A long way to go
Experts say there are many reasons why languages approach extinction. “The loss of the function of communication is one of the most important reasons,” said Sun Hongkai, Professor at the Graduate School of the CASS.
“The situation of the Manchu, She, Hezhen and Tatar languages is due to this reason,” Sun said, adding that population base alone cannot guarantee a language’s future.
Whereas only a few of the 10 million Manchu people speak the language, over half of the 20,000 or so members of the Jing ethnic group in Guangxi use their traditional language for daily communication.
“In the 1980s, many experts thought the Jing language would soon disappear. Out of their expectations, the language lives on because of its function of communication among the Jing people,” said He Siyuan, Professor with the Institute of Chinese Minority Languages at the MUC.
Another important reason for the precarious situation of ethnic minority languages comes from the fast development of modern society and economy. “Today, with the development of the global economy, there needs to be some common languages that can easily link different nationalities. Against such a background, it is irreversible for weak languages to be replaced by powerful languages,” Sun said.
According to a survey of Linzhou Middle School in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, by Sichuan Normal University, 80 percent of Tibetan students believe that Mandarin is more important than Tibetan.
This situation is typical among all 55 ethnic minority groups in China. Some experts argue that the trend of extinction of minority languages is inevitable. “It is a rational choice by the ethnic minority peoples, because their education and employment opportunities are limited if they cannot speak Mandarin fluently,” said Li Ziran, Professor with the College of Politics and Law at the Ningxia University in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Bilingual education is one of the important methods proposed by the government to preserve minority languages.
According to statistics provided by the Research Center for Protecting Language Resources of China, bilingual education is offered to more than 20 ethnic minority groups, with 4.1 million students currently being educated in more than one language.
The protection project launched by the government in 2015 and documents subsequently issued in 2016 and 2017 laid a solid policy foundation for language preservation work to go deeper, said Professor Ding from the MUC.