Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Blog thread: The Embarrassment of Language

One of main themes in Tibetan internet forums are discussions on the status of the Tibetan language. This thread of forum postings gives a good examples of concerns of Tibetan internet users. Translated from Chinese, the original URL is no longer valid.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Promoting the Standard Tibetan language was started by the 'Hand of the Sun' (Yangguang zhishou) with a post entitled “The Embarrassment of Language (yuyan de ganga)” on June 29, 2005. He discussed the difficulty for Tibetans to communicate with each other because of their different dialects, and appealed to Tibetan intellectuals to educate the next generation of Tibetans to be adept at not only Tibetan language and culture, but also English and Chinese. Some people support the idea of promoting Lhasa dialect as the standard Tibetan language so that Tibetans can communicate, but, in their opinion, this does not mean that people will stop using their own dialects. Some explained why there are difficulties in communicating with the various dialects, arguing that the lack of communication among the various dialects led to the differences among the dialects. The one who started the thread commented that the problem of communicating among different dialects is neither caused by the lack of communication nor by the backwardness of the communication, in his opinion, it is because a lot of Tibetans who speak the same dialects do not talk to each other in their own dialects, and many times when they do, they mix Tibetan with Chinese.

  • The “Shepherd of the Land of Snow” maintains that though there are many Tibetan Studies institutes and many representatives of People’s Congress, nobody has worked on Standard Tibetan language. He thinks it is important for the three Tibetan areas to be united so as to resist the further disintegration and nibbling away of Tibetan nationality.

  • One person argues it is a good idea to learn Standard Tibetan language, but they think it would be hard to implement it since students have to learn Chinese and English. (This person turned out to be Han Chinese) The “Shepherd of the Land of Snow” refuted him saying that it would be a good idea to have the standard Tibetan language for Tibetans who are learning Tibetan in school, just like there is Mandarin for all Chinese who are learning Chinese no matter where they are from.
Later, they debated about one’s views of history.
  • The Han Chinese said that he always thinks that Tibet is part of China, and cares about the concept of the family of the Great Chinese Nation. The “Shepherd of the Land of Snow” said that it is better to leave the view on history to a later generation, but he thinks it is abnormal that a Tibetan could not survive without knowing Chinese. He argues it is even more impractical for Tibetan nomads and farmers to learn to communicate with Mandarin since they do not speak Chinese at all, thus it is more practical to promote the standard Tibetan among them. He complained that why could the Chinese people or the government not tolerate the Tibetan wish to be different and unique from the Chinese since most Tibetans have acknowledged that Tibetan culture is part of Chinese culture.

  • One Tibetan from Amdo who is living abroad said that, from his personal experience, it is possible for people to learn and communicate in Lhasa dialect no matter where they are from. Another also agrees with him, maintaining that there are more advantages than disadvantages to promoting standard Tibetan language. What he worries is that there is no support for promoting the standard Tibetan language: after the Tibetan language has been seriously affected, one is worried that before one has the chance to promote the Standard Tibetan language, Tibetans do not even know how to speak their dialects.

  • One person calling himself the “descendant of the Great Tubo (Great Tibetan Empire) maintains that no foreign languages can take the place of one’s mother tongue no matter whether one’s nationality is strong or weak. He refers to the last class. He thinks both Chinese and English are foreign languages, so before one learn these alien languages, one should learn one’s mother tongue as a pre-condition. He used the example that Chinese are calling on overseas Chinese to learn Chinese, arguing they do so not because English is not practical.

  • “Repa” commented that it is ironic for Tibetans who are educated in Chinese to be considered to be the elite of Tibet when they know little about Tibetan language and literature. He argues that the reason one can not communicate with other Tibetans is because one knows so little about one’s own mother tongue. He said that Tibetan scholars from monasteries are adept in the traditional Tibetan culture and can communicate with each other any ideas in Tibetan. He argues that it is reasonable and the right thing to do for Tibetans to rely on Tibetan language, and for the Chinese to rely on Chinese language.

  • The famous Amdo singer Dechen Wangmo also commented how difficult it as for her to learn to speak Tibetan even though she is from Rebgong, the Tibetan cultural centre. She said that she could not sing in Tibetan since music CD producers thought there was little market for Tibetan songs. Later she started to add more and more Tibetan songs to her CDs, and this also led to more and more Tibetan singers to start to sing in Tibetan.

