Lan­guage learn­ing speaks vol­umes for new un­der­stand­ing

More Han Chi­nese in Xin­jiang are aim­ing to be­come flu­ent in Uygur, re­ports Cui Jia in Urumqi.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

It was af­ter 10 pm in Urumqi, cap­i­tal of the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and Zhu Xiaomei had just fin­ished her Uygur lan­guage evening class, which she has been at­tend­ing af­ter work for al­most a year.

The strict pro­nun­ci­a­tion ex­er­cises had made her throat sore and the heat in the small class­room had left her tired and drained.

Zhu and 49 other stu­dents, most of them Han Chi­nese, had been study­ing in the room for two hours. “I hope that one day I will be able to speak Uygur as flu­ently as my Uygur col­leagues speak Man­darin,” Zhu said.

“I’ve al­ways be­lieved that Han Chi­nese in Xin­jiang need to learn some Uygur. Af­ter all, the Uygurs are en­cour­aged to learn Man­darin, and bilin­gual ed­u­ca­tion should work both ways,” said the 34-yearold le­gal con­sul­tant.

On her way home from work one day in Au­gust last year, Zhu no­ticed a bill­board ad­ver­tis­ing “Crazy Uygur” cour­ses at Xinzhou Train­ing School, so-called be­cause stu­dents are en­cour­aged to shout out the phrases they’ve learned.

She signed up for the 1,500 yuan ($245) one-year course and has been at­tend­ing the evening class three times a week ever since.

“It’s some­thing I’ve al­ways wanted to do. I’ve learned much more than just the lan­guage dur­ing the past year and now I un­der­stand more about the Uygur cul­ture and tra­di­tions. The more you un­der­stand those things, the fewer mis­un­der­stand­ings there will be,” she said.

Xinzhou train­ing school launched its Uygur train­ing pro­gram in 2010 af­ter Wang Jian­sheng, the prin­ci­pal of the pri­vate in­sti­tu­tion, re­al­ized there was a de­mand for lan­guage classes. “Many peo­ple asked me where they could learn the Uygur lan­guage, so I de­cided to give it a go,” Wang said.

More than 900 stu­dents at­tended classes dur­ing the first year, and the fig­ure has now risen to more than 2,000. “The stu­dents come from all sorts of back­ground: busi­ness­peo­ple, doc­tors, govern­ment work­ers and teach­ers. The youngest stu­dent is just 6-years-old,” Wang added.

The star teacher

Be­hind the most pop­u­lar course at the school, there’s a star teacher. Chen Yuhua, 51, has de­vel­oped her own teach­ing meth­ods, based on her ex­pe­ri­ences as a teacher dur­ing the 30 years since she grad­u­ated from Xin­jiang Univer­sity with a de­gree in Uygur stud­ies.

Al­though the train­ing school em­ploys three teach­ers of Uygur, Chen is train­ing a new teacher who will soon be qual­i­fied to join the team. That will al­low the school to re­cruit more stu­dents. As it stands, Chen has to teach more than eight hours ev­ery day just to keep up with the de­mand for classes.

Two other pri­vate train­ing in­sti­tu­tions, San­lian and Tianx­i­ang, also pro­vide Uygur lessons, but they are in the same boat as Xinzhou; a dearth of qual­i­fied teach­ers means both have long wait­ing lists.

“Many teach­ers al­low stu­dents to write Chi­nese char­ac­ters that are pho­net­i­cally sim­i­lar to the sounds of the Uygur words in their text­books, so they will have a guide to pro­nun­ci­a­tion, but that’s some­thing I strictly pro­hibit in my class,” said Chen, her voice husky af­ter many hours of teach­ing.

She said some peo­ple are sur­prised to see a Han Chi­nese teach­ing Uygur, but she re­gards be­ing Han as an ad­van­tage: “I know the words non-na­tive speak­ers have dif­fi­culty pro­nounc­ing, and I know how to mas­ter them be­cause I’ve been there my­self. Plus, I think my Uygur is al­most as good as na­tive speak­ers af­ter more than 30 years’ prac­tice.”

