

This is what we may see in the future:

A young Tibetan woman or a young Tibetan man takes a group of foreigners around the Potala Palace, and points out the dense text in the paintings on the wall, saying: “What everyone is looking at here is the script a language called Tibetan. Because almost no one is studying it now, there’s no way of knowing what this painting contains, and now it just represents the nationality, it is an historic relic.”

A tragedy – what a tragedy! And do not think that something so absurd could not happen. Following current trends, it probably only needs 50 to 100 years – optimistically perhaps 200 years – for the odds of something so “absurd” happening to actually to be very high indeed!

I remember when a good friend in my instant messaging contacts – a Han girl in Hebei province – was extremely curious when she found out I’m Tibetan. She asked me many questions about Tibet, and among them were questions about the Tibetan language. She said she really wanted to go to Tibetan areas and that she really wanted to study the Tibetan language, and feel so close to the blue skies and white clouds that she could touch them. I was delighted that she thought in such a way, but thought it was just an impulse. I happily taught her a few everyday phrases, but for various reasons I could only teach her using transliterations.

When I come across such circumstances as these, I get enormous feelings in my heart. I’m thinking if we look at it from a certain angle, this generation of Tibetans is a generation of sinners because the glorious and brilliant culture and history left to us by our forefathers on the roof of the world might, in the hands of our generation, be ruined.

My compatriots, I ask you every day to take 10 minutes to study Tibetan texts – do not be satisfied with just English and Chinese scripts!

My compatriots, I ask you every week to take one hour to read Tibetan masterpieces – do not be satisfied with just the four great books! [The “Four Great Books” in Chinese culture are The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Analects of Confucius, and Mencius.]

My compatriots, I ask you now to put out your hands and write a letter in Tibetan to your parents, brothers and sisters or classmates in the Land of Snows – do not be satisfied with just texting or the phone!

My compatriots, put out your hands and together we shall make a contribution for the mother tongue, and even if we are not a generation whose name resounds for a hundred years, we will never be a generation whose name goes down in infamy for all time!!!

(If you are a Tibetan, I ask you to think seriously about this.)

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