  • “The Yak Whose Horn Was Hurt” said that the issue of standard Tibetan language has been discussed for many years, but it has not been solved up to now. It is apparent that there is no use relying on the government to solve the problem. In his opinion, there are a few subjective and objective conditions to promote the standard Tibetan language:

    (1) With the arrival of the information age, there are more and more exchanges between Tibetans in Tibet and abroad. In addition, more and more Tibetan intellectual elites and youth have started to face and solve the issue of the future of Tibetan nationality. This has provided the condition that it is more possible to promote the standard Tibetan language than any other time before.

    (2) The spread of media, including videos, in the Tibetan areas, made it possible for Tibetan language to be well beloved by Tibetan masses. This is shown in the following aspects:

    First, one of the important components of TV programs in Tibetan areas is the video series dubbed in Tibetan language.

    Second, there have appeared more and more Tibetan film-makers who have started to make films in Tibetan.

    Third, the older generation of Tibetan singers represented by Yadong and Dechen Wangmo have come to their senses and started to sing Tibetan songs again. In addition, the parties featured Tibetan language songs sponsored by the local governments or non-governmental organizations or groups in Tibetan areas in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces were well received by the Tibetan masses. As a result, many confused singers (including some Chinese singers) have started to sing in Tibetan language one after another.

    Fourth, the Qinghai-Tibet railway is the biggest aid to Tibet, however, as far as entire China is concerned, we have to wait to see whether it is fortune or misfortune. Yet while many Chinese would go to Lhasa, at the same time Tibetans from every corner of the Tibetan areas can also take the train to go on pilgrimage to Lhasa. This will provide a bridge for Tibetans who have not been able to exchange widely with each other to communicate. This bridge will naturally be beneficial to the promotion of the standard Tibetan language.

    Fifth, Tibetan Buddhism and its numerous scriptures and any other records about Tibetan culture are the historical foundation and long-lasting motive force for the standard Tibetan language.

    Last, the most important factor is the internet, which is the best platform to conduct theoretical study of the standard Tibetan language and how to implement it. Some intellectuals have used their salaries to cheer for the promotion of the standard Tibetan language. Then what should we do? We should do so ourselves.....

  • The person with the screen name Alibaba called those who were born in 1980s, including himself as the “generation of embarrassment.” In his words, Tibetans who were born in the 1980s have suffered little upheaval. At that time China made progress in every aspects, and its rule over Tibet was also stable. A great number of Tibetan children were sent to study in inland China, where they received four-year education and some have even studied for as long as thirteen years. A Tibetan child, whose character has not formed yet and whose moral quality has not been independent yet, is sent to inland China with rich Han Chinese culture. First of all, he is assimilated in terms of language, and gradually it become a habit to speak Chinese. The assimilation of language is based on the assimilation of one’s way of thinking. “Man of noble character” (junzi) and so on is the entrenched Chinese way of thinking, which is originated from the Confucianism, and it is the Chiense culture and its religion. But it is accepted by Tibetans whose way of thinking is Buddhism. Consequently, when those children of the time went back to Tibet, they not only mixed Chinese when they spoke Tibetan, but also can recite a great number of Chinese proverbs and common sayings, and some who were really good will even refer to the Analects of Confucius. It is a good thing that they are so knowledgeable, but the problem is that very few people among them who can remember the most famous Tibetan proverbs. Han Chinese is a nationality who attaches great importance to reality. The reason why we say Han Chinese is a clever nationality is that it has a series of survival culture. Though the Analects of Confucius, the Art of War by Sunwu, Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi) all touch upon moral and virtues, but they mainly teach people how to keep oneself safe in the fierce competitive and harsh living conditions.

    Nowadays all Tibetans who were born in 1980s are similar in the following ways: they speak Tibetan mixed with Chinese phrases, write Chinese, and they do not read or write Tibetan, or even when they do, they seldom use it. They had little religious faith, and they do not care much about Tibetan customs or taboos, and they know very little about Tibetan history. In terms of blood (lineage), these Tibetans are really Tibetans, but in terms of their languages and way of thinking, they are either sinicized or westernized – what a awkward generation! Now we should not look back to find who is responsible for the appearance of such an awkward generation, but as a member of such a generation, can we calm our mind to think what we can do? At least what we can do is to make ourselves more like Tibetan in terms of culture.

