Religious centres taking over job of teaching minority languages

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am

Ethnic minorities students in parts of Yunnan province are being 'forced into the church and temples' to learn their native languages because of the lack of teaching in local schools, a conference at University of Hong Kong has heard.

The situation often reinforced underlying racial prejudices and could cause conflict between communities and the authorities, said Wang Ge, a postgraduate student with HKU's faculty of education who has been researching the situation in rural village schools in the province.

'Bilingual education is not only a language-instruction programme but also a yardstick by which to measure the government's policies on language protection,' he said.

Addressing the conference, 'Minority Language Education in China: Issues and Perspectives' at HKU last Saturday, Mr Wang said that although some areas of Yunnan had introduced bilingual education in schools for minorities children, some were reverting to using Putonghua and written Chinese.

'Bilingual courses in the local schools were cancelled because some local stakeholders were against bilingual education,' he said.

Standard textbooks were now provided free but minority languages did not qualify, placing an economic burden on poor families.

Many of the minorities were Christians or Tibetan Buddhists and used their religious centres as a focus for educating in their native languages. But Mr Wang warned this could have a divisive effect.

'When ethnic minorities students are stuck in school they seek solace at the church. The religious influence may cause them to drop out. That is not just possible, it's a fact.'

Zhou Minglang, associate professor of East Asian studies at Dickson College in Pennsylvania, said he had visited some schools with bilingual teachers who were able to boost students' understanding with explanations in the native language. In a primary school where the maths teacher did not speak the local language, the situation was very different.

'The students could not even add or subtract numbers less than 10 because they just could not follow the teacher's Putonghua,' Dr Zhou said.

Ma Rong, professor of sociology at Peking University, said local authorities had been given more autonomy over the past two decades, so there was no longer a consistent policy on teaching minorities languages.