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China cuts lessons in mother tongue

Fears of nationalism have led the authorities to change their language policy. Yojana Sharma reports

The Chinese government has reversed its policy of teaching Tibetan primary school children in their mother tongue and is blocking Tibetan-language instruction in secondary schools and universities, because of fears it increases nationalism.

With a tense situation in Tibet, the Chinese authorities appear to be putting security interests before education. They fear that encouraging Tibetan-medium schools will heighten Tibetan nationalist feelings and demands for more autonomy from China.

In primary schools the use of Tibetan as the sole language of instruction is to end, and Chinese will be introduced from the first year of school, according to an announcement carried by the official New China News Agency.

Tibetan exile groups say the announcement comes as the authorities have been rolling back the use of Tibetan in secondary and university education. A highly-successful project in three secondary schools where Tibetan children were being taught in their own language instead of Chinese was discontinued last year because of fears it would increase nationalist sentiments.

The Tibet Information Network says a long-standing requirement that all students pass a university entrance exam in Tibetan was also dropped last year and the committee in charge of implementing policies drawn up in 1987 favouring the use of the Tibetan language has been disbanded.

Last December the authorities announced that a course in Tibetan history at the Tibet University in Lhasa - founded in 1985 partly to develop Tibetan-medium teaching - would be taught in Chinese and not Tibetan, even though many of the teachers and students are Tibetan.

According to a senior Communist Party official in Tibet, being taught solely in Tibetan was impractical and out-of-touch with the reality in Tibet. He said: "Thus the regional government has reversed its decision made in 1987. As a result both Tibetan and Chinese languages are being taught."

Previously Tibetan children were taught in their own language up to 13, learning Chinese from age nine. They then had to switch completely to Chinese in junior-secondary school.

Four experimental Tibetan-medium classes in secondary schools in Central Tibet have been closed or are not admitting new pupils. Apart from 40 special schools in Qinghai Province all secondary pupils now have their lessons in Chinese.

The secondary school project which taught the sciences and mathematics in the Tibetan language was extremely popular. In 1995 its first graduates scored exceptionally high scores in their final examinations. The pass rate was 80 per cent compared to 40 per cent for other Tibetan secondary school students who studied in Chinese, according to a Tibetan education committee report published that year.

But the following year students in the pilot classes were given their exam papers in Chinese and not Tibetan as in the year before. Most failed and had to resit their final year in another school before retaking the exam in Chinese.

Tibetan students studying in Chinese score well below China's national average and are regarded as low achievers. As part of China's policy of positive discrimination towards minorities Tibetans receive extra marks as compensation in order to secure places in China's universities.

Many Tibetans will support the introduction of Chinese because they believe it will boost their children's chances of higher education. But Tibetan educationists believe it is a step back.

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