Problems Related to Bilingual Education

in Tibet



Dean of faculty of Education,

Sichuan Normal University

Since 1959, modern schools have gradually been set up in all of the Tibetan areas. Now the structure of the education system in Tibet is developed enough for most Tibetan children to study. However, many children do not like to go to school. Many students can not write Tibetan, especially in the eastern areas, and some students can not even speak Tibetan. During the years that Tibet has been influenced by the Chinese economy, the language problem has steadily worsened. Development of an improved Tibetan vocabulary in the areas of culture, education, economics, society, and politics, is a major goal for the future.

This language problem has also been recognised by some Tibetan scholars and education officials. They have voiced their concern and asked the schools to improve the language education. (1) Tibetan people think this is a big problem nowadays. Many famous Tibetan scholars in China are also worried about the erosion of the Tibetan language. Professor Dor Xis (2) claims that Tibetan language education has to be improved in schools immediately, otherwiseTibetan culture will disappear into the history books, and people will slowly forget it. The Tenth Bantch Lhama said on many occasions, that it is very dangerous for the culture to loose its language. Gungthang Rin Po Tshe is also worried about the language problem in schools, and agrees with Bantch Lhama. (3) In general, the unresolved language problem hinders Tibetan development. The basic situation of school education Before the 1950s, in the three areas of Tibet, U-tsang, Kham, and Amdo, there were few modern schools. Only the children of a few big noble families could go to school, most of the students at these schools were the children of Chinese officials and business people from the middle of China. The monasteries were responsible for social and cultural education. The monastery was not only a religious temple, but also a school. In the monasteries the children did not only learn about their religion, but were also taught about livelihood, labour, technology, language, arts, literature, medicine, logic, philosophy and so on. Monastic education was founded by the "Seven Enlightened Ones" at the Bsam-yas Monastery (the first monastery in Tibet, set up in 8th century). During the course of several centuries, the monastic education was eventually built into a complete and graduated educational system with fairly comprehensive disciplinary divisions, teaching contents, forms of instruction, academic sequences, and examination systems. Over thousands of years, monastic education has produced generation upon generation of brilliant scholars and highly prestigious monks in this ancient land of Tibet.

However, some scholars continually dispute this fact. In their opinion, everything preceding socialism is old, and only the things set up after the socialist political structure was put in place can be thought of as modern, and serving the people well. Sichuan University is a famous university in the South of China, where the well-known Tibetologist and historian Professor Ran Guang Rong works. He has continually argued to Chinese scholars, officials, and students that Tibetan monasteries have no educational function, but rather represent a backward religious tradition which has made people appear foolish in public conferences and classes. These claims seem to go against some of his own writings. In his book Chinese Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries (zhongguo zangchuan fojiao siyuan), he takes a less negative view of the monasteries, however he does not mention the function of education. Rong received his position as postgraduate supervisor due to his work on ethnic minorities in China. Unfortunately, his field of research does not give him a deep understanding of the Tibetan culture. Tibetan monastery education is a culturally different educational system and though it does not consent to some scholars' ideas about education, it still has its value if education is viewed in a more holistic perspective including cultural transmission and development.

In Tibet, the geographical and hierarchical structure of school education has emerged since 1959. The period from 1959 up until now has been difficult in many ways. The main educational programs were prepared and implemented between the late 1950s and the beginning of 1960s. Some primary schools were set up at the main traffic cross roads and at the seats of the county governments. During this time, Tibetan language was included in the curriculum in schools in Tibetan areas, and was also used as a language of instruction in some schools along with Chinese. From the mid-1960s to the end of the 70's, the Great Cultural Revolution affected the whole country. In Tibet, Tibetan language was removed from the curriculum. Teachers who had taught Tibetan had to engage in menial work around the schools or get other unskilled jobs in the community.

I remember there was a Tibetan language teacher in our middle school. He was no longer allowed to teach, so his job was to take care of the tools for cleaning and assign work to students and supervise them. Every week when there was a general cleaning of the school, this teacher's responsibility was to distribute the tools, such as brooms and hoes to every class. In addition he sold dinner tickets to the students and teachers.

