Tibetan Schoolchildren Lose Fluency in Native Language as Schools Switch to Mandarin

Children in the Tibetan Autonomous Region are losing fluency in the Tibetan language as schools in the region are increasingly teaching subjects in Mandarin on Chinese government orders.

Now most students in Tibet will only hear Tibetan-speaking teachers in classes where they study the language itself. As a result, many parents in the region are saddened that Mandarin has become the dominant language of their children.

Instruction in Mandarin has been in effect in most middle and high schools in the region since the 1960s, but in the 2010s, many elementary schools and even kindergartens are now also teaching in Mandarin due to the educational policies of the regional government, Human Rights Watch research showed.

A source in Tibet who requested anonymity to avoid legal trouble told RFA’s Tibetan Service Thursday that in Shigatse (in Chinese Rìkāzé) the switch to Mandarin in primary and middle schools had resulted in reduced competency in Tibetan due to diminished usage.

“After school is over even, the students prefer to use Chinese instead of Tibetan, even in their daily conversations,” the source said.

“As such, the standard of the Tibetan language of Tibetan kids is very poor,” the source said.

Another source, a mother who requested anonymity, told RFA, “For tests and exams, the children are more inclined to get better grades in Chinese and other subjects, with little care or attention to Tibetan.”

“This trend of Chinese priority over Tibetan is worrying to us,” she said.

Arya Tsewang Gyalpo, the spokesman for the Central Tibetan Administration, told RFA that the waning use of Tibetan language in education is leading to a loss of national identity for the Tibetan people.

“Chinese as a medium for instruction strips off the students’ love for the Tibetan language and their sense of pride in studying their mother tongue,” he said.

“The current Chinese education policy in Tibet violates both China’s Regional Ethic Autonomy Law and the Tibetan Autonomous Regional Law,” he added

Article 36 of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law states that autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas have the right to make decisions about education, including “the language used in instruction,” but only “in accordance with state guidelines on education and in accordance with the law.”

In neighboring India, Karma Tenzin, a researcher at the Dharamsala-based Tibet Policy Institute, told RFA that Mandarin instruction in Tibetan schools is meant to achieve the Chinese government’s aim of structural change in the region.

“It further erodes and marginalizes Tibetan culture and language and disengages Tibetan youth from their own culture and tradition.

The Chinese government’s attempts to push Mandarin on educational institutions has met backlash outside Tibet.

“Previously in Chabcha (Qiàbǔqià) and Rebgong (Tongren)in Qinghai province, the Chinese government attempted to replace Tibetan as a medium with Chinese, but student bodies rose up to protest against their proposal,” Nyithar, a college instructor at the Dalai Lama Institute in Bangalore, India.

“This clearly shows that [instruction in Mandarin] is not the aspiration of the Tibetan people,” he said.

Mandarin in primary schools first became the norm in the urban areas of Tibet, but data from HRW shows that it is spreading to schools in the countryside as well.

In an Op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times, HRW’s China Director Sophia Richardson wrote, “Ordinary Tibetans have expressed widespread concern about the increasing loss of fluency in Tibetan among the younger generation as a result of changing school policies.”

“While many favor Tibetan children learning both languages, there is considerable opposition to Chinese authorities’ approach, which erodes the Tibetan language skills of children and forces them to consume political ideology and ideas largely contrary to those of their parents and community,” she added.

Mandarin in Tsang

RFA sources confirmed that the switchover to Mandarin is occurring in Tibet at the direction of the Chinese government.

A source who requested anonymity in Tsang, the region west of Lhasa that is considered the Tibetan cultural heartland, told RFA Tuesday, “It is true that Chinese has become the lingua franca in Tsang, and Tibetan students are becoming more interested in Chinese, so the Chinese language is widely used among the students.”

An exile from Tsang who declined to be named told RFA that he inquired with his contacts there and could confirm that the Chinese authorities have implemented Sinocentric education policies in central Tibet.

“In Tsang in central Tibet there are very few private schools teaching [in] Tibetan. In such a situation, introducing Chinese [as the] medium of instruction has become quite easy for [the authorities],” said the exile.

A primary teacher in Tsang Thong county middle school in Central Tibet was quoted by the Tibet Times as saying, “A few days ago some of my close students informed me via phone that the school started teaching math and physics in Chinese.”

“When the news hit my ear I was very surprised, anxious and felt deeply sad,” said the teacher.

“Some people think making the Chinese the dominant language of instruction is beneficial for the students, but I don’t buy it,” the teacher added.

The teacher pointed out that Chinese authorities call for racial harmony, but such preferential treatment for Mandarin over Tibetan is sowing the seeds of disharmony.

“Those who doubt the utility of Tibetan language in modern time shows their bias.”

The teacher also said that the superiority of the Tibetan language was “proven” by the emergence of Tibet’s great scholars, who received their instruction only in Tibetan.

Several Tibetan analysts, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, expressed their concern about China’s assimilation of Tibetans through education.

“Tibetan language is the heart and soul of Tibetan culture, and by destroying the language, it destroys the very identity of being a Tibetan,” said one analyst.

“Such a change in educational policy should be condemned as it is the doing of low-level officials and not the central Chinese government,” said another

A March 5, 2020 report by Human Rights Watch details a growing emphasis on Chinese-language schooling in Tibet, calling the trend “an assimilationist policy for minorities that has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.”

Drawn from interviews conducted in September 2019 with Tibetan parents and teachers in six rural townships in the Nagchu municipality in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the 91-page report reveals a pattern of pressure on local schools to give preference to classroom instruction in Chinese, even at the kindergarten level.

Thousands of non-Tibetan speaking teachers have now been hired from other parts of China to teach in Tibetan areas, with ethnically mixed classes promoted in the name of the unity of China’s “nationalities,” HRW says in its report.

Language rights have become a particular focus for Tibetan efforts to assert national identity in recent years, with informally organized language courses typically deemed “illegal associations” and teachers subject to detention and arrest, sources say.

Reported by Lobsang Gelek for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

Source: Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. https://www.rfa.org.