A Fork in the Chinese Road: Educating Tibetans in Tibetan?

Susan D. Blum
December 23, 2011

Earlier this month a Tibetan monk set himself on fire. It was the twelfth incidence of Tibetan self-immolation by a monk or nun since March, according to unverified but plausible reports. These acts of desperation continue a long line of protests in China despite the Chinese government’s unyielding determination to keep Tibetans in line. What is called by protestors “cultural genocide” has many dimensions, not the least of which is language. When people’s religion, subsistence, and very language are attacked as unworthy, there are limits. And China is reaching such a limit in Tibet, no matter how determined it is to maintain its firm grasp in the name of “development.”

In October 2010 North Americans briefly became aware of China’s intention to educate Tibetans in Mandarin instead of Tibetan. Headlines described protests by students, teachers, and parents who belong to Qinghai province’s large Tibetan population, and who mobilized on behalf of the Tibetan language. China retrenched a bit; by November it said it would wait until “conditions are ripe” to change the language of instruction. This is a worthy concession.

As with all things Chinese and Tibetan, the situation is more complicated than it seems. And, though US anthropologists may like to read our own struggles with bilingual education and our so-called English-only legislation onto China’s language policies, there are profound and instructive differences in the two nations’ approaches to multilingualism and multiculturalism. In contrast to increasing state and federal efforts to legislate a single dominant national language (in November 2010 Oklahoma became the 31st state to make English its official language; my own state of Indiana is attempting to join in) China’s very constitution recognizes multilingualism. It has signed international covenants guaranteeing various rights for minority nationalities, including the right to use their own languages and scripts. Beyond that, China has the ambitious goal of producing trilingual and triliterate minority citizens: for Tibetans, that would mean literacy and proficiency in Tibetan, Chinese, and English. Eventually.

Like every country, though, policy and practice are not always identical.

The actual situation facing China’s 5.4 million Tibetans (about half in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the rest scattered throughout an area adjacent to Tibet—in total an area as large as the continental United States) is that China has an assortment of subtle policies, with parallel bilingual education, transitional bilingual education, and more. The aims may be read variously, as well-intentioned attempts to improve the economic situation of the minorities, or as diabolical determined destruction of Tibetan culture, and every position in between.

China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities (nationalities), adding up to slightly less than 10% of China’s total population, are largely poor and generally have educational attainment rates significantly below those of the majority (with some exceptions, such as the Korean minority). Thus, education of minorities is a critical issue in improving equality within China. China has been attempting to address this in ways that aim for a kind of national unity that does not require assimilation of minorities. It is a delicate dance and, as Walker Connor puts it, “pity the policy makers.”

In the sixty-three years of the People’s Republic of China, perhaps half a billion people have been lifted from poverty. National average illiteracy and semi-illiteracy rates for people 15 years and above were 22.21% in the 1990 census, and had fallen to only 9.08% in the 2000 census. China has just conducted a new census, and rates are likely to have fallen even further. In the last four years alone, China has dedicated some of its enormous wealth in part to creating what it calls a “harmonious society,” aiming to eradicate some of the extreme differences between the poorest and richest segments of its population, usually corresponding to rural and urban, minority and majority, people. Its educational ambitions are extraordinary: In the last decades, higher education has risen to include nearly a quarter of young people, up from single-digit levels (and now giving rise to something they are calling “over-education,” as many college graduates are unable to find employment). China produces more scientists and engineers than any other nation. China is to be commended for these achievements.

Given China’s commitment to improvements in education, it would be ideal if it took advantage of an unprecedented opportunity with regard to the Tibetan and other minority peoples coexisting with the majority (Han). Given its stated commitment to minority freedom to use their own language, education is one of the main domains in which minority policy is played out in practice. The variety of language used is negotiated every time anyone speaks, but policies shape those intimate interactions, for example by determining which teachers, with what linguistic repertoire, to place in which classrooms.

China is facing a fork in the road to further development. As a cultural and linguistic anthropologist with knowledge of cross-cultural approaches to language and identity, I believe the best route would be to retain and even increase education in minority languages. The other, i.e., one that forces young Tibetans and other able students to choose between loyalty to their own heritage and the promise of success in a single national language, contradicts China’s constitution, and would have a negative impact on those students.