Sometimes when several of us children went to his small dark room, if he was reading in Tibetan, he would rapidly pull the book under his quilt. After several years he retired, he went back to his small village to live quietly with very sad feeling. Now the people have forgotten him. During the Cultural Revolution Tibetan language became associated with religious superstition (zongjiao mixin). People experienced that reading in Tibetan could get them in trouble. Many schools closed. From the end of the 70's until now the schools have recovered and been adjusted and developed to suit the local needs. In many areas, local governments adjusted the geographical arrangement of the schools and set up some new schools. At present the structure of the primary schools and middle schools are in place. Bilingual education has been reintroduced in most schools.

Now there are three situations with regard to teaching languages within Tibetan primary schools.

1) Some schools teach in a similar way to Chinese schools, without Tibetan language courses. This situation is found in the areas where most students are Chinese and in some cities which have been included in Tibetan regions by allocation.

2) Tibetan courses have been set up in areas where Tibetan children speak Chinese and their own local dialect but not standard Tibetan. All other subjects are taught in Chinese. In primary schools, there are 6 grades. When the children graduate from these schools their Tibetan knowledge should be at 4th or 5th grade.

3) Chinese is a course in school and the other courses are in Tibetan. These children can speak standard Tibetan very well. By the time these students leave primary school, they should have reached 4th grade in Chinese. The other subjects are taught to 6th grade.

In junior middle school as in primary schools, there are three similar situations:

1) The children are taught in Chinese, however the quality of the education is lower than the standard Chinese middle school. These Tibetan students are better prepared to attend the minority nationality colleges in China (minzu xueyuan).

2) There are three grades in junior middle school.

When Tibetan children graduate from junior middle school their Tibetan language skills are the equivalent of the 1st grade at middle school.

3) Chinese is a subject in the curriculum. When the students graduate, the Chinese language skills are at the equivalent of 1st grade at junior middle school.

All the other subjects, taught in Tibetan, should be at 3rd grade junior middle school, however the level is lower than that required by the government for entry to the minority nationality colleges.

Following this scheme the education program in Tibet has improved and become more efficient and the percentage of children going to school has increased.

The level of education the students receive has improved over the last ten years but it has now levelled out and cannot improve further under current conditions. In many areas the percentage of children going to school fluctuates between 40 and 60 percent.

In some areas there is a high percentage of Tibetan people (especially in small villages), but the proportion of children going to school is terrible low. For example in rural areas of Hongyuan County in Amdo, the percentage of children going to school fluctuates between 39.6% and 14.7%. Looking at this situation, it can be argued that the education in Tibet is not suitable for the development of Tibetan society.

Analysis of the language problems within Tibetan school education The language problems in Tibetan education are complex. They relate to culture, religion, economics, manufacturing abilities, and the natural environment.

Language is essential for preserving and developing the culture. The Tibetan people have a special need to conserve and develop their own language because of their cultural identity in China. School education in Tibet can not develop in a positive direction before the problem with the language is solved. In this section I will analyse these language problems from the perspectives of how Tibetan people perceive language teaching in school, the problem within the Tibetan language, and the contents of the curriculum within the Tibetan school system.

For a long time, I have travelled extensively in Tibet, from Kham to Amdo, from Amdo to U-tsang, from big cities to small villages, where people live under varying conditions. I have had many conversations with different people; farmers, herdsmen, workers, businessmen, officials, teachers, monks, scholars, undergraduate students and middle-school students, children and adults, females and males. We discussed language teaching in schools, the future of the children, the usefulness of the Tibetan language nowadays, and we also discussed how important the Chinese language is in the modern society. To make a general summary, there are various ideas among different people about how to find the balance between the Chinese language and the Tibetan language for teaching in school. I will summarise these views in what follows.

1) The main language of instruction should be Chinese; the Tibetan language should not be taught or only be taught to a basic level. The reasoning behind this position is that children taught in Chinese will be able to pass exams in Chinese and will be able to go to institutes of higher education, enabling them to get salaried jobs from the government. This view is held by some of the residents of the big cities and some civil servants, some school teachers and employees in state funded organisations. These people get large salaries that are dependent on funding from the national government. Some citizens of big cities, where the living standard is very high compared with herding people and village people, believe that if their children study Chinese they can continue or improve their standard of life by getting government jobs after graduation.

2) Tibetan should be taught as the first language for Tibetan children in school. Chinese should be taught as a second language only. Most of the Tibetan people hold this view, especially the farming / herding people and people working for the government in smaller cities and towns where the Tibetan population is more than 90%. Nevertheless, some of them also worry about their children's future.

