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Village School Teaches Chinese and Tibetan

October 28, 2009

Compared to the Chinese, many Tibetans are still at an economic disadvantage. This is often because they speak Tibetan rather than Chinese. On the other hand, Tibetans sometimes complain that their culture is being forgotten and that Tibetans are becoming more and more Chinese. However, there are positive counter-examples -- in Qinghai for example, where the Dalai Lama is from. A lot of Tibetans still live there today and one village is making sure children are educated in both languages.

Often Tibetans are at an economic disadvantage because they do not learn Chinese at an early age
Often Tibetans are at an economic disadvantage because they do not learn Chinese at an early ageImage: AP

Gelek is usually woken by the dog at about 6 am. The seven-year-old lives in a mud hut near a meadow where yaks graze.

Before setting off for school, he drinks a salty, buttery tea that his mother has prepared and eats some homemade bread.

To get to school, Gelek has to cross fields with grazing yaks and pass mud huts where Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind. He lives in the mountainous province of Qinghai, which neighbours Tibet.

100 pupils in a 1960s building

Gelek gets to school at 8.20 am. The 1960s building is four storeys high. The teacher Ning says that there are more than 100 pupils.

“About half of the families here can be described as poor,” Ning explains. “In the cities, children have computer courses from the first or second form onwards and they also learn how to play the piano or another instrument. But we cannot offer that to our children here.”

But until recently the biggest problem was not poverty but language. Almost all the children speak fluent Tibetan but not one word of Chinese, says Duan Zhi who is himself Tibetan. The 28-year-old works for an NGO that wants to improve living conditions for Tibetan children.

“The children are growing up in a purely Tibetan environment. But suddenly when they start going to school, they find themselves among Chinese people. The children don’t understand a word and that’s why they fall behind with their work. The villagers complained to the local authorities,” recalls Duan Zhi.

Model bilingual school project

Their complaints did not fall on deaf ears. The small village school has become a model project. Not only Chinese teachers are employed but Tibetan ones as well. The pupils are taught in both languages.

The teacher, Ning, says this will be an advantage in future. He knows that he only got the job because he speaks both languages. “The children know that they are behind compared to those in the cities. They see what children in the cities can do on television, the chances that they have. They know many Tibetans don’t get jobs later. If they only speak Tibetan it’s hard for them in China.”

The break is over. Gelek is concentrating on the blackboard: “I like Tibetan. Our script is so beautiful; I like to read in Tibetan,” he says.

But although he finds it hard Gelek also wants to learn Chinese because he knows it’s a way out of poverty. His dream is to speak both languages well and to become a teacher. His well-educated Tibetan teacher Ning is his idol.

Author: Petra Aldenrath/Anne Thomas
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein