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China defends language policies in Tibetan areas

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on October 25, 2010 No Comment

From an Associated Press story:

“Chinese officials tried to defuse discontent following days of student protests in ethnically Tibetan areas, saying a plan to teach classes only in Mandarin Chinese was not aimed at wiping out Tibet’s native tongue, state media reported Saturday.”

The unrest arose when word spread of an educational reform plan (forwarded by the Communist Party’s Qinghai province education department director, Wang Yubo) which stated that “the nation’s common language must become the language of instruction” (potentially coming at the cost of the current bilingual model). (Btw, “common language”?)

“Common language” debates provide a fascinating vantage point from which to explore people’s ideologies about language.

In the Indian context, forty three languages are documented as media of instruction-though, by and large, curriculum is driven by the Three Language Formula articulated by the government, with Hindi and English (often) being the common denominators across regions. Even with some degree of flexibility, and some accommodation of regional interests, the push against the hegemonic power of English and Hindi are great. (India, for example, has a long history of anti-Hindi riots, stretching back to pre-Independence times.)

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Which language gets to be the “medium of instruction” is a crucial and contested issue in a space with competing languages that bring with them different histories, literatures, and ideologies. Of course, this is not just the case when different languages are at stake-in monolingual contexts, the “standard” versus “dialectic” language question can be a charged issue. And the standard/dialect conundrum can resurrect itself in bi/multi-lingual educational contexts-in India, for example, Khubchandani (2003) noted how the imposition of standardized versions of vernacular languages disadvantages speakers who use dialectical variants.  

Two weeks ago, Sri Lanka announced it is seeking India’s help in implementing something akin to the Three Language Formula in its schools. India’s plan is said to have “worked.” I don’t know-but I have a feeling that the Three Language Formula implementation in Sri Lanka might not erase linguistic tensions-only heighten them in different ways. And, of course, we’ll wait to see how things unfold in China…

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