  • “The Eagle of the Land of Snow” (Xueyu Xiongying): I am very moved to read the above two postings. What sister Dechen Wangmo said is true, though our hometown Rebgong is a place where Tibetan culture is relatively rich and flourishing, but after many local Tibetan youth have learned Chinese and have gone to Chinese middle schools, they look down upon their own national culture, and they lost their sense of national identity. When people talk to them in Tibetan, they will reply in Chinese. They will criticize Tibetan ways and have many reasons for doing so. What is the use to have so many reasons. When it was about the Folk Festival of the Sixth month (of the lunar calendar), I accompanied a few teachers from Lanzhou to attend the festive, and we stayed at the Huangnan Hotel. The next day when we went to have dinner at a Chinese Muslim restaurant called Taishan, there were a few Tibetan Ph.D. candidates and a few foreign missionaries in the restaurant, too. At that time when the teachers and I were singing Tibetan songs, they were talking to the foreigners in English and waited on them. I was very angry, and sang the song called “Do not forget your mother tongue” by Lewa Namkha, then they left. Ah, now these problems become more and more serious. In fact, everybody talks about solving these problems very beautifully, but very few people actually do any real things. At least, at that time when established a small-scale Tibetan Student Website, at the beginning everybody said that they would help, but later there was not even one who sent any reference materials for us. As a result, our plan failed. But as long as we are strong and determined, I believe one day we will be able to build up a website which is useful for all Tibetan students.

  • “The Eagle of the Land of Snow” posted again: After all, do you all know how to read and write Tibetan, do you know how to speak Tibetan. If you do not, then you do not have the right to talk about the standard Tibetan language. Your descendants will probably not be Tibetans any more. It all because they are influenced by you. In fact, it is not because of the environment. If you really want to learn Tibetan, you can start to learn it now as nobody is stopping you from doing it,and I can also help you. I think the problem is you yourself.

  • Palden Tsering: I support the proposal to base the standard Tibetan language on Lhasa dialect since Lhasa is the economic center of Tibet, thus, there are more people using Lhasa dialect. Plus, people in the international Tibetan Studies circle also communicate with each other in Lhasa dialect… We should not wait for the opportunity to open the door to the standard Tibetan language, should we wait until the Tibetan language disappear? Therefore, we are making effort to publish books mainly base on the Lhasa dialect to promote the standard Tibetan language. Though this will be a long process, there will be a lot of difficulties, but we will continue our effort.

  • Tim: Those around you who speak Tibetan will be your teacher. If you learn, then you know, otherwise, you will never know.

  • "The Three Ounce Wine Cup”: Indeed, there should be a standard Tibetan language. Look at those Chinese from Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang who can speak Mandarin even though they have a stiff tongue, they basically have no problem communicating with each other. How about us? Even Tibetans from a small area, for instance Tibetans from Tawo meet a Tibetan from Batang, if you speak your own dialect, the only thing you can do is to compare whose teeth are whiter, let alone when Tibetans from Amdo, Kham and Lhasa meet.

  • Dasang (The title of his posting is “Promoting the Standard Spoken Tibetan and Tibetan Written Language) It is imperative to promote standard Tibetan language. In my opinion, the central purpose for promoting the standard spoken Tibetan is as follows:

    1. It is to inherit and promote the outstanding Tibetan culture, and to perfect the vehicle for dissemination of Tibetan culture.

    2. It is for the purpose of facilitating people in all Tibetan areas to communicate in Tibetan so as to ensure the Tibetan language to develop faster and better. But this plan must be based on the condition that “many people use spoken Tibetan language, no matter what dialect they speak.” Therefore, to raise the popularity index of spoken Tibetan is the foundation for the standard spoken Tibetan. In other words, one has to strive for the legal status of spoken Tibetan language before promoting the standard spoken Tibetan. In 2004, Yushu Prefecture launched the movement advocating using and valuing Tibetan language proposed by local Tibetan language teachers and led by Yushu Prefectural People’s Congress. At that time, the plates for all the shops and the heading of all the official documents were all written in both Tibetan and Chinese. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China endows us minority nationality regions the right of autonomy and the right to use the minority nationality’s native language. One has to rely on the native language of the minority nationality to improve the quality of the native people, to ensure them to master scientific knowledge and to improve their work skills. Following the principle of “holding power to serve the people and establishing the party to serve for the public good,” the government in minority region should shoulder the responsibility to promote the native languages of the minority nationalities. As people’s representatives, they should take people’s concerns and aspirations into consideration, and boldly make proposals to further their welfare. As far-sighted Tibetans, we should also encourage them to make proposals legally so as to ensure the legal status of Tibetan language goes hand in hand with the extensive use of the Tibetan language in society. Thus, it is more valuable to promote the standard spoken Tibetan

