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China bans Tibetan language in schools

Move could lead to the extinction of the language and Tibetan culture in the country, activists fear

Students are seen in a classroom at the Lhasa Nagqu Second Senior High School in Lhasa, in China's Tibet Autonomous Region, on June 1, 2021

Students are seen in a classroom at the Lhasa Nagqu Second Senior High School in Lhasa, in China's Tibet Autonomous Region, on June 1, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 18, 2023 09:18 AM GMT

Updated: October 18, 2023 09:26 AM GMT

Authorities have banned the teaching and use of the Tibetan language in elementary and middle schools in two Tibetan-populated regions in southwestern Sichuan province, a move critics say threatens Tibetan culture and identity, says a report.

The communist regime ordered the ban in government-run schools in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture starting with the fall semester that began in September, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Oct. 17.

The order requires all instruction in schools to be in Mandarin Chinese, sources inside the country told RFA.

Tibetan activists fear the move could lead to the extinction of the language in the regions — and could endanger its viability across the country.

Middle school students currently enrolled can finish the next two years of studies in Tibetan, but starting in 2025, all classes will be held in Mandarin, the source said.

Previously, state-run schools in the region taught Tibetan language classes to students in subjects including mathematics, science, physics, geography, history and social studies. Mandarin was also taught as a language course.

The government said the move seeks to raise education standards in schools.

Tibetan activists termed the move a “soft atrocity” that aims to eradicate the Tibetan language and culture.

Observers note that though China’s Constitution allows minority groups to use their own language in their own regions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under its controversial “sinicization” campaign has continued to restrict the language and culture of minority groups such as Uyghur Muslims.

“On the pretext of the government’s program, China is trying to completely wipe out the Tibetan language,” the unnamed Tibetan activist told RFA.

“China’s use of soft atrocities, instead of forcible measures, is leading to the complete annihilation of Tibetan society and education, with no scope for revival,” the source said.

The education departments of Ngaba and Kardze were unavailable for comment.

It's feared the ban will have drastic impacts on Tibetan-populated regions in China and across the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In Karze prefecture, about 90 percent of the estimated one million inhabitants are Tibetans who speak their own language.

The ban reverses previous moves to promote the Tibetan language in the region.

Under the Karze Area Tibetan Language Regulation adopted in 2015, special emphasis was put on the formation of a Tibetan language task force in the Tibet Autonomous Region, with the promotion of Tibetan-language teaching in schools considered important. 

The ban shocked many including teachers and parents who said they were not officially informed about this major change in policy but were only told about it verbally.

After banning Tibetan instruction at the Chak-sam-kha Middle School, Tibetan language teachers were told to move to other areas where the government allows Tibetan to be used as the medium of instruction, the sources said.

Middle schools in Zoege county, also part of the Tibetan traditional region of Amdo, are widely known for their high standard of Tibetan-language teaching but had to switch to Mandarin as the main language of instruction this year, said a source from inside Tibet. 

All teachers at Zoege country middle schools have to implement the measure, the source said.

The Chinese regime attempted to impose a Mandarin-only policy in schools in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in 2020. The plan was put on hold following a large protest.

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