Languages in Tibet under threat — and traditions at risk too

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Language is a living thing that evolves over time, but with this evolution comes the death of myriad tongues. Some 3,000 languages are endangered around the world, and the number at risk continues to rise, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This trend is very much in evidence on the Great Tibetan Plateau, where many languages are under threat.

The Tibetan Plateau is home to about 52 distinct local tongues, many of which have their own elaborate character systems.

Gerald Roche, an anthropologist and linguist at La Trobe University in Australia, estimates that 230,000 of 6.2 million Tibetans in China do not speak Tibetan. In total, about 39 languages other than Tibetan are spoken on the Tibetan Plateau, by a little over one million people, according to Roche. 

Roche’s research reveals Tibet’s vibrant linguistic landscape while highlighting the fragility of the minority languages, which are spoken by a relatively small number of people. While more and more Tibetans speak mainstream Tibetan and Mandarin, the number of speakers of minority languages is shrinking, imperiling the languages, according to Roche.

Traditions fade from memory when languages disappear.

When a language disappears, vernacular cultural traditions and histories can perish. According to Kalsong Dolma, general secretary of the Tibetan Women’s Association in Dharamsala, memories of Women’s Uprising Day — a rebellion in 1959 by thousands of Tibetan women in Lhasa against the occupation of Tibet by Communist China — are fading as fewer offspring speak the languages of the women who protested.

Following the uprising, many Tibetan women fled to India, where they initiated handicraft groups.

“These handicraft centers not only protected the arts and crafts of Tibet but were also conducted in marginalized tongues, helping Tibetan women preserve culture and the skills to earn a livelihood in their early refugee life,” Dolma said.

“Sadly now, it’s harder and harder to organize large, accessible events with lesser-spoken dialects in Tibetan communities. As a result, the traditional art and the stories of resistance during Women’s Uprising Day we tell in these spaces are not getting repeated and spread to the next generation.”

Government-regulated schooling, where mainly Mandarin and Tibetan are taught, and changes in the workforce are helping to push minority languages to the brink of extinction.

“Suppressing the teaching and continuation of language suppresses culture and restricts people from embracing and practicing their identities,” Dolma said. “Stripping minorities of their language can often be a form of oppression.”

Beijing encourages Mandarin in schools in Tibet.

Beijing considers the implementation of Chinese in the educational system to be a major political goal in Tibet, which it has ruled for nearly 70 years.

Since 2015, the Chinese Communist Party has scaled back the teaching of ethnic minority languages, promoting Mandarin Chinese as the official language of education, business and government.

State schools encourage allegiance to a single mother tongue and prevent students from speaking their village languages with any regularity, according to Andrew Frankel, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Tibet Center who spent three years on the Plateau. The goal is to ensure that Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic groups are assimilated into the dominant Han culture.

Tibetan attitudes are complicated by the practical reality of living in a country where Chinese prevails. While some parents may worry that their minority language is disappearing, they have little choice but to tell their children to prioritize Chinese studies, in part because the national university entrance exam is administered only in Chinese.

“The parents think that Chinese is most important for their children’s future,” Phuntsok, a monk at a Yushu monastery told by officials to close its Tibetan classes, told the New York Times in 2015. Many parents and children opt for English as a second language for economic reasons, as English and Mandarin proficiency are increasingly needed for employment.

Mainstream Tibetan in some respects has benefited from resistance to central Chinese rule, at the expense of minority languages.

“Tibetans keen to protect standardized Tibetan rally behind the language as a source of Tibetan pride in response to the encroachment of Mandarin,” Dolma said.

‘I am scared that part of my heritage is lost because of me.’

The Manikacha language is spoken by approximately 8,000 individuals across four villages in a valley on the northeastern Plateau. According to Roche, the number of Manikacha speakers is declining because about one third are no longer transmitting the language to their children. This phenomenon began in the late 1950s, when China began instructing Manikacha speakers in standardized Tibetan.

Tsupkhu Lama is a Manikacha monk who lives in Dharamsala, a city in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Surrounded by cedar forests on the edge of the Himalayas, the hillside city is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

When he was a teenager, Tsupkhu fled China with two of his brothers.

“I was raised in a home that favored Manikacha, a language similar to Tibetan but not Tibetan at all,” Tsupkhu said over a video call. “But I remember only speaking Tibetan at school. The decision was a practical one. After all, most of my peers would not recognize Manikacha or the like.”

For years, Tsupkhu neglected Manikacha as well as family traditions and stories conveyed in that tongue.

“I regretted my neglect of Manikacha, and due to my parents’ death, I cannot come to term with this mistake,” Tsupkhu said. “I have no opportunity to teach Manikacha to others and continue its legacy. I am scared that part of my heritage is lost because of me.”

Minority languages are considered incompatible with China’s constitution.

Proponents of linguistic diversity in Tibet have met stern resistance from authorities.

In 2012, a 20-year-old student set herself on fire and died after her high school changed its main language from Tibetan languages to Mandarin.

Monk and human rights activist Golog Jigme Gyatso was reportedly jailed and tortured for demanding the preservation of his mother tongue.

Earlier this year, Tibetan entrepreneur and advocate Tashi Wangchuk was released after serving a five-year prison sentence for filing a legal complaint against his local authorities for failing to protect Tibetan language provisions.

Undaunted, the head of the National People’s Congress’ Legislative Affairs Commission said earlier this year that the use of minority languages in classrooms is “incompatible with the Chinese Constitution.”

Earlier this month, the language learning app Talkmate and the online video streaming site Bilibili appeared to remove Tibetan and Uighur languages from their platforms as a result of government policy.

Advocating for the protection of Tibetan culture.

According to Yuan Mei, an assistant professor of Education at Minzu University of China, Beijing is persuaded that the disappearance of minority languages is beneficial because it reflects the successful absorption of marginalized groups into a wealthier, more technologically-advanced society.

Although many Tibetans want to protect their mother tongues, they recognize the importance of learning Mandarin and English in a globalized, digital era.

Tsupkhu, who studied at Lah Language School in Dharamsala, hopes to master English and Chinese so he can share his story.

“Every morning I wake up at 4 am, pray for the health, safety and freedom of my brothers in Tibet, and I wish my English-learning proved to be helpful as I tell my story with my own voice,” Tsupkhu said.

He acknowledged the advantages of having a single, common language in a country that is developing rapidly in a global economy. For him, learning Mandarin and English is not an act of betrayal.

“To me, learning these languages is a way of repurposing the oppressors’ languages into a means of resistance,” Tsupkhu said. “Being multilingual places me in a position of advantage to advocate for the protection of Tibetan culture and Manikacha.”

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