Anthropologists and linguists have demonstrated for a century on the one hand the close connection between language and culture and on the other the value of linguacultural diversity. Like biodiversity, once lost, it cannot be regained. (The only universally agreed-upon case of successful language revival is Hebrew, but there are special political and religious reasons for that.) Half the world’s languages have disappeared in the last century, and predictions for the next century are equally or more dire. In enshrining rights for minority language use in its constitution, China diverges from US policies. While in the United States we are firm believers in “subtractive bilingualism”—the erroneous idea that when a second (or third) language is added, something from the first language is lost. China does not generally hold such an idea. In this sense, I applaud China’s policies and believe that the United States could profitably learn from them.

Preservation of minority languages worldwide is always a financial and logistical challenge, particularly when teaching materials must be developed for sometimes “small” languages without much written history. When countries agree to “rights,” scholarship and funding have to be up to the challenge. In the case of Tibetan, there is no need to begin afresh with materials. Tibetan has been a written language since the seventh century and has a glorious textual tradition. Its heritage of scientific, philosophical, and religious education is sophisticated and nuanced. If a new generation of leaders does not employ this language in its full range of uses, the language will eventually become impoverished and endangered, like so many other languages.

Another notable way China’s lingacultural policies differ from those of the United States is in boarding schools. The United States (and Canada) once sent Native American children to boarding schools, where they were punished if they spoke their native languages. In the name of “progress,” they were wrenched from their families and made into “good Christian Americans.” Our government has finally apologized to those who were often traumatized for life as they had to choose between their parents and teachers, between their Native selves and their student selves.

For a variety of practical but sometimes ideological reasons, China already takes many of the most promising young Tibetans from their isolated home regions and boards them in special schools in what used to be called “China Proper.” There, they are exposed to modern education—as well as surrounded by all the symbols of China’s domination of what used to be a proud Tibetan society.

Research shows, though, that the students are generally pleased with their schooling. They almost universally expect to return to Tibet, where they will become teachers and officials. Their Tibetan identity remains strong, with the exception that they tend to lose their belief in Tibetan religion, taking on the official view that it is “superstition.” One complaint focuses on their Tibetan language skills, which tend to suffer because they are trained largely by Chinese teachers. When they return to Tibet, they must re-learn their language.

Qinghai, the site of last October’s protests, is not Tibet, but is one of the four provinces outside Tibet (along with Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu) where substantial numbers of Tibetans reside. The question of how best to teach Tibetan children to become genuinely bi- and trilingual users of language in educational contexts, is a practical and researchable question. Some questions will be familiar from the US context: At what level of school should children be expected to function in the national language? How good are the teaching materials—and methods—in the minority language? How well trained are the teachers? Are there adequate numbers of bilingual teachers? Given that the nation-wide university entrance exam is conducted in Chinese, how early do students have to be educated in Chinese to have a hope of gaining admission into higher education?

China’s leaders have shown increasing commitment to preserving biological and ecological diversity in the last few years. I urge them to use some of their unprecedented wealth to demonstrate world leadership in the support of Tibetan students. Educating them in Tibetan and Mandarin will require huge investments in training teachers, in developing educational materials, and in bringing new schools to rural herding populations, but the returns are incalculable. There is no dispute that any child expecting to succeed in China must be proficient in Chinese. But there is no limit, cognitively or emotionally, to the number of languages a person can learn. Bilinguals and trilinguals feel themselves enriched by knowledge of more than one form of expression and build strong connections to speakers of other languages. China could do what has never before been done—just as it has in architecture and economic growth. It could honor its commitments to multiculturalism and create a system of education tailored to the conditions of its people. For Tibetans, that means demonstrating, not just mouthing, respect for its splendid cultural and linguistic heritage. It has signed documents claiming it will do so. Now I urge it to conduct the research that will help it genuinely carry out its promises.

And the US could learn some lessons here. We don’t even have policies honoring cultural and linguistic heritage.

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