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Elaine Wu
02-02-06, 10:51
Putonghua push in Uygur nursery schools

Beijing says plan will help minority, but critics say culture is being shoved aside

South China Morning Post

February 2, 2006

by ELAINE WU

Starting this year, children from seven agricultural prefectures in Xinjiang will start learning Putonghua in nursery schools to strengthen the hold of the national language in the autonomous region.

The move is part of an ongoing effort to implement what the government calls a "bilingual" education system in primary and secondary schools. Putonghua is to be the medium of instruction for mathematics and science, while minority languages such as Uygur will continue to be used in humanities classes.



Xinhua quoted Deputy Secretary Nuer Baikeli as saying the only way to solve the problem and improve the quality of education was to start from the "golden period" - toddlers.

To entice pre-schoolers and teachers to join the programme, students will receive a subsidy of 1.5 yuan a day and teachers 400 yuan a month.

The subsidies will not be offered for bilingual education in primary and secondary schools.

The policy has raised questions about the survival of the native culture of Xinjiang, where the largest ethnic group are the Uygurs (45 per cent), followed by Han (41 per cent) and Kazakhs (7 per cent).

"This is a well-planned strategy by the Chinese government to permanently assimilate the Uygur people into the Chinese culture or dilute the Uygur culture," said Nury Turkel, president of the Uyghur American Association, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC.

"The Uygur language is one of the most important compositions of the Uygur culture. Taking away that right would create another type of Uygur culture."

About 70 per cent of schools in the region are ethnic minority schools, which - until recently - started teaching Putonghua as a second language in the third grade. The other 30 per cent teach all classes in Putonghua and introduce English as a second language in the third grade.

Ma Wenhua , deputy director of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Education Department, said the goal was to implement bilingual teaching in all minority schools so students would speak fluent Putonghua when they finished secondary school.

"We plan to have all minority schools use bilingual teaching from the first grade in 10 to 20 years," he told the South China Morning Post. "We think that if these children are not fluent in Putonghua, it could affect their job opportunities. It would also be difficult for them to continue their education."

The only thing that was stopping the government from moving faster was a lack of qualified teachers, Mr Ma said. Most ethnic minority teachers do not know enough Putonghua to teach in that medium.

Mr Ma estimated that only 5 per cent of ethnic minority primary schools had started teaching in Putonghua. The level of participation varied depending on the number of qualified teachers.

One teacher from an ethnic minority school in Urumqi said her school planned to start teaching mathematics in Putonghua next year.

Most teachers did not know Putonghua and had started training in the language.

The teacher would not say whether she thought bilingual education was better.

"We'll have to see how it goes," she said.

Gardner Bovingdon, assistant professor of Indiana University who specialises in Xinjiang studies, also had doubts.

"To teach them content like maths and science in Putonghua - the implicit message is that your own mother tongue is not a modern language ... therefore, it does not have much of a future," he said.

"Their language is being shoved aside. There's no question about that."

The government started requiring universities to teach all classes in Putonghua, except for language and culture classes, in 2002.

Wang Ning , director of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Economics, said the language policy would help development in the region because a more qualified talent pool could attract more investment.

Some Uygur parents also seem to be feeling this way. A teacher from a Chinese-medium primary school in Urumqi said about a third of its students were from ethnic minorities.

http://www.scmp.com/