Will education reform wipe out Mongolian language and culture in China?

As dangers of COVID-19 subsided, Mongols in Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China, faced a new threat: losing their bilingual schools. The elimination of Mongolian bilingual schools heralds the demise of Mongolian language, culture and identity in Inner Mongolia. In the words of a Mongolian man: “In Spring we were afraid that we would die from COVID-19, now Autumn comes and we are afraid that we may become extinct”.

Two forms of bilingual education

To understand these fears, one needs to understand bilingual education in Inner Mongolia.

In brief, there are two different modes of bilingual education in Inner Mongolia. The established mode of bilingual education over the last 73 years (since the founding of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1947) has been that school subjects are taught in Mongolian, with a Chinese language and literacy course from Grade 2, and an English language and literacy course from Grade 3. A new mode of bilingual education — proposed in a plan from authorities in Inner Mongolia — involves the gradual replacement of Mongolian-medium teaching with Chinese-medium teaching across subjects, to be complemented by a Mongolian language and literature course. This is dubbed a second type of bilingual education but it is, in essence, monolingual, Chinese-medium education. 

According to this plan, the special Chinese language and literacy textbooks used in Inner Mongolia’s bilingual schools will be replaced with a national Chinese language textbook. This national textbook is used in all Chinese-medium schools and is much more demanding than the one used in Mongolian schools in the past. The subject will also be introduced a year earlier, from Grade 1.

Another subtle change is in the course name. The Chinese language and literature textbook (in Chinese: 汉语文) will assume a new name, Language and Literature (in Chinese: “语文”), while the new Mongolian language and literature textbook is “Mongolian Language and Literature” (in Mongolian: “mongol hel bichig”), whereas it was previously called Language and Literature (in Mongolian: “hel bichig”) in Mongolian schools. That is, the “default” Language and Literature course is now Chinese rather than Mongolian.

Some Mongols have compared this name swapping to “the step-father taking the place of the father.” 

Language shift in education will push Mongolian to the brink

The Mongolian language is already fragile and has entered the early stages of being endangered. In today’s Inner Mongolia, less than 40 per cent of Mongol parents choose Mongolian bilingual schools for their children; the rest enrol their children in mainstream Chinese schools. In such circumstances, this reform pushes the already emaciated Mongolian language and culture further towards the abyss of extinction within China’s borders. 

A herder guards the Mongolian script (Source: WeChat post reminiscing and mourning the impending loss of the mother tongue)

Around the world, a number of governments are pushing policies that discourage ethnic minorities from using their languages at home and transmitting it to the next generations. The language shift in education underway in Inner Mongolia is part of this trend.

Established Mongolian bilingual education has proved itself

The 73-year history of the established bilingual education system, where all classes are taught in the medium of Mongolian, alongside Chinese and English as single subjects, proves that the system is mature and enduring and suitable for bilingual Mongols in Inner Mongolia. 

Many scientists, writers, artists, translators, teachers, other essential workers and “model citizens” have flourished in this environment of bilingual education. This year, five Mongolian bilingual high school graduates gained admission to top universities such as Beijing University and Tongji University. It is also worth noting that, overall, Mongolian bilingual graduates outperformed their Chinese-medium-education peers in Inner Mongolia. 

In addition, the established bilingual mode of education in Inner Mongolia has facilitated inter-ethnic relations and the unity of multi-ethnic people on the northern frontier of China. But once the established model of bilingual education in Inner Mongolia is destroyed, the change will likely be irreversible. This is what occurred in the historical case of the Buryat Mongols in the Soviet Union in the 1960s: they subsequently failed in their attempt to revive their schools and language in the 1980s, even with the backing of Soviet policy-makers who had realised their mistakes in eradicating bilingual education decades earlier. 

A dark future for China’s minorities based on the Western model

If history and political education are taught through the medium of Chinese from 2021 onwards in Mongolian schools, the rest of the curriculum will soon shift too. Following this, Mongolian teachers, textbook translators, publishers, writers and others who are involved in industries related to Mongolian language, culture and education will lose their livelihoods. I anticipate this will be followed by the shrinkage of Mongolian media such as TV programmes and the currently thriving Mongolian digital media. 

Moreover, the abolition of bilingual education will further marginalise and systemically exclude young Mongols from the job market. This is similar to the situation with Native Americans and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. The poignancy and tragedy of how a mainstream educational system can fail children from non-mainstream language backgrounds is nowhere more heart-wrenchingly illustrated than in the documentary “In My Blood It Runs”, about Indigenous children at school in Australia’s Northern Territory. If the original bilingual education system is buried underground, we will see Mongolian children having similar experiences as the main character in the documentary, ten-year old Arrernte boy, Dujuan.

At the same time, as Mongols become part of the increasing numbers of unemployed, poor, institutionally discriminated and marginalised minorities,  there will likely be socio-political and economic problems in China in the decades ahead. This dire consequence seemed to be brushed aside by the group of eminent Chinese scholars, including Ma Rong (马戎), Hu Angang (胡鞍钢) and Hu Lianhe (胡联合), who proposed a Second Generation of Ethnic Policies (第二代民族政策) nearly a decade ago. They envision the “melting pot” (大熔炉) formula well known and used in the West, in particular in the United States, as the ultimate “solution” to assimilating minorities and solving China’s ethnic “problems”. But they have failed to recognise how different China’s native minorities are from diasporic immigrants in the US — differences that have largely been missing in debates by Chinese scholars.

China’s ethnic policy has taken a drastic turn in the last few years, sending shockwaves through ethnic minorities such as the Mongols and Koreans. Perhaps less well known than minorities like the Uygurs and Tibetans, but they are equally crucial to the makeup of the complex and multi-ethnic nation that is China today. It is hard to see the point of destroying the Mongolian language and culture within China, when they are already staggering toward the brink of extinction. The costs of doing so could be immeasurable.

This article draws from a longer piece by the author published on Language on the Move on August 30, 2020.

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