Xinhua Insight