As elsewhere in High Asia, minority languages in Tibet are the first victims of international tensions.
During the recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) periodic review of China, a total of twelve countries raised the issue of Tibet. In their response, the Chinese delegation devoted two minutes to discussing Tibet (begins 2:33:39), and half that time was spent talking about the Tibetan language.
Interestingly, none of the countries that raised the issue of Tibet explicitly referred to language. Why, then, did the Chinese delegation draw attention to this issue?
In part it is because they consider addressing language issues a key success in China’s program for Tibet. In white papers on Tibet in 2015 (April and September), 2011, and 1992, China has repeatedly boasted of its successful provision of language rights for Tibetans.
But, language has also been a significant aspect of Tibetan grievances and international scrutiny, particularly in the last decade. Students have protested against changes to bilingual education several times since 2010. Many of the 154 self-immolators in Tibet expressed fears regarding the fate of the Tibetan language. And most recently, the imprisonment of language advocate Tashi Wangchuk brought condemnation from the international community, including from within the UN.
China therefore had good reason to focus on language issues in its response during the UNHRC periodic review.
China’s discussion of language issues focused on the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—despite the fact that most Tibetans in China live outside it. They described efforts to translate official documents and media into Tibetan, the successful digital encoding of the Tibetan script, and the implementation of a bilingual education system in Mandarin and Tibetan.
It is unclear if these measures actually constitute an effective offset to the aggressive promotion of Mandarin. For example, Tibetans are currently deeply concerned about the increasing presence of Chinese loanwords in Tibetan, considering it evidence of more systematic imbalances between the two languages. However, even if these measures are effective in protecting Tibetan, they completely fail to protect other languages of the region.
For example, the non-Tibetan Monpa and Lhoba peoples of the TAR speak several languages. Although China is keen to draw attention to their Tibetan bilingual education program in the TAR, the languages of the Monpa and Lhoba people are completely excluded from schools. They instead receive education in Tibetan and Chinese, bringing with it all the well-known detriments of being denied mother tongue education.
Furthermore, not all Tibetans in the TAR use Tibetan as their first language. Linguists are still recognizing previously un-described languages in the region. There is also a growing community of Tibetan Sign Language users. Neither group is catered for by bilingual education policies that focus only on Tibetan and Chinese.
If we widen the scope to include Tibetans outside the TAR, the significance of this exclusion grows. Tibetans within China speak at least 26 distinct non-Tibetan languages, none of which are recognized by the state. A total lack of state protections for these languages is leading to language loss—all these languages are now being replaced by Tibetan or Chinese.
It is also worth pointing out that whether or not Tibetan itself is a single language is not a trivial question. Although sharing a common written language, the spoken forms of Tibetan are highly divergent. Some linguists classify ‘the Tibetan language’ in China into up to 16 languages. Comprehension between these spoken languages is low. Bilingual education policies that ignore this diversity also ignore the important role that comprehension plays in the classroom.
The response of the Chinese delegate at the UN periodic review, therefore, was missing the point. Promoting a single language is an inadequate measure to protect the rights of a multilingual population. In fact, promoting the Tibetan language in many cases impinges upon linguistic rights. This is the case not only of non-Tibetan populations such as the Monpa and Lhoba, but also for Tibetans who do not speak Tibetan, or primarily use a signed language.
Unfortunately, Chinese policy-makers are not alone in missing this point. Although international organizations that advocate for Tibet frequently focus on language issues, they consistently refer to Tibetans as an homogenous population with a single language. Like the Chinese state, they tend to ignore languages when talking about language rights.
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), for example, expends significant effort on their website explaining that the Tibetan language is not Chinese. And despite the fact that ICT has campaigned for Tibetan’s language rights, including within the UN, this has always overlooked the region’s linguistic diversity. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, meanwhile, has published two reports focusing on language in education. Both these reports, in 2003 and 2007, focus only on a single Tibetan language.
Representatives of the Chinese state, and the international community of Tibet advocates, therefore, find themselves curiously united on this issue. Despite their obvious open disagreements, both agree that Tibetans speak only a single language. They therefore continue to debate linguistic rights in ways that erase and exclude Tibet’s minority languages.
This erasure and exclusion matters. It perpetuates the impression that some languages, like Tibetan, deserve rights, whilst others do not. And yet a commitment to the idea of rights involves a commitment to the equality of all people regardless of their language.
If China really wants to fulfill its constitutional promise to respect the rights of ethnic minorities, it needs to support all their languages, not just a few carefully chosen ones. And if the international community wants to hold China accountable for their failures to respect minority rights, we need to stop replicating their erasure of linguistic diversity, and focus attention on Tibet’s most vulnerable populations.
This article first appeared on Language on the Move
Header image: A restaurant sign featuring both Tibetan and Chinese, in a village where the Tibetan residents speak Ngandehua, one of Tibet’s minority languages (Gerald Roche)