“There is no space to use the Tibetan language”: a refugee’s account

Earlier this year, a group of Tibetans managed to escape Tibet and reach Dharamsala in northern India. There, they were interviewed by staff from our research partner Tibet Watch.

This is an account from the second member of the group. Like the first interviewee, they are originally from Kham in eastern Tibet. An interview with the first member of the group can be found here

In this interview, they recounted how the Tibetan language is disappearing from public life in Tibet at the expense of Chinese. The following account is in their own words. Their identity has been withheld. 

There are three schools in our township: a primary, secondary, and a high school. The medium of instruction and textbooks are in Chinese. In a week, there are only two days where the Tibetan language is taught, but for only 40 minutes in the morning and evening. It is an optional and not a compulsory subject for students. Even if you fail in the Tibetan exam, you will be promoted to the next grade. But not for the Chinese language exam. Competency in Chinese language is a requirement one must have to gain promotion to the next level because all the textbooks for the rest of the subjects and the medium of the instruction is in the Chinese language. You never get promoted if you fail in Chinese.

There was a Tibetan language school in our township when I was a student. It has been closed for some time now. These days, the medium of instruction is Chinese language in all schools and there is not a single Tibetan medium school in our region. There is one Tibetan medium school in Dartsedo City, but there too, all the teaching is done in Chinese language and the textbooks are all in Chinese. 

Nowadays, Tibetan medium schools and teaching are not at a level equal to Chinese medium schools and Chinese language teaching. There is no environment or space to use and speak or communicate in the Tibetan language. Even if you manage to graduate in the Tibetan language, there is no career and scope for employment, not even a government job, in a market-driven society where Chinese language competency is the main requirement.. The majority of the Tibetan graduates are working as teachers, and some are pursuing independent research and writing.

It is difficult even for those who have graduated from a Chinese medium school to get a well-paid job, one of professional and personal choice. Except for a few lucky ones, the vast majority would never find such work. Take myself, for example. I graduated from a Chinese medium school, but I could not find a suitable job. So, I had to do small business to survive. But it was never the same for Chinese high school graduates. They get selected easily and the vast majority of the people working in the government sector are Chinese. Chinese employees from the mainland are paid higher and, in my homeland, they are paid very high wages.

Currently, Tibetan children are being brought up to speak in Chinese and taught in Chinese only. The majority, almost 90 percent of the Tibetan kids, do not know and are not able to speak Tibetan. China even forbids Tibetan parents to home-tutor their kids other than officially approved subjects and homework. This is the same condition in all parts of Tibet. Despite constant advice by Tibetan parents to their kids to speak Tibetan and learn Tibetan, the majority of them are not able to speak and write in the Tibetan language, because all the social spaces including school, and teaching are conducted solely in Chinese.

There are few individuals and parents who are making every effort in their free time to learn Tibetan. Most of them can write and speak in Chinese. For instance, my village and township were of Tibetan majority in the past but have now become Chinese-dominated townships due to a massive influx of Chinese officials and staff, businesspeople and workers. There is no social space to learn and speak Tibetan language.

I remember, since my childhood, most of the people in my village sustained and survived by doing business because there was not much good output from agricultural practice. Businesses on wild fungus and wild mushrooms, and fruit as well as medicinal herbs are found in plenty and have a good market. So, most people keep doing business and only a few do farming.

Information supplied by Tibet Watch

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