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05-04-06, 14:36
03/29/2006

BY KAZUTO TSUKAMOTO, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN





BAXKERAM KANT, China--At an elementary school on the outskirts of an oasis town along the Silk Road, Chinese authorities are carrying out a unique cultural experiment.

In one of the classrooms of this white, one-story school house, 47 students in the fourth grade are reading their "national language" textbook in a loud voice.

The language is Chinese. However, all of the children are members of the Uyghur ethnic minority. At home, they speak the Uyghur language.

Located in the town of Baxkeram Kant in the western part of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, the school is attracting notice as a pioneering bilingual school, in which children of a minority people learn subjects not in their own language but in Chinese.

The school was set up in 2000 by the local government at a cost of about 430,000 yuan (6 million yen). All of the 532 students are Uyghur, an Islamic people whose ancestors are said to have come from Turkey.

The school children have four classes a week to learn their mother tongue, Uyghur, and as many as seven classes a week to study their national language, Chinese. All other subjects are taught in Chinese, and children are forbidden to speak Uyghur on the school grounds.

The textbooks they use are the same as those used by children of China's main ethnic group, the Han people, who account for 92 percent of the total population of China. Most of the teachers at the school are also Han.

In other public schools in and around Baxkeram Kant, where more than 95 percent of the population is Uyghur, students have only four classes a week to learn Chinese language and all of their subjects are taught in Uyghur.

Arzigul, an 11-year-old fourth-grader, transferred to the bilingual school from a conventional public school three years ago. Since then, her Chinese language abilities have improved to a level where she can carry on conversations easily in Chinese.

"I would like to become a medical doctor and treat Uyghur people," Arzigul said.

Her parents are cotton and grape farmers. Her 53-year-old father, who is in poor heath, is not even able to talk with receptionists at hospitals because he cannot understand Chinese.

He hoped by enrolling her in the bilingual school, his daughter would have a brighter future. He knew that with Chinese she would have a chance to land a good job later on.

More and more Uyghur people are hoping to get their children into bilingual school. Last year, 737 children applied for just 80 places. The school held a math test to choose successful applicants.

Tuitions and dormitory fees are paid by the state. Students pay 180 yuan (about 2,500 yen) every six months for other expenses, including the cost of food. That figure amounts to about 10 percent of the average per capita annual income in the area of about 1,860 yuan. There are few job prospects available to young Uyghurs except farming.

"If they can speak Chinese language, they can obtain professional knowledge and skills," said the bilingual school's president Huang Ming.

Huang, 33, is a Han Chinese who grew up in Baxkeram Kant. He once taught at an elementary school for Han children, but when local Uyghurs told him they wanted their children to learn Chinese, he urged the local government to set up a bilingual school.

"There are no parents who don't hope that their children have good lives in the future," Huang said.

The school is now constructing another building and plans to accept as many as 200 new students this summer.

In the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region's Yarkant prefecture, where Baxkeram Kant is located, even some of the conventional public schools are teaching mathematics and science in Chinese.

"If Uyghur children master Chinese, they have better chances for their future. I want to show (what is possible) in this prefecture," said the prefectural governor, who uses a single name, Osman.

Osman, 43, who is Uyghur and who grew up in the autonomous region's capital city of Urumqi, was appointed governor of Yarkant prefecture in September last year. Previously, he was in charge of Chinese language education to minorities at a university. His achievements at the university led to his appointment as governor.

The school at Baxkeram Kant is part of a broader effort by Beijing to spread Chinese language to 55 minorities in the country. Among the 8 million Uyghurs, efforts to encourage people to learn Chinese have been stepped up since 2000. Measures include:

・Inviting senior high school students in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region to schools in Beijing and Shanghai free of charge so that they can study there;

・Inviting junior high school students to Urumqi, also at no cost to their families, to study Chinese;

・Training teachers who can speak both Chinese and Uyghur languages.

・Using Chinese-language textbooks at Uyghur elementary schools.

"A common language is necessary for every people to take part in economic activities on an equal basis," said an official of the autonomous region's education department.

Critics of the language programs say it is part of a plan by Beijing to neutralize ethnic minorities and force them to assimilate with the Han majority.

In the autonomous region, some Uyghurs are engaged in a movement for separation and independence from China. However, a growing number of young Uyghurs are growing up with weaker reading and writing skills in their native language. "(Even if they master Chinese,) I don't want them to forget our language," Arzigul's father said.(IHT/Asahi: March 29,2006)


http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200603290144.html