The Relationship Between Language and Ethnic Identity : a Focus on Tibetan

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  • Topic: Tibet, Han Chinese, Tibet Autonomous Region
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  • Published : December 10, 2012
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Name: Garfield

The Relationship between Language and Ethnic Identity in China: A focus on the Tibetan Language

To begin with, according to the background history of the Tibetan language, it is not mere a language like modern English with a wide extend of speakers who can comprehend each other easily depending on familiar vocabulary, grammar. As an old linguistic proverb states: “a dialect is a language without an army and a language is a dialect with an army, and Tibetan can be considered as a set of languages instead of dialects” (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2003, p.5). In tradition, language represents the culture of each ethnic, and has a great effect on ethnic identity. If a language of one ethnic group is well-developed, it can strengthen its ethnic identity. On the contrary, the ethnic identity can be destroyed with the extinction of its language. Furthermore, “Languages are not neutral. They convey very specific social and cultural behaviors and ways of thinking. The extinction of the Tibetan language will have tremendous consequences for the Tibetan Culture. The culture cannot be preserved without language” (C.E.C.C, 2003, p.2). As a result, language is like a symbol within each ethnic group, which can represent a visible soul according to the way of talking, and the history of language.

The retention and development of the culture of a nation is based on language, especially the Tibetan language. For this reason the Tibetan Language is the pedestal of Tibet’s culture identity besides religion. ( Simon, 2002; Nima, 2001) Additionally, Tibetan language has a great influence in religion because the Buddhist scripture in Lamaism is written in Tibetan, which demonstrates the close relation of religion and language. Moreover, people communicate with each other in the Tibetan language in some remote places, especially among the old and young. Besides, the Tibetan language is the best choice for presenting Tibetan culture, because the history of Tibetan language is as long as the existence of Tibet’s culture. In the past, many of Tibet’s classic stories are recorded in the Tibetan language, such as, Gsal and Manas. Consequently, if they lose the Tibetan language, then Tibet won’t be Tibetan anymore. In the long term, the Tibetan language plays an important role in the economy and culture. At the moment, an increasing amount of people have been dismissed from jobs, especially rural Tibetans. Those people who lost their jobs are relatively similar to foreigners who can’t get jobs in their own country because of lacking linguistic diversity. The culture of their city is being ignored and depreciated while they are witnessing the process, which also make people generate the same feeling (C.E.C.C, 2003, p.2 ). The language issue does not only exist in culture and education, which also appear in society and affect economy. Moreover, Tibetan language and culture is crucial for secularizing and regenerating the Tibetan society. Now, to attend monasteries, where Tibetan still maintains traditional culture compared to most places, becoming plenty of young Tibetans’ direction (C.E.C.C, 2003, p.3). Keeping the Tibetan language alive is another way to preserve Tibetan tradition culture.

At the same time, the language policy of Tibet is changing while the effect of Tibetan language on society is falling. Before the 1970s, the language policy of Tibet was focused on popularizing Tibetan language among Han government officers including establishing language classes and special schools. The principal job at that time was fostering Tibet culture and developing the Tibetan language. However after the 1970s, China’s government published a series of requirements for Tibetans that is to learn Chinese, meanwhile popularizing Chinese became the most important mission in Tibet. The changing of the language policy leads an alteration in education. In fact, school education was not only used as a...
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