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Preventing the killing of Tibet's mother tongue


© Free Tibet

The Tibetan word nying-je means – among other things – compassion, love, kindness and generosity of spirit. Like the Cherokee word oo-kah-huh-sdee, which describes being overwhelmed by how cute something is, these unique concepts can get lost in translation. With one of the world’s 6,000 languages disappearing every fortnight, such unique words may soon disappear entirely.

Like many other endangered languages, Tibetan faces the challenges of rapid urbanization and dwindling numbers of native speakers. Yet in Tibet it is Chinese governmental policy that poses the greatest risk, according to campaigners.

Under China’s near 70-year occupation of the country, Mandarin Chinese has become the official language of education, business and government, ensuring that Tibetans without command of Mandarin face widespread discrimination.

Related: The politics of language loss: why the world's minority languages matter for all of us

Tibetan entrepreneur and language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was arrested in January 2016 after filing a legal complaint against his local authorities for failing to protect Tibetan language provision, as is guaranteed by China’s constitution. Wangchuk, who is facing trial and could be imprisoned for up to 15 years, said his campaign began after local officials closed down Tibetan language classes: ‘My nieces want to become fluent in Tibetan but don’t know where to go… Our words will be lost to them.’

He joins a long list of Tibetans harassed, imprisoned and tortured for language advocacy. Tibetan monk and human rights activist Golog Jigme Gyatso – who now lives in exile – was jailed and tortured for demanding the preservation of his mother tongue. In 2012, 20-year-old Tsering Kyi burned herself alive in protest after her school shifted from teaching in Tibetan to Mandarin.

An ongoing campaign calling for the release of Wangchuk has seen protests in New York and London, as well as global petitions urging governments to apply pressure on China. At a January 2017 vigil outside the Chinese embassy in London, an elderly Tibetan protester explained: ‘The language is the culture, and if you kill the language then the culture follows.’

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