Scholars and researchers on Tibet and Tibetan language studies gathered February 21 in Dharamshala to discuss a wide range of prospective and challenges Tibetan language faces inside Tibet under discriminatory Chinese policies as well as in the scattered exiled Tibetan diaspora.
The day long conference was organised by the Tibet Policy Institute to commemorate the 16th International Mother Language Day. This year’s theme ‘Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes’ lays emphasis on the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in the early years of schooling.
In his inaugural address, Lobsang, advisor at TPI called Tibetan language one of the richest languages in the world with over 8 million users spread across the Himalayan region, Nepal, Mongolia, Baluchistan in Pakistan and in the west as well. However, he observed that with the deliberate transformations enforced politically and socially by China, the language faces grave existential challenges to its form and originality inside Tibet. Citing a 2013 paper by two Chinese researchers, Lobsang said that in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, 59.81 percent of the population could not read and write Tibetan. The situation further worsens in the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo, now incorporated into Qinghai, where a 2006 official report found that 86.96 percent of the population could not read or write Tibetan.
Lobsang said that Tibetans inside Tibet have on earlier occasions attempted at observing International Mother Language Day but faced official restrictions and threats. “For the people to exist the language must flourish,” he added. “Therefore it is the collective responsibility of everyone to preserve and promote our language.”
Chief Guest of the inaugural ceremony, Kalon Ngodup Tsering, Education Department of the Central Tibetan Administration said that language is the soul and spirit of a people which acts as the guiding force behind the survival of its culture, religion and way of life.
He noted that Tibetan language not only plays a central role in bringing together Tibetans from the three provinces of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang, but also unifies them as a people distinct from other nationalities.
Speaking about the various internal and external challenges to Tibetan language, Kalon Tsering said that communist China believes in the ideology of destroying the language in order to destroy the nationality. He added that another grave threat is the casual neglect and underuse of the language by Tibetans in exile who have the full freedom to study and practice their language.
He encouraged NGOs and the media to promote proper usage of the language and assured that CTA will be happy to receive and implement recommendations emerging from the conference.
Speakers at the conference included Tashi Tsering, Director, Amnye Machen Institute, Prof. Ragdo Lobsang Tenzin and Prof. Lhakpa Tsering from the Central University of Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, Geshe Lobsang Monlam, creator of Monlam Tibetan font, Naga Sangay Tendar, Head of the Culture Research Section, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and Tenzin Pema, Research Fellow, TPI.
The scholars presented papers on various themes such as the importance of proper reading in studying Tibetan language, the impact of vernacular style of writing on Tibetan language, the importance and present state of Tibetan language and suggestions at preserving and promoting it, and China’s Tibetan language policy among others.
Bawa Kalsang Gyaltsen, a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile gave valedictory remarks at the conference.
International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in November 1999. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.
Tibet Policy Institute is a research centre affiliated to the Central Tibetan Administration.