3) Some scholars have examined this problem. The scholars who are 60 years or more were educated in the traditional culture as children and have adhered to its principles. Most of these people are authorities in their fields of expertise, such as Tibetan philosophy, medicine, literature, arts, making calendars, and religion. The progression of modern society is faster than these scholars realise. Just as a great wind blows through everywhere, it leaves them feeling uncomfortable; they feel a crisis is approaching and fear they will not survive it.

Civilisation is made up of many strands including education, politics, technology, philosophy, law, morality, and religion; it is a very complex system. These strands can be broadly grouped into material and spiritual aspects of civilisation. Both aspects of civilisation need to progress together or else the system gets out of balance. This imbalance might cause emotional problems as one has to live in modern society with traditional ideas, and must think about how to keep the advantageous content of the culture.

These people do not approve of the current teaching situation of the Tibetan language in schools. They think that Tibetan language and Tibetan cultural education should be strengthened and emphasised . The scholars who are between 40 and 60 years of age, have a basic education in modern subjects such as science, and have mostly been trained since the People's Republic of China was founded. They were mainly educated in the first and second waves for training young Tibetan people in big cities in the middle of China. Most of them were educated at either technical or civil secondary middle schools. A small proportion of them went to college or university.

Currently most of these people are important officials at various levels in the government departments and are contributing to the development of Tibetan society. Following the development of modern society, imported information is overwhelming Tibetan society. These scholars experience that their knowledge system does not sufficiently equip them to cope with the amount and flow of information.

When presented with the many phenomena of modern society -i.e. the relationship between people, how to deal with money, the problem of keeping public order, the problem of the environment and legal and ethical problems- some people are overwhelmed. They find it difficult to come up with satisfactory solutions to problems they might face.

4) The fourth group is the young people. As long as they have knowledge and abilities they can generally get satisfactory employment and earn good money. They have studied Chinese and Tibetan and can use both languages. After they left school, they found Chinese was more important than they thought before. In every department of the government most of the documents, informal letters, notes, certificates and so on are in Chinese. It is difficult for them to live without Chinese and easier to use Chinese words to explain modern concepts because often these concepts can not be expressed in Tibetan. It is difficult to tackle problems of a modern society in the Tibetan language because the Tibetan language lacks modern technical vocabulary. The post office requires letters to be addressed in Chinese, long distance calls via the switchboard operator have to be placed in Chinese, and all telegrams have to be sent in Chinese. Electrical appliances have their instructions in Chinese. Young people who are employed often have problems finding Tibetan concepts that can cover all aspects of their work. For this reason, young scholars pay close attention to their Chinese studies, at the same time they are also very worried about the future of their language. They know the advantages of the Tibetan language and that if it was expanded, it could grasp modern concepts like any other language. Young scholars face the challenge of improving the teaching of the Tibetan language in schools. They also have ideas about why the Tibetan language finds itself in its current situation. This discussion is, however, beyond the scope of this article.

These viewpoints represent different perspectives on education in the current society. I shall now examine the reasons behind this difference in opinion of language education in Tibet. A brief understanding of the basic situation of the Tibetan language and this language's significance for the Tibetan people both in history and in current society is required to gain understanding of this issue.

Tibetan language has been used for a long time. On 25th of January 1994 there was a report in Guangming Ribao (this is the largest newspaper dealing with academics and research in China). The report had examined a language called "Mal language" (Smar Yig), originating more than 5000 years ago. This language was mentioned in ancient Tibetan texts as being used by the "Bon" scholars in their work. The Language Directing Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

went to investigate the language in Mnga-Ris area of TAR and the centre of the ancient Zhang-Zhung Kingdom where the language has its origin. The committee found Mal language written on many ancient petroglyphs. The petroglyphs were made more than one thousand years BC.

They also found single pages and whole sets of hand made presswork in Mal language kept by the local community. The committee made an interesting finding; a book on linguistics which contained a chapter written in typical Mal language.