No mat­ter whether stu­dents sign up for a short, in­ten­sive train­ing course or a full year, Chen al­ways be­gins by teach­ing them the 32 let­ters of the Uygur al­pha­bet and makes sure they can pro­nounce each one per­fectly be­fore mov­ing on. To set a good ex­am­ple, she al­ways pro­nounces the let­ters with great em­pha­sis. It’s easy for vis­i­tors to iden­tify Chen’s class among the maze of rooms in the school — all they have to do is to fol­low her loud voice. “Some peo­ple have even asked if the school will soon of­fer voice-train­ing classes,” she laughed.

The cul­ture car­rier

Zhu said she’s been ad­mon­ished by Chen so many times that’s she’s ac­cus­tomed to it, “Al­though most of us are learn­ing Uygur as a hobby, Chen is still very strict.”

When Chen no­ticed that some of the stu­dents in Zhu’s class weren’t giv­ing 100 per­cent, she paused and asked them to speak louder to “wake their brains up”. “It’s dis­re­spect­ful to speak to peo­ple us­ing poor pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” she said.

Chen re­quires all her stu­dents to be able to sing a song and read a poem in Uygur. “There are many re­spect­ful ex­pres­sions in the lan­guage, es­pe­cially those used to ad­dress el­derly peo­ple. Lan­guage is the car­rier of cul­ture. When peo­ple un­der­stand each other’s cul­tures, mis­un­der­stand­ings can be elim­i­nated and that will, hope­fully, re­solve many of the con­flicts in Xin­jiang.”

Duo Yan, 56, has been study­ing Uygur for ap­prox­i­mately a year. She has made such good progress that she at­tends Chen’s ad­vanced class and is able to con­duct rel­a­tively com­pli­cated con­ver­sa­tions. One of the added ben­e­fits of learn­ing the lan­guage is fi­nan­cial.

“I went to buy some dried dates from a street ven­dor a cou­ple of days ago. When I asked the price in Uygur, he looked a lit­tle sur­prised but then smiled and said he’d give me a dis­count be­cause I’d spo­ken to him in his own lan­guage,” said Duo, beam­ing with pride. She added that it wasn’t the first time that had hap­pened.

“As some­one born and raised in Xin­jiang, I think it’s a pity I’m un­able to speak Uygur prop­erly. It’s not an easy lan­guage to learn, es­pe­cially for older peo­ple like me, but I am sur­rounded by teach­ers, such as the street ven­dors,” she said.

Duo works for a com­pany that sells el­e­va­tors. Be­cause she has to do house­hold chores af­ter her evening classes, she has de­vel­oped the habit of ar­riv­ing at work about 20 min­utes early so she can re­view the points she’s learned the night be­fore. She also takes her text­book to the of­fices of a nearby com­pany that runs a Uygur web­site so she can prac­tice with staff mem­bers dur­ing the lunch break.

When she of­fers tea to Uygur clients in their own lan­guage, they of­ten ask if the com­pany sent her to learn it. When they dis­cover that she took the course of her own vo­li­tion, they give her the thumbs up. “I think it’s helped the com­pany seal a few deals,” Duo said.

Chen said Duo is a dili­gent stu­dent, but she needs to put more emo­tion into her spo­ken lan­guage, and that it should be a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward task for a Han Chi­nese raised in Xin­jiang, be­cause the in­to­na­tions of the Uygur lan­guage have long been in­te­grated with the Xin­jiang di­alect.

Duo said she wishes her par­ents had taken her to learn the lan­guage when she was a child, like many of her class­mates at the school. “I envy the speed at which they mas­ter pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” she said.

The al­pha­bet song

Zhang Jin­hua, loves to sing the “al­pha­bet song”. The 7-year-old girl has al­ready mem­o­rized all 32 let­ters, even though she only joined the class 15 days ago.

