Breaking the barrier of language in Xinjiang

By Li Jianmin (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-06 07:48
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URUMQI - Gazing at her teacher's lips, 36-year-old An Ping thinks for a moment and bursts out with a string of unfamiliar words: "Eyuinez dikilar opdan turuwatamdu."

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"It is a greeting for Uygur people meeting on the street. It means 'How is your family?' " said An, a community official of the Han ethnic group in Tianshan district in Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

An is attending one of the government-organized Uygur language classes, along with about 80 colleagues - mostly ethnic Han - from different communities. The government bears all the costs for the full-time classes, which began in mid-April and will last six months.

She began working as a "grassroots-level official", as it is called in China, in her community 10 years ago. She had been using Mandarin, the Han language, to talk with people of other ethnic groups, or asking her Uygur colleagues to interpret for her.

"There seems to be a barrier between us if we don't talk in the same language," she said.

As adults, An said, she and her colleagues find it hard to learn a new language - they also need to take care of their children and homes. An revises the words and expressions she learns each day when her 10-year-old son goes to bed at night.

"It's worth the effort," she said. "If I can speak their language, I can communicate better with Uygur people."

In Tianshan district, the government is aiming for each of the 140 communities to have at least one Uygur-speaking Han official in two years.

In addition, the autonomous region's government required, in a regulation issued in April, that all new public servants should be bilingual, meaning Han officials must know a language of another local ethnic group, and the officials of other ethnic groups must know Mandarin.

Cementing ties

The government's moves are aimed at cementing ethnic relations in Xinjiang after a riot left 197 people dead and more than 1,700 injured in Urumqi a year ago.

China has 56 ethnic groups, including the Han. Mandarin is the official language and the most widely used.

But in Xinjiang, many people of ethnic minorities lack basic Mandarin skills due to inadequate education. The government-organized language classes are mainly aimed at teaching Han grassroots-level officials the language of the major local ethnic group, the Uygurs.

"Grassroots-level officials make contact with the public every day, and a good command of the Uygur language will help them deal with complaints more quickly and strengthen ethnic relations," said Li Jinyang, deputy director of the autonomous region's civil service administration.

Many village officials have actually taught themselves the local language in poor rural areas of Kashgar prefecture, in south Xinjiang, where the vast majority of residents are Uygur and rural people.

"It is very difficult to work here if you cannot speak Uygur, because few villagers can speak good Mandarin," said Li Dehong, 38, Party chief of Baren township in Shule county.

Li began working in Baren when he was just 18, and he spent two years learning Uygur from local people. Now, he speaks - and even tells jokes - to villagers in very fluent Uygur.

Linguists and sociologists believe language differences can lead to poor communication, misunderstanding and even conflict.

"The move by the Xinjiang local government to train bilingual officials sets a very good example to the general public," said Hao Shiyuan, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"The common people of different ethnic groups will be encouraged to learn each other's languages, appreciate each other's cultures and respect each other's customs, enhancing ethnic unity," said Hao, also president of the Chinese Ethnological Society.

Give and take

Uygur language classes run by reputable private education institutions in Urumqi are crowded with students, both young and old. They include university students or others who hope to become public servants, business people, white-collar workers and language lovers. Some public servants who have yet to be given the opportunity to attend government classes come to study at their own expense.

"Xinjiang is a region with lots of ethnic groups. It will be easier for me to communicate with others if I know their language," said Liu Derong, 57, a retired accountant who studies Uygur at the private-run Xinjiang Science and Information College.

"I speak Uygur when I go to Uygur shops, and the bosses are always very happy," she said.

Young children are being subconsciously influenced by the "bilingual" social environment.

Community official An Ping's son learns a Uygur sentence from her everyday. After two months, the fourth-grader can also use simple Uygur words and expressions.

An said there are a number of Uygur children in her community who used to learn Mandarin from her son when they played together.

"But now, my son tells them: If you want to play with me, you must teach me Uygur."