Tibetan Parents Worried by Spread of Chinese Language


By Daniel Nelson


Thursday November 29, 2001

Reports from Tibet indicate growing parental concern about the increased use of the Chinese language in teaching elementary-school pupils in the disputed region. Tibetan teachers are also worried about job security as Chinese government plans to step up the use of Mandarin--already standard for older children--lead to the recruitment of more Chinese nationals as teachers.

"These plans represent a major change," said Kate Saunders of the Tibet Information Network in London, "because the majority of primary schools in the Tibet Autonomous Region currently teach through the Tibetan medium."

Chinese is already being used in elementary schools in and around the capital, Lhasa, according to reports, and there are plans to spread the practice throughout the region.

The policy shift "highlights the threat to the survival of the Tibetan language, which is integral to the identity of Tibetans," according to Saunders, Tsering Dhundup, a Tibetan teacher currently living in London, said today that "according to Chinese constitutional provisions, all minorities have the right to propagate their language in order to preserve and promote their culture and religion."

"The teaching of the 'Minority Nationalities' [the official term in China] through their own national language is paramount," said Dhundup.

Language has been a key issue in Tibet's 50-year resistance struggle since China sent in troops to seize control of the region in 1949-50. Thousands of Tibetans, including their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India.

Tibetan Buddhism has also been a crucial area of contention, and earlier this year the Tibet Information Network said children aged between seven and 13 were being discouraged from practicing their religion. Children were fined, given detention, threatened with expulsion and with reduced examination marks, and "named and shamed" in front of the whole school.

Some parents welcome the teaching of Chinese at elementary level, because it enables them to compete with the tens of thousands of Chinese who have moved into Tibet as part of the policy of integration with China. Most business is conducted in Chinese.

There are large disparities between education in China's populous east, with almost 100 percent school enrolment, and the rural west, where less than half the population has access to even six years' schooling, according to the London-based Tibet Foundation. Literacy in the Tibet Autonomous Region stands at 40 percent, compared with the national average of 85 per cent.

A recent article in the Foundation's newsletter noted that one of the disadvantages faced by Tibetan children was the need to learn Mandarin as well as their mother tongue, which it said divided their attention.

Saunders believes economic development is now the most important factor influencing the status of the Tibetan language: "Business is conducted in Chinese and Tibetans must compete with the influx of Chinese - that's the reality. And with China's plans to develop the west, this will become more intense."

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