Can China's minority languages be saved?

By RANDI PEI, written for  |  March 27, 2013 at 2:52 PM
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BEIJING, March 27 -- With dark skin, large brown eyes, and a high-arched nose, Suo Lang Yang Jin, a junior at Peking University, can be easily identified as Tibetan. But her handwriting in Tibetan looks no better than a child's homework.

"My speaking and listening are OK, but I can hardly read and write Tibetan at all," she says with a shrug.

To get a better education and enter mainstream society, many students from China's 55 ethnic minorities have to master Mandarin, and their minority languages may suffer. The minorities, totaling 106 million people, make up nearly 8.4 percent of China's population; 53 minorities have their own languages, and 28 their own written characters. But according to a report published on the Chinese central government's website in 2004, only about 60 percent of minority people could communicate through their own languages.

Under the law governing regional autonomy, minorities have the right to use and develop their own languages, and local governments should try to have schools teach in minority languages. At least since 2008, there have been proposals to protect minority languages at the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Important government notices are published in five major minority languages, and in most minority regions, notices are published in Mandarin and the minority language.

Now, some minority students are also determined to save their languages.

Suo Lang Yang Jin, who started learning Tibetan characters six months ago, recently gave up studying from a borrowed elementary school textbook and turned to an electronic learning system and dictionary, which she says make it much easier and more interesting to learn.

Ge Lie, another student at PKU, is one of the major authors of the electronic dictionary, which can translate Tibetan, Chinese and English. He has been studying Tibetan by himself for more than eight years since leaving Tibet Autonomous Region when he was 12 for a better education. In school he could study Tibetan for just two hours a week. but now he is proud that his Tibetan is much better than most of his Tibetan friends'.

That is not enough for him.

"I want to affect my compatriots by providing more chances for them to learn our own language in the Mandarin-dominant environment in Beijing," he says.

Several Tibetan students majoring in Chinese-Tibetan translation at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing spend their weekends visiting other universities as volunteer teachers.

"Now, many universities have Tibetan language learning workshops founded by Tibetan students," says Luo Sang Gong Qing, one of the volunteers.

Da La, an Inner Mongolian student attending college in Nanjing, founded a local Mongolian learning workshop. After two years' preparation and an investment of more than 1,000 yuan (about $160), she has now run a workshop successfully for a year, with four volunteer teachers and more than 30 students.

In the last four or five years, Da La said in a telephone interview, more Mongolian-language learning workshops have emerged in major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Tianjin. Most are free.

"People's opinions have changed a lot," says Ni Ma Dun Zhu, a Tibetan studying sociology at PKU. "More and more people begin to notice the importance of learning our own language."

China's education system has two basic models for teaching minority languages: one using Mandarin as the form of instruction, with local languages taught as a second language, the other the reverse. Local governments' support for minority-language schools often depends on their financial resources.

"About 10 years ago, most minority parents sent their children to the first kind of school, but now, more and more people choose the second one," Ni Ma Dun Zhu says. "They want their children to learn Tibetan better."

Ao Ri Ge Le, a teacher at Ordos Mongolian Middle School using Mongolian as the language of instruction, says there is a similar trend in Inner Mongolia.

"From 1990 to 2000, the number of the second kind of schools indeed dropped greatly in Inner Mongolia," he says in a telephone interview. "But the problem is not so severe now. The number of our students is much more stable."

From his perspective, government policy is a big reason for that change. According to a 2011 CCTV report, all primary and secondary schools in Inner Mongolia would not only be tuition-free but also provide supplements to those who choose minority-language education. And Ban Guo, former chief editor of Qinghai Ethnic Education Press, told Xinhua News Agency that Tibetan teaching materials increased from 800,000 in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2010.

The government work report about China's minority policy published by State Council in 2009 shows that, until 2008, there were nearly 64.4 million books written in minority languages, 6.41 times more than the number in 1978.

But not all minority people say the government is doing enough.

"I think my college was overreacting a little when I applied to establish a student association of Mongolian learning," says Da La. "They said since this was something about ethnic minorities, they had to be very careful."

Her application was declined, and she had to make the learning workshop a social group, which means she can't post any obvious advertisements on campus.

"The government wants to maintain political stability," says Suo Lang Yang Jin , "so it has to make sure that we minority students won't do something harmful to the stability under the veil of saving our language or culture."

Sa Er Ji, a linguistics professor at Peking University, says the government should do more to improve local education in minority regions.

"There is not much really good bilingual education for minority students," he says.

"It's not easy for minority students to learn three languages well at the same time," he adds, referring to Mandarin, a minority language and English. "So they need a more preferential policy in college entrance tests."

But not all scholars agree that the government must save declining minority languages.

"Language should be supported more by society and people, but not simply by big budget from the government," says Xiaoming Huang, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center and a professor doing research in international relations at Victoria University in Wellington. Some languages will die naturally like Latin, which people now use for research but not communication in real life, he says. "Only when people need to use a language can it survive and develop."

He also points out that minority languages' danger of disappearing is a problem not just in China but globally.

"Nowadays, many other countries and regions are facing this problem too, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and New Zealand," he says. "In Europe, even some small countries' official languages are facing dangers, too."

Debbie Fish, a junior at Victoria University in New Zealand, says the Maori language is getting weaker.

"Many young Maori people do not learn Maori language," she says. "The government did something such as subsidizing the Maori TV channel, but I think no one really watched it."

Min Bista, a UNESCO official in Beijing, said in a 2008 report by the Xinhua news agency that more than half of the 7,000 languages in the world were in danger of disappearing.

"Anyway, it is a good start to save minority languages by minority students themselves," Sa says. "They may not change a lot, but it's better than nothing."

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