Last month thousands of Tibetan students took to the streets to protest the Chinese Government’s decision to make all elementary and high school education in the official Chinese language, Mandarin.  China has recently mandated that all children go through grade 9 and has plans to increase it to grade 12 soon.  If Tibetan Nomads fail to send their children to school they get fined.

Tsering, age 10, studying math at boarding school for nomadic children

To be fair the Chinese government is not alone in wanting to standardize the language of its citizens.  We have our own debates about bilingual education and we have a history of brutally forcing Native Americans not to speak their native languages.   Then there is the issue of postgraduate education. If Tibetan students do not speak fluent Mandarin it will be virtually impossible for them to pursue an advanced degree.

According to Ken Hale, a professor of linguistics at MIT, there are 6,000 languages spoken on earth today and 3,000 are not spoken by the children.  Every two weeks another elder goes to the grave carrying the last spoken word of an entire culture.  When the language dies the culture dies.  This is a silent extinction in that we scarcely hear about it in the media.  It is our cultural diversity that gives our species its resiliency, creativity and strength.

Nomad children at boarding school

If you spend anytime with the Tibetans you will most likely realize, like I have,
what a special culture they have.  I have never been with a people that return a smile and laugh as readily as they do–having a cultural tradition and devotion grounded in compassion shows.   If there was ever a good argument for a solid bilingual educational curriculum this is it.

2 Responses to “Educational Changes in Tibet”

  1. Marc-André Pauzé

    I can totally relate to your post, Phil, as I am documenting life of the Anishnabe First Nation, also known as Algonquin. They are an amerindian nation in Province of Quebec, Canada. The community where I live half of the year is isolated for three reasons.
    1. They live on a reserve in the backcountry, but can’t live the traditional life because of land exploitation by the mainstream society.
    2. They don’t speak their native language anymore, except for the elders.
    3. The community leaders have decided in the early 80’s to switch from french to english where all communities in the regions are french speaking.
    It is not the only reasons for their social problems but being isolated and without the transmission of values and culture by the elders, the result is a generation with a broken spirit.

    • Phil Borges

      Yes, it is such an unfortunate situation but it has happened and it is happening over and over again with indigenous peoples. There is no easy answer, we can only try to educate others about how important the value of diversity is and the knowledge that these cultures represent. Thank you for your comment and your good work.


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