China announces new `bilingual` policy for Tibet pre-schools

Tibetan students had earlier protested against compulsory study of Mandarin.

Beijing: Amid reports of protest by Tibetan students against the compulsory Chinese language course, Beijing has come up with a new plan offering two years of free, "bilingual" pre-school education in rural areas of the remote Himalayan region.

Tibetan autonomous region`s education department announced that all children in farming and herding areas would receive at least two years of free pre-school education in Tibetan and Putonghua (Mandarin) by 2015.

"By then, at least 60 percent of Tibetan children will attend kindergarten, compared with the current 24.5 percent," the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a department spokesman as saying.

The move is aimed at improving the early childhood education of Tibetans, who largely rely on farming and herding for a living, besides improving children`s proficiency in both Tibetan and Mandarin and preparing them for formal school education, he said.

The new policy was announced in the aftermath of reported demonstrations by schools students in several places in the Tibetan-inhabited areas opposing the policy of compulsory study of Mandarin, apprehending that it would marginalise their language and culture.

The new plan also evoked criticism from Tibetans activists who said it was aimed at making sure that all Tibetans, including semi-nomadic herders, learn Mandarin.

Beijing-based Tibetan activist Tserang Woeser said the move indicated that the Chinese government was stepping up efforts to marginalise Tibetan language in Tibet.

"Bilingual education has been widely implemented in all primary, secondary and high schools in Tibet since the 1980s, except for kindergartens. But many kindergartens in city areas like Lhasa are actually starting so-called bilingual education," Woeser was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong-based `South China Morning Post` today.

"Now it`s even been extended to pre-school education in farming and herding zones; it means the Tibetan language has been further marginalised," she said.

She said the so-called "bilingual education" policy forced Tibetan children to take either a "Putonghua class" or "Tibetan language class" while studying in kindergarten.

The "Tibetan language class" is designed for Tibetan children, who have to learn both Tibetan and Putonghua, while the "Putonghua class" is for the majority Han Chinese.

With parents of rural children largely relying on farming and herding for a living and having no stable income or living places, she said kindergartens had to operate like boarding schools, putting Tibetan language skills at even greater risk.

However, Tanzen Lhundup, director of the research office at the government-backed China Tibetology Research Centre, said the policy would have a long-term positive impact on rural Tibetan children and would not marginalise the language.

"There is a great gap between children in cities and rural areas in Tibet, with most farmers` and herdsmen`s children lacking clean, nutritional food and safe living places," he said.

"With 80 percent of the Tibetan population farmers and herdsmen who live in poverty, the new policy will not only improve the younger generation`s education level, but also their growing environment if our government can provide them with a quality pre-school education as well as good boarding and lodging," he said.