New instructional materials threaten Tibetan’s mother-tongue


When classrooms open in September in Tibet, instruction in Sichuan’s Ngawa prefecture will only be given exclusively in Chinese, with the students’ mother tongue used only in special classes teaching Tibetan as a language.

The move comes as schools in the neighbouring Tibet Autonomous Region have begun teaching mainly in Chinese in what authorities say is an effort to facilitate participation in China’s modern economy, but what rights groups have called a campaign to destroy the cultural identity of Tibetan schoolchildren.

News of the switch emerged as schools slowly reopened in the Ngawa (in Chinese, Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture following a reported drop in coronavirus infections.

A March 05, 2020 report by Human Rights Watch details a growing emphasis on Chinese-language schooling in Tibet, calling the trend “an assimilationist policy for minorities that has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.”

Human Rights Watch noted signs of regional variation in the implementation of this policy, including a September 2018 reaffirmation of the use of Tibetan language in primary education passed by the People’s Congress in Ngawa.

Drawn from interviews conducted in September 2019 with Tibetan parents and teachers in six rural townships in the Nagchu municipality in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the 91-page report reveals a pattern of pressure on local schools to give preference to classroom instruction in Chinese, even at the kindergarten level.

Thousands of non-Tibetan speaking teachers have now been hired from other parts of China to teach in Tibetan areas, with ethnically mixed classes promoted in the name of the unity of China’s “nationalities,” HRW says in its report.

Language rights have become a particular focus for Tibetan efforts to assert national identity in recent years, with informally organized language courses typically deemed “illegal associations” and teachers subject to detention and arrest, sources say.

Tibetan netizens, despite rigid police surveillance and the prospect of reprisals, took to social media to express disbelief and anger at this recent development.

In lengthy, eloquent WeChat posts, school and university teachers – all graduates of the schools now at risk – scathingly dismissed official justifications that Tibetan language is inadequate to teach science subjects and that graduates of Tibetan-led schools perform poorly in exams.

The teachers explained that Tibetan medium-teaching has benefits the authorities are ignoring: Tibetan-medium students scored above average in exams to qualify for higher education, and were highly motivated, while Chinese-medium students in their area rarely got as far as middle school. “This decision…will achieve nothing other than turning Tibetan students into fools with a mediocre grasp of the Chinese language,” wrote one. (Source: HRW)