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Urbanization and the increasing amount of the school day spent speaking Putonghua has left the Tibetan language in a precarious situation. Many Tibetan parents have found that their kids are not learning how to speak their mother tongue. In an effort to reverse this trend, some Tibetan activists have taken action, opening Tibetan language schools, proposing policy changes to legislators and making public appeals asking Tibetans to work to preserve their heritage. The central government has previously pledged to respect and safeguard the right of ethnic groups to education in their own languages.|
Tibetan Children play beside the Qinghai Lake in Qinghai Province. Photo: CFP
Headmaster Gengpai Nuobu is quite busy these days. While public schools are kicking off their winter vacation, he is trying to enroll as many students as he can for his private school committed to teaching the Tibetan language.
Located in downtown Xining, capital city of Northwest China's Qinghai Province, the Gesang Cultural Education School was established early last year.
"With urbanization and the spread of Putonghua, it's sad that the young generation's mastery of their mother tongue is degenerating, especially in big cities and areas bordering Han communities," 29-year-old Gengpai told the Global Times.
"Most people in Xining speak Putonghua. Tibetan parents are happy to see their kids speak Putonghua well, but not happy to see them losing their ability to speak, read and write Tibetan," said Gengpai.
"You can't work or study without knowing Putonghua. Now in most Tibetan areas, it's OK if you cannot speak Tibetan, but it is hard to find a job if you can't speak Putonghua," said Zhuoma Qunzong, a history teacher at a middle school in Duilongdeqing district in Lhasa, the Tibet Autonomous Region.
At her school, which has more than 1,500 students, there are 140 teachers, 101 of whom are Tibetan. But only Tibetan language classes are taught in Tibetan.
Now with about 60 students aged between 4 and 20, the school also offers vocational classes in painting, sculpture and pottery.
However, as the proportion of the school day spent speaking Tibetan gets smaller, children's ability to use Tibetan is waning.
Zeren Dengzhu, an archival researcher and historian in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region in Sichuan has found that many primary school pupils' Tibetan reading and writing skills are poor.
Ethnic minority languages, as well as various dialects across the country, are losing their ground. "Opportunities to use Putonghua are becoming greater," he noted.
"Standardizing the language facilitates communication and promote national integration, but a civilization should be a diversified one. Tibetan culture is a significant component of Chinese civilization," Zeren argued, adding that Tibetans should be able to speak their mother tongue.
Lack of opportunities
Chuwu Jianze, a scholar from Maerkang Normal College for Minorities in Sichuan Province, said that some local officials have politicized bilingual education.
However, Tibetan-language textbooks are just translated versions of the Chinese textbooks, Zeren said. He hoped that textbooks used in Tibetan schools can in future have more material about Tibetan culture and traditions.
Ethnic-minority students studying at bilingual schools can choose to sit the college entrance exam in either Chinese or their other language. But students that do not sit the Chinese exam can only enrol in colleges that specialize in their minority language, drastically limiting both their choices and the quality of education available to them.
It said China will ensure ethnic-minority students are proficient in Putonghua, but also respect and safeguard their right to education in their own languages.
Sense of crisis
Feeling there is a need to encourage young Tibetans to study the Tibetan language, some people like Gengpai have taken action. He quit his job as a English teacher in a middle school in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai in May in 2014.
Now, in addition to running a school, he often makes public proposals on social media.
"I hope my fellows can make sure to do these things: please spend some time each day studying the mother tongue, even just 10 minutes; please wear Tibetan costumes, even if its only on festivals; please use the Tibetan version on your iPhone."
In January last year, officials in Tibet held a meeting, mobilizing all non-native cadres in the region to study Tibetan, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
To facilitate communications, Gengpai said many public organs from public security, procuratorial departments, courts, firefighters and healthcare have started to seek Tibetan language training.
Besides, he said, after seeing the enrollment ads he posted online, many Han people from coastal areas expressed their interest in learning Tibetan. And he has sent more than 300 sets of textbooks to them for free.
Seeing the demand, Gengpai revealed that, anther private school committed to Tibetan language training, funded by individuals sharing his wish, was built in Xining.
"All the facilities have been built and equipped. Now, we are waiting for approval from the government," he said.