“Her fa­ther can’t speak Uygur and some­times he finds it dif­fi­cult to do busi­ness in Kash­gar. He in­sisted I take her to Uygur classes dur­ing the school hol­i­days. She seems to be a fast learner,” said Zhang’s mother, 31-year-old Chen Yan­ing, who de­cided to join the class to keep her daugh­ter com­pany.

“My fa­ther let me talk to his Uygur friends on the phone, and said I will be his trans­la­tor soon,” Zhang said.

“Don’t tell any­one that I have a se­cret teacher,” she whis­pered af­ter singing the al­pha­betic song. Her se­cret teacher turned out to be Mehmut, who owns a naan bread shop which Zhang of­ten vis­its to buy the flat, round bread for her fam­ily.

“One day I told the owner that I’d started tak­ing classes. I spoke to him in Uygur and said I wanted three naans. He made a deal with me; he teaches me one sen­tence for ev­ery naan I buy,” said Zhang. Af­ter count­ing the num­ber of naan she has bought since then, she proudly an­nounced that she has learned nine sen­tences so far. “The first thing he taught me was, ‘This naan is de­li­cious!’” she smiled and trans­lated the phrase into Uygur: “Nan bek yey­ix­lik!”

Em­ploy­ment ad­van­tages

Li Hongling hopes that learn­ing Uygur will even­tu­ally make it eas­ier for her 11-year-old daugh­ter to find work. “Speak­ing Uygur will al­ways be an ad­van­tage in Xin­jiang’s em­ploy­ment mar­ket and now peo­ple are re­quired to pass a test in Uygur be­fore they can take up a job with the govern­ment,” said Li, 35.

Ac­cord­ing to a direc­tive is­sued by the re­gional govern­ment in April 2010, all newly re­cruited govern­ment work­ers must take Uygur lan­guage cour­ses and pass ex­ams be­fore re­port­ing to their posts. Work­ers al­ready em­ployed by the govern­ment will also re­ceive lessons. They will not be pro­moted or be­come heads of town­ships or vil­lages if they fail the tests.

At the mo­ment, Chen spends her morn­ings teach­ing 40 com­mu­nity work­ers from the Gangcheng dis­trict of Urumqi, where 30 per­cent of the res­i­dents are Uygur. For most of the stu­dents, the 20-day in­ten­sive course is their first ex­pe­ri­ence of the lan­guage.

“No one can learn a lan­guage in such a short time, so all I can do is teach them a learn­ing tech­nique,” said Chen, who told her stu­dents at their first class that if they re­ally want to bet­ter serve the Uygur res­i­dents, they must con­tinue to study when the course comes to an end. She urged them to talk to the lo­cals be­cause they are the best teach­ers.

Chen taught the group to say “As-salamu alaykum”, an Ara­bic greet­ing that means “Peace be upon you”, as a re­spect­ful greet­ing. How­ever, some peo­ple com­plained and said it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate to use the phrase be­cause only Mus­lims should use it, cit­ing the fact that Is­lam is the dom­i­nant re­li­gion among the Uygurs.

“I told them that it’s just a nor­mal ex­pres­sion in the Uygur lan­guage and equiv­a­lent to say­ing ‘ ni hao’ (‘Hello’) in Man­darin. I don’t un­der­stand why they like to make sim­ple things so com­pli­cated.” Con­tact the writer at cui­jia@chi­



From top: Chen Yuhua, 51, gives an in­ten­sive, 20-day Uygur lan­guage course for com­mu­nity work­ers in Urumqi, the cap­i­tal of Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion. A stu­dent reads a Uygur book at Xinzhou train­ing school in Urumqi. Seven-year-old Zhang Jin­hua (left) is one of the youngest stu­dents at­tend­ing the Uygur lan­guage class.

See video by scan­ning the code.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.