Some words on Tibetan language

On Friday, June 22, 2012, in China, General Commentary, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

At a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Chinese representatives have been adamantly refuting claims that their government does not respect human rights. Let’s take for example the Chinese delegate’s reply (available at 47:59) to an NGO statement delivered by ICT staff, Ngawang Choephel speaking on behalf of the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network on the diminishment of Tibetan language instruction, which said that China’s education system:

“…imposes an alien political ideology upon the Tibetans who wish to ensure that quality education actually preserves their right to receive instructions in their own rich language (ICT Report: Protests by students against downgrading of Tibetan language spread to Beijing) while grasping the opportunities to master other languages. We, therefore, urge the Special Rapporteur to support our call for the withdrawal of all the restrictions being applied on the promotion and preservation of Tibetan language as the medium of instruction in Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Chinese reply was:

“The Chinese Constitution, the National Autonomous Regional Law and Education Law and the National Generic Language Law have strict and clear provisions on the education in languages. The Chinese Constitution stipulates clearly that we will promote the national language, at the same time, it is stipulated all ethnic nationalities have their own freedom in pursuing their own languages.”

Ok. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that, but I’m willing to listen to her explanation. What exactly does this “freedom” look like for Tibetans?

The Chinese delegate explained:

“The Tibetan students will learn Tibetan as their main course, the other courses in principle will be taught in Tibetan language. In Tibet, the bilingual education with Tibetan language as the main language were promoted in all the schools in the region. The textbooks in Tibetan languages in all the subjects were published. Some regions have special school of Tibetan languages based on their local conditions. The Tibetan language was used very widely in the region.”

Though, her explanation is put in stark contrast by reports of the reality on the ground. A Tibetan blogger who goes by the penname Mila Tsitsi posted in his blog that:

“Recently a friend said that the new governor of Temchan County, Yang Yongzhou, called the Tibetan director of the Education Bureau and said, ‘From now on, don’t recruit Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan schools. Gradually in the education system, Chinese is becoming the main language and Tibetan will be less important.’”

This seems to run counter to what the Chinese delegate stated.

The Chinese delegate further noted that:

“In 1987 the Tibet Autonomous Region promulgated laws on promoting and using Tibetan language. It stipulates clearly that in Tibet, the Tibetan and Han languages are given equal importance. The Tibetan language will take a dominant role in that region.”

But again, Mila Tsitsi’s experience seems to contradict the Chinese representative. Mila wrote:

“A few days ago, I went to visit a relative who is a prisoner at the Chadam Labor and Reform Camp in Gormo (Golmud). After going through the procedures, the prisoner was brought to the other side of the window. We picked up the phones on each side and started a conversation. But at that moment, a guard said, ‘You are not allowed to talk in other languages, only Mandarin. [T]here are about seven to eight years to go before my relative’s prison term ends. His mother, grandparents and two great grandparents, who are in their 90s, don’t know any Chinese at all. They will not able to speak a single word to him for seven or eight years.”

With access to Tibet denied by Chinese authorities for foreign journalists, diplomats, or international observers, it is difficult to take the Chinese delegate at her word-especially in light of blogposts from inside Tibet like Mila Tsitsi’s. Until we can independently assess the situation, I find it difficult to refute Mila, whose personal account sheds (new) light on what the Chinese government means when it insists that Tibetans have “freedom in pursuing their own language.”

Tsitsi eloquently places this lack of freedom in perspective, noting: “Taking away a person’s language is not the same as taking the bread out of someone’s pocket, and it’s not the same as taking a person’s bag off their shoulders. It is like having your tongue pulled out of your mouth.”

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