The current Tibetan written language has developed from the Mal language, and has over a course of centuries developed into a mature language with 30 consonantal letters and 4 vocal letters. In Tibet, many people don't understand Tibetan language, including some Tibetan people and the majority of Chinese people. For the Tibetan people who don't understand their own language the main reason is that for a long time there were few people who had the chance to study their own written language. The few who did study it could not utilise it for specific work such as writing government documents. The Tibetan language is rich with respect to religion and philosophy, but has difficulty with for instance the sphere of science. After 1959, when the structure of the socialist society had been established in Tibet, most of the Tibetan cadres and officials in the government were not skilled in written Tibetan. The Han Chinese officials did not understand Tibetan. In Tibetan language the concepts of politics and sociology are limited, thus it is easier to read and write government documents in Chinese. Some Han Chinese think their culture is the centre of civilisation. Therefore, they think their culture is more civilised than other minorities' peoples, including the language. As this view has prevailed, the officials always read the Chinese copies of documents, although policies dictate that every document should be written in both languages and at every conference of the government all the documents were written in both languages. From 1967 to 1977, the wind of the Great Cultural Revolution was over all of China, at that time in Tibet people were criticised for performing blind religious worshipping if they read in Tibetan, and they would be punished.

Therefore, the written Tibetan language disappeared for about ten years in the schools. As a consequence the social function of Tibetan language was limited, and this had serious consequences for education in Tibet. Based on the preceding historic conditions, other mistaken conceptions about the Tibetan language have been created. These uninformed views make it difficult to strengthen the Tibetan language in the school curriculum.

For a long time, some people have not been able to understand the significance of Tibetan language education in schools due to ultra-left trend of politico-thought. This has especially been true for Tibetan people living in Tibet. In Tibet there are few people who want to be officials in government.

Tibetans have thought that it is very important to make the Chinese officials believe that they are standing firmly on the side of the CCP, and therefore they have shown their wholehearted devotion to the party. For this reason they have been afraid to emphasise Tibetan education in schools. They hesitate to advocate strengthening Tibetan language education because the Chinese officials will be suspicious. For a long time both Chinese and Tibetan officials have thought it will cause feelings of local nationalism to advocate Tibetan language education in schools, and it will increase the chances of conflicts. Especially some Tibetan officials think they will be better off if they don't mention Tibetan language education. For this reason some of them are also working against those who advocate Tibetan language education, punishing lower officials who do so. Some people use this strategy in order to get a promotion and financial benefits. However, this is not the case for all higher officials. There are also those officials, Chinese as well as Tibetans who understand the importance of both cultures, and the need for them to co-exist. Thirdly, some people in Tibet do not understand the real function of school education, they don't understand that the aim of school education is to develop the children's ability to function in society, and thereby raise the level of competence of society for all people.

For thousands of years, the aim of Tibetan traditional education has been to train monks and scholars within the fields of traditional medicine, philosophy, astrology, architecture and the arts, to mention some.

Although most of the people who have been educated in this manner have not related to political affairs or been officials, they have been widely respected by Tibetan civilians everywhere. Historically, Tibetan people have respected scholars and their knowledge, but after the foundation of the People's Republic of China this has changed, seemingly because of the collision between "traditional knowledge" and "modern knowledge". Therefore, many people belonging to the old intelligentsia could not serve the society and people directly. And through the Cultural Revolution, the traditional intelligentsia's social position has declined drastically, though they still have an important place in people's hearts. Since 1959, people have been provided jobs by the government, enjoy a salary and material benefits, if they have passed beyond middle school education. People educate themselves to official seats in different departments of government. This "hidden" educational aim is not discussed or mentioned in any government documents. It is more beneficial for students to study in Chinese than in Tibetan. Currently, the prevailing mode of thought is "attend school, attain a secure government job, and thereby money and power." This has had a negative influence on Tibetan society. For example, in 1997, Sichuan Ngab Tibetan, Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (Sichuansheng apa zangzu qiangzu zhizizhou) received over two thousands graduate students who returned from different levels and types of schools, colleges or universities. As the industrial structure was too simple to provide adequate jobs for all, the students were assigned jobs in departments at different levels of government and in state-owned enterprises9.

Undoubtedly, all of the students were given jobs based on their relationship to officials in the government; those with good relations with higher officials might have been awarded a good seat. This imbalance has weakened the socio-economic base of the region. As a result of this, many Tibetan counties could not pay the teachers' salaries.

In Danbar County the budget for teacher's salaries sufficed until July 1997, in Xiahe County the budget for teachers' salaries was sufficient only from January to April 1998. In such a situation, the officials of the education department become beggars, asking for support from higher officials. The higher officials must in turn ask their higher bodies, and the "begging" has to extend up to province government and centre government level in Beijing. In this way money will come to the teachers. This situation is not only found within education but also in every department of the government10. From this it can be understood that Tibetan school education is facing major obstacles that must be overcome in order to develop a functional education system.

Prospects for the future While examining Tibetan school education and the problem of language it is difficult to find simple solutions. Actually, I think this problem is one of culture, so I will place it in a cultural perspective.

Firstly, school education is a means of cultural transmission and improvement. For this reason, education is not only for training government officials or specific cliques set up by a small group of people. Education should be for everyone and for every generation. Tibetan school education should be for everybody who lives in Tibet.

The most important function of language is to bear the content of culture and transmit information. The educational function of language is to develop people's ability to function in society through the language. In a linguistic perspective, the choice of language of instruction should depend on the educational function. In Tibet, the language of instruction should be based on what is easiest for children to study, most convenient for children to use, and what is most useful for their lives. The language of instruction should also help students to master the greatest amount of knowledge in the shortest time. For this reason, I believe Tibetan must be the most suitable language for Tibetan children in schools, therefore, Tibetan should be the first language of instruction.

Secondly, Tibetan children also need to study Chinese thoroughly. In China, there are 56 nationalities (minzu). Chinese is the majority. Chinese is the main language of the country, and the majority use Chinese to exchange information all over the country. Therefore, Tibetan children must study Chinese to understand the country and learn how to be a citizen and live in the modern society.

Meanwhile, there is a big gap between Tibetan traditional culture and modern culture. When we think of the problems surrounding Tibetan language as the mode of instruction, we should make sure that Tibetan children will not only understand their traditional culture but also gain knowledge from the useful aspects of modern culture. In addition, in order to study at higher levels, students need to study foreign languages depending on their needs and subjects.

Besides these points above, the curriculum for children in schools should be re-constructed. Curriculum is the core of any school education, the educational aim, plan, demands and so on are all presented in the curriculum. And many education problems including those of language are focused in the curriculum. Therefore, it is necessary to improve the curriculum in Tibetan school education.

1. Based on the needs of Tibetan society, the contents of the curriculum should be improved. Tibetan school education system came from middle of China with the socialist social structure, so it has special characteristics. These characteristics can be grouped into two. Firstly, the structure of society - of politics, economics, culture and education - is not fit to serve the same parts of the Tibetan society as before. For this reason, education is unable to serve its original function at all. As we can see from the preceding discussion, the students cannot use the knowledge learned in school to earn a living in Tibetan society together with uneducated people.

Secondly, there is a big gap between the new social political structure and the common people's political consciousness. It causes a big gap between the educational curriculum and the needs of the people. In order to adapt the curriculum to children's needs, we must teach children the history of humankind, the history of Tibet and China, and knowledge dealing with social development. Meanwhile, all the courses should be in Tibetan.

2. The content of the curriculum of Tibetan school education should be adjusted properly, some items must be added, others deleted. Currently in Tibet, the curriculum is identical to the rest of China, according to "primary and middle school's curriculum plan" (zhongxiaoxue kecheng jihua). As this curriculum is default for the whole country, the courses are too general for Tibetan schools. This problem prevails for other parts of China as well. The National Educational Department of The People's Republic also pointed to this problem in February, 199811. Some contents of the courses should be left out. Because the contents were chosen from central China, there is no relationship between it and the real experience or knowledge of Tibetan students, and the contents are also not useful for their future. For example, Tibetan students need not study Chinese history in detail, they only need to know the general aspects. For a long time, it has been very difficult for Tibetan students to study such heavy courses with the contents of Chinese history both in Chinese and Tibetan.

3. Part of the solution to the problem of bilingual education in Tibet is to attempt to fill in the gap between Tibetan culture and the modern world culture. Tibetan culture is rich, but we should also admit that our culture cannot equip children with appropriate knowledge to function well in modern society. With respect to the fields of science and technology, it will be especially important to import knowledge of modern society to Tibetan language. If we can use Tibetan to explain all phenomena from basic life to scientific studies, every subject from primary school to postgraduate training can be set up in Tibetan.

However, this is a very difficult and complex challenge, I hope there are many people who are ready to work for this cause. n.htm