Freedom of Tibetan language: Lost through repression in Tibet & negligence in exile

July 2, 2016 By Tenzin Pema*

“The freedom of Tibetan language has almost been lost through Chinese repression in Tibet and through our personal free will in exile,” Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche has said this in the preface of the Basic Education Policy for Tibetans in Exile. Owing to both external as well as internal factors, the condition of Tibetans not being able to speak Tibetan is happening for the first time in Tibetan history, and Tibetans cannot read and write Tibetan in this 21st century is again a bitter reality.

This is a pathetic reality to those people who love this ancient language, possessing rich spiritual and secular literature for the benefit of humanity. This was the reason why late Tibetan scholar Tashi Tsering wrote a petition to the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress on 7 January 2007, focus on education in Tibet in the mother tongue. Under the information office of China’s Nationalities Committee, Tibetan scholars from throughout Tibet assembled in Beijing for a couple of days on 7 and 8 July 2007 and had a thorough discussion on the content of the petition, and published its report which recommended the protection, preservation and promotion of the Tibetan language.

There was a wide range of peaceful protests led by Tibetan students mainly in Amdo in 2010 to protect the freedom of Tibetan language in their schools. The International Tibetan Studies Community in 2012 appealed to Xi Jinping, the then Vice President of the People’s Republic of China to protect the Tibetan language.

Tsering Kyi, a school girl, in Machu County burnt herself (2012) to express her innermost sadness over the lack of freedom to study and use her own mother tongue in her school. Tashi Wangchuk, an ordinary Tibetan man from Yushul with an extraordinary willpower, made an effort to obtain legal assistance to protect his mother tongue (2015), but was detained (January 2016). He is still in Yushul Detention Centre in Kyegudo.

The tenth Panchen Lama, the late respected Tibetan scholar Dungkar Lobsang Thinley and the respected teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok were amongst many people who strongly spoke about the deteriorating situation of the Tibetan Language in Tibet. Chinese and Tibetan intellectuals, and foreign reporters and researchers continuously speak about the declining state of the Tibetan language in its own land.

Joy in learning one's mother tongue

Joy in learning one’s mother tongue

His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama is the most vocal advocate in exile for the preservation and usage of the Tibetan language. He strongly stresses the importance of the Tibetan language at every opportunity. It was under his sole guidance, the exile Tibetan community is able to flourish in the last more than fifty years with its cultural heritage intact in its monasteries, nunneries, schools, institutions and settlements. This is the reason why the Tibetan refugee community in India is considered as the most successful refugee community in the world. Under the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), there are four higher institutes, 73 Tibetan schools and 262 monasteries and nunneries in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, where children and adults learn Tibetan language, history, culture and Buddhist philosophy. The literacy rate of the Tibetans who are born and brought up in exile is almost hundred percent. The CTA has its own basic education policy to be implemented in its schools. Along with Sambhota Tibetan Schools Society, Tibetan Children’s Village, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Paljor Publications among many, the Education Department under the CTA publishes reading materials in Tibetan for all age groups, especially for children. The Education Department also standardise Tibetan terminologies and publishes series of glossaries of the standardised terms. Most of the job recruitment tests in exile Tibetan community, especially the CTA make Tibetan language compulsory which creates a condition for all to learn Tibetan. These are some of the continuous efforts from the exile Tibetan community to preserve and protect the Tibetan language.

However, with Tibetans being scattered all over the world, there is no conducive environment for usage of the Tibetan language, and this reduces the incentive for Tibetans to speak and write in Tibetan. This condition is further exacerbated by the fact that apart from India and Nepal, Tibetans do not have separate schools.

Although His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the CTA encourage Tibetan people to preserve and promote one’s own language, the CTA is not able to provide employment to all those who graduate every year from schools and colleges. This compels Tibetan graduates to seek jobs in towns and cities where the dominant languages are not Tibetan. But this should not be a reason for every Tibetan not to learn the Tibetan language. No one prevents them from learning one’s own mother tongue. No one has to risk one’s life to learn one’s mother tongue. So Tibetans in free world can learn Tibetan if he or she wishes to. The individual families and community can create conducive environment at home and society, and encourage the new generation to learn and speak Tibetan. It is the moral responsibility of the older generation to pass on Tibet’s cultural heritage to the younger generation. Every parent should make sure that their children don’t face identity crisis in future. But the number of Tibetans in diaspora is too small compared to the Tibetans inside Tibet. It is just 2 % of the total Tibetan population of six million. Therefore, if the Tibetan language and culture as a whole is to be kept intact, then it could be done best inside Tibet.

There are small groups of Tibetans in towns and cities in Tibet who wish to educate their children in Chinese alone for better job prospects. But majority of the six million Tibetans in Tibet wish to learn and use one’s mother tongue, not only to earn one’s bread, but also to protect one’s own identity in multi-ethnic China. This is very clear from the thoughts, speeches and actions of Tibetans inside Tibet from various walks of life. They wish to be educated in Tibetan language, culture and history along with Chinese and English languages, which is the standard bi-lingual or tri-lingual education.

Otherwise, what is happening inside Tibet is that Tibetans are facing difficulty in getting jobs in any governmental or non-governmental offices because they’re less fluent or less literate in Mandarin compared to the Chinese. Local Tibetan teachers are being replaced by Chinese teachers on the ground that they’re not well-versed in Mandarin and are not qualified bi-lingual teachers. But are these Chinese teachers qualified in bi-lingual teaching? Bi-lingual education is being initiated from kindergarten level to the highest grade in Tibet. Having Chinese teachers in these Tibetan schools, how can they provide bilingual education? Tibetan textbooks are being replaced with Chinese textbooks, with the excuse Tibetan students can have better future if they are taught in Chinese. What is the guarantee of having better future if the Tibetan students study Chinese alone? Tibetans don’t get opportunity to study their own language and culture in schools and colleges, and at the same time, cannot compete with Chinese in Mandarin in the job market. They come out losers at either sides.

If the Chinese government truly intends to protect its minority languages as it always claims, then let the autonomous regions, prefectures and counties enjoy the rights to protect, preserve and promote the respective minority languages as enshrined in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and the Regional National Autonomy Law. Tibetans being the majority in Tibet should have the right to use Tibetan in all aspects of their social, political and economic lives. If non-Tibetans want to work or live in Tibet, then let them also learn Tibetan. If this is done, every Non-Tibetan will learn Tibetan for his or her own survival. If this happens, then the Tibetan language will not only survive but will thrive. Except one, all the four elements for the language to flourish are present in Tibet. There is a specific government that is supposedly meant for the Tibetan people, which has full authority to make Tibetan the regional language of Tibet. The majority population in Tibet is Tibetan. There is a favourable atmosphere to protect, preserve and promote the language. More importantly, Tibetans are willing to learn, use and develop one’s mother tongue. The only thing is that the Chinese leadership and the government officials must have the willpower and determination to implement the laws of the land related to the minority languages.



Tenzin Pema is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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