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.
As many professionals, workers, farmers and herdsmen go to settle in cities, their children live far from regions where only the Tibetan language is used. Their opportunities to speak Tibetan are shrinking, he explained.
"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.
Official statistics show that Xining has a 2.29 million permanent residents, 74.1 percent of whom are Han, 16.3 percent are Hui and 5.5 percent or 125,900 are Tibetans.
"Many parents here complained that there was nowhere to study Tibetan language," Gengpai noted, adding that bilingual education has been promoted in Tibetan areas but not in the city of Xining.
Jiacuo, 40, a Tibetan who teaches Chinese at a high school in Xining, echoed this sentiment to the Global Times. "I send my kid to Gengpai's school as the public schools in the city don't teach Tibetan," he said. "I want him to learn more about Tibetan culture."
While in the past many schools in Tibetan areas taught all courses in Tibetan, increasingly schools - especially in urban areas - are using Putonghua as the primary language of instruction, with Tibetan being used only in classes where the Tibetan language is the topic of the class, if it is taught at all.
Some argue that this is driven in part by a rational choice by the Tibetan people - their education and employment opportunities are limited if they cannot speak Putonghua fluently.
On the other hand many worry that this trend will undermine the transmission of Tibetan culture to young Tibetans.
"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.
"To be a teacher, a good mastery of Putonghua is required, even for a teacher who teaches Tibetan," she told the Global Times.
She said that the extra-curricular classes the students usually take and most books they read are in Putonghua.
Zhuoma's findings are echoed by a survey conducted by Sichuan Normal University master degree candidate Jiang Yanhua. According to her 2008 survey of Linzhou county middle school in Lhasa, 80 percent of Tibetan students believed that Chinese is more important than Tibetan.
A Niu, headmaster of Puli Tibetan School in Deqin county, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, which was dedicated to teaching Tibetan, said that the school has started to teach Putonghua.
"Without knowing Putonghua, we would not able to communicate with the outside, let alone find a job," A Niu told the Global Times in a recent interview via telephone. In an attempt to eliminate illiteracy, he founded the school in 1997 to provide free education for poor Tibetans.
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.
On Tuesday, Zeren posted a letter online, calling for a Tibetan public school to open in Xining for the more than 30,000 Tibetan children living there.
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.
"Some connect studying Chinese to 'patriotism' and studying Tibetan to 'narrow nationalism,' which deviates from the nature of education,"Chuwu said in a post on his WeChat account in November.
But some scholars believe that segregating education on the basis of ethnicity is detrimental. "If we separate students according to their ethnicities and educate them differently, the effect will not necessarily be good. Too much emphasis on differences is not conducive to the nurturing and formation of a national consensus," said A Lai, a famous Tibetan writer, in May last year, according to news portal ifeng.com. One of his famous novels - Red Poppies - is about a family of Tibetan chieftains.
Bilingual education is offered to more than 20 ethnic minority groups, with 4.1 million students currently being educated in more than one language, according to the North West Normal University Research Center for the Educational Development of Minorities (RCEDM).
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.
Some Tibetans have called for there to be a greater focus on the Tibetan language in schools. "Education in the mother tongue does better in helping children to quickly accept new knowledge. I'm a beneficiary of such education, too. Even in college, the lessons were taught in Tibetan, which didn't stop me successfully learning Putonghua and English," said Jiacuo.
However, due to a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, especially science teachers, bilingual education is not well implemented in some schools, Zeren said.
Graduates from Tibetan-oriented or Tibetan-only high schools have fewer college and major choices than those from Putonghua-dominated schools.
According to a survey of Gannan Tibetan Prefecture, Gansu Province, by RCEDM, of the graduates of Tibetan-language high schools that went on to higher education, less than 20 percent chose to study sciences. Others chose arts, like Tibetan language literature and education.
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.
The central government has noticed the problem. In a State decision to rapidly develop national education issued in August last year, the State Council pledged to reform the examination and enrollment system for ethnic-minority students.
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.
Jiangbian Jiacuo, a senior Tibetologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a degree of erosion of ethnic minority languages is inevitable. "Mastering one more language is like gaining an extra eye," Jianbian told the Global Times. "But we hope it's a natural process, not through compulsory measures by cutting Tibetan education."
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."
To further encourage students of all ethnicities to come to his school, he also has started to offer Chinese, math and English classes, in addition to art and music courses. With four full-time teachers and several part-time teachers, the school has already enrolled about 50 Tibetan students, who will pay around 600 yuan ($91) each subject for the semester.
"Many of them have a poor mastery of Tibetan and we teach basic written Tibetan, pronunciation and simple vocabulary," he said.
There is also an increasing demand from Han people and from other ethnic groups looking to learn Tibetan.
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.
Last year, his school also admitted five Han adult students. Some were Tibetan culture lovers, some businessmen engaged in trade or traveling with Tibetans.
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.