July 14, 2010 / 3:03 AM / 9 years ago

Tibetans' mother tongue faces tide of Chinese

SHIGATSE, China (Reuters Life!) - Teenager Dawan Dunjhu is Tibetan and lives in Tibet, but says that if his friends and classmates can’t master Mandarin Chinese, they have little hope of a professional future.

“I want to be a lawyer, and for me Chinese plays a very important role both in my life and my study,” Dawan Dunjhu, 16, told Reuters during a government-organized visit for foreign media to Tibet.

“If someone can’t speak Chinese then they might as well be mute,” added the student at the Shigatse Shanghai Experimental School, built with aid from the Shanghai government in a run-down monastery town several hours drive from Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Tibetan is an official language in Tibet and parts of China where Tibetans have traditionally been the main ethnic group, in what the government calls “autonomous” regions and areas.

Yet Beijing has for decades promoted “Putonghua,” or standard Mandarin Chinese, as a way of unifying a diverse country.

This makes language choices fraught for groups that are not ethnically Chinese, many of whom chafe under Communist rule.

For Tibetans, the route to jobs and a better income often requires mastering Chinese, leaving many worried they will lose their own ancient tongue and its unique writing system.

While Dawan Dunjhu’s school is technically bilingual, the only classes entirely taught in Tibetan are Tibetan language classes.

Teachers say there are no text books in Tibetan for subjects like history, mathematics or science, and exams have to be written in Chinese — apart from Tibetan language tests.

“It would be hard for the students to translate into Tibetan concepts they have learned about in Chinese,” said deputy headmaster Cang Qiong, patiently answering a stream of questions from foreign reporters about why Tibetan is so little used.

Younger grades fall back on Tibetan when new ideas are introduced, but the rest of the teaching is in Mandarin — which parents and education experts say can dent interest in learning among some young children who struggle to keep up.


The government views the promotion of Mandarin as vital to unite a nation with thousands of Chinese dialects and numerous other ethnic languages, from Tibetan and Uighur to the much threatened She, Evenki and Manchu.

Beijing says it supports minority languages, pointing to broadcasting in areas where they are still in widespread daily use, and official signs in Tibet — from shop boards to place names — where the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script is required.

Many Tibetans still speak no Mandarin, especially in the vast open spaces of the Tibetan heartland. Rights groups and exile communities complain it is being gradually marginalized in cities and among the elite.

“Whether you can speak Tibetan has already become a secondary issue, but whether you can speak Chinese has become crucial to your livelihood,” said prominent Tibetan blogger Woeser.

“So the Tibetan written language has in reality reached a very serious point.”

Only recently has there been any push for bureaucrats from the majority Han Chinese to learn the languages of minority areas where they work, and the new drive has yet to show much fruit.

There are similar issues with the written language: the rule requiring bilingual signs is easily flouted; billboards over stores are sometimes only written in Chinese, or have just a cursory line of Tibetan.

Chinese is already seeping into everyday Tibetan.

Educated young Tibetans play with “Chibetan,” mixing in Mandarin words with Tibetan, much in the same way cool Chinese youth mash up English into their speech.

“It’s very fashionable,” shrugged one government worker.

For words that have no commonly-used Tibetan equivalent, Mandarin is used instead. In the midst of a Tibetan conversation, certain bureaucratic words crop up in Mandarin.

These include “bu tie” (subsidy), “he tong” (contract) and “dang yuan” (Communist Party member).

In Lhasa, some educated Tibetans say they will fight the rising tide of Mandarin — by refusing to speak it.

“It is the language of the Chinese,” said one young Tibetan man, speaking in excellent English and out of sight of the police patrols in Lhasa’s old quarter. “Please don’t speak to me in it.”

Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan, Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal

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