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Tibetans' mother tongue faces tide of Chinese

July 15, 2010

July 14, 2010

SHIGATSE, China (Reuters Life!) -- Teenager Dawan
Dunjhu (Dawa Dhondup) is Tibetan and lives in
Tibet, but says that if his friends and
classmates can't master Mandarin Chinese, they
have little hope of a professional future.

"I want to be a lawyer, and for me Chinese plays
a very important role both in my life and my
study," Dawan Dunjhu (Dawa Dhondup), 16, told
Reuters during a government-organized visit for foreign media to Tibet.

"If someone can't speak Chinese then they might
as well be mute," added the student at the
Shigatse Shanghai Experimental School, built with
aid from the Shanghai government in a run-down
monastery town several hours drive from Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Tibetan is an official language in Tibet and
parts of China where Tibetans have traditionally
been the main ethnic group, in what the
government calls "autonomous" regions and areas.

Yet Beijing has for decades promoted "Putonghua,"
or standard Mandarin Chinese, as a way of unifying a diverse country.

This makes language choices fraught for groups
that are not ethnically Chinese, many of whom chafe under Communist rule.

For Tibetans, the route to jobs and a better
income often requires mastering Chinese, leaving
many worried they will lose their own ancient
tongue and its unique writing system.

While Dawan Dunjhu's (Dawa Dhondup) school is
technically bilingual, the only classes entirely
taught in Tibetan are Tibetan language classes.

Teachers say there are no text books in Tibetan
for subjects like history, mathematics or
science, and exams have to be written in Chinese
-- apart from Tibetan language tests.

"It would be hard for the students to translate
into Tibetan concepts they have learned about in
Chinese," said deputy headmaster Cang Qiong,
patiently answering a stream of questions from
foreign reporters about why Tibetan is so little used.

Younger grades fall back on Tibetan when new
ideas are introduced, but the rest of the
teaching is in Mandarin -- which parents and
education experts say can dent interest in
learning among some young children who struggle to keep up.

The government views the promotion of Mandarin as
vital to unite a nation with thousands of Chinese
dialects and numerous other ethnic languages,
from Tibetan and Uighur to the much threatened She, Evenki and Manchu.

Beijing says it supports minority languages,
pointing to broadcasting in areas where they are
still in widespread daily use, and official signs
in Tibet -- from shop boards to place names --
where the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script is required.

Many Tibetans still speak no Mandarin, especially
in the vast open spaces of the Tibetan heartland.
Rights groups and exile communities complain it
is being gradually marginalized in cities and among the elite.

"Whether you can speak Tibetan has already become
a secondary issue, but whether you can speak
Chinese has become crucial to your livelihood,"
said prominent Tibetan blogger Woeser.

"So the Tibetan written language has in reality reached a very serious point."

Only recently has there been any push for
bureaucrats from the majority Han Chinese to
learn the languages of minority areas where they
work, and the new drive has yet to show much fruit.

There are similar issues with the written
language: the rule requiring bilingual signs is
easily flouted; billboards over stores are
sometimes only written in Chinese, or have just a cursory line of Tibetan.

Chinese is already seeping into everyday Tibetan.

Educated young Tibetans play with "Chibetan,"
mixing in Mandarin words with Tibetan, much in
the same way cool Chinese youth mash up English into their speech.

"It's very fashionable," shrugged one government worker.

For words that have no commonly-used Tibetan
equivalent, Mandarin is used instead. In the
midst of a Tibetan conversation, certain
bureaucratic words crop up in Mandarin.

These include "bu tie" (subsidy), "he tong"
(contract) and "dang yuan" (Communist Party member).

In Lhasa, some educated Tibetans say they will
fight the rising tide of Mandarin -- by refusing to speak it.

"It is the language of the Chinese," said one
young Tibetan man, speaking in excellent English
and out of sight of the police patrols in Lhasa's
old quarter. "Please don't speak to me in it."

(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan, Editing by
Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal)
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