  • Wangla: I believe many people hold similar views like yours and have gone through similar hardships like you have (referring the “Hand of the Sun” who posted the earlier posting). I am a student studying in inland China, and we Tibetan students mainly communicate with each other in Tibetan mixed with many Chinese phrases as you described above. I remember when I was studying in Beijing High School, one of my classmates commented that this kind of language is the language of the Tibetan classes in inland China, but now I find out that the kind of language is spoken by not only the students in all the Tibetan classes in inland China, but also by people in all the Tibetan areas, including TAR and other regions. In fact, overseas Tibetans also speak Tibetan mixed with English words. Once I ran into a Tibetan acquaintance who went to study in India earlier. She does not know Chinese, certainly we talked to each other in Tibetan. But she mixed a lot of English words. She is accustomed to using “bank”, “computer” and “office” in our conversation. I think it is not objective and is very biased if one invariably require people to speak pure Tibetan without taking into consideration the hidden reasons. What is important is the condition for speaking pure Tibetan. It is very difficult for us to communicate with each other in pure Tibetan if there are not a basically complete Tibetan terms to use. When we carry on a conversation requiring us to use special terms, since there are not any Tibetan terms available to us, we have to use either Chinese or Tibetan. I feel that while we promote the standard spoken Tibetan language, it is also important to improve and make various special terms available to the public. Therefore, those who study Tibetan language, they should not confine themselves to the world of Tibetan language, they should also learn about other fields. In addition, the experts and specialists should make great effort to formulate a complete set of Tibetan special terms and to promote the use of these terms. Meanwhile, all Tibetans should work together to promote the use of the standard spoken Tibetan. In this way, then our goal will be reached soon.

  • Ghost of Asia (Xiya-er Youling): My classmates and I have reflected upon the issue of the standard spoken Tibetan language and discussed it many times, but I feel the most crucial condition for promoting the language is the support of the national policy as well as the economic support. If we lack either one of these two conditions, even if we have the standard spoken Tibetan, it will be very difficult to promote the language. Or we can say that the standard Tibetan language might be killed in its ‘cradle.” When I think about it, I feel rather worried.

  • Tsenang Wangmo: It is not that easy to promote the standard spoken Tibetan. This is only a beautiful wish. Over 60% of Tibetans speak Amdo dialect. Plus the spread of any language needs to have the environment. I do not think it is feasible for one to go all the way to Lhasa to learn the Lhasa dialect. Though Lhasa is the place I look forward to visiting, I am used to communicate with people in Amdo dialect, it is impossible for me to change it, unless I live in Lhasa for a long period of time. This is just my personal opnion.

  • The Sheep by the Lhasa River (Lasa Hebian de yang): When we read a Tibetan book together, we can all understand tacitly, but as soon as we start to talk to each other, we find the other party is an “alien". It is very awkward that we can only talk to each other in Chinese. I remember that on a train in Qinghai we were so excited to see our compatriots ---- nomads from the Qinghai Grassland. We were very moved to see them, but we could not express our excitement in language, so we had to express it with local product from our hometown as gifts for them. It is funny that the translator between us is a Han Chinese Muslim. In Shigatse there is a popular saying: there is no need to use standard spoken language for nomads. We should not use Chinese as our standard spoken language. As for how to promote the standard language specifically, I am willing to support the movement and make effort to promote it. No matter what dialects from the Tibetan areas, if we pay more attention to and make effort to learn it, perhaps naturally it will become our standard spoken language.

  • Sanggye: Religion is the hindrance, and it is the biggest problem for the Tibetan language. Sixty years ago how many schools were there in the entire Tibetan areas, and how many common people received education? How many Tibetans know the Law of the Universal Gravitation by Newton? But at that time there was no lack of talented persons in China! Let alone in the world! Religion determined that only in monasteries one could receive good education, but how about the others? They were all illiterates. One should know that majority of people would not become monks or nuns! The biggest problem is that people have not received education. If students in the past had already realized the problem, then perhaps our generation would not spend time to discuss the issue, instead, we will focus on how to safely and reasonably develop the resources in Tibet.It is true that language should be promoted from the schools, isn’t it? I am not saying religion is not good, here I am talking about the problem religion posed for the education of all people. Only if we correctly face history can we make any progress.

  • Mchod: The problem is not the religion, but it is the people. What hinder the society is not the religion, but some people. Every country in the world has its own religion or religions, and they are equal in this sense. But, why they develop differently and they are so unequal? I think the problem lies in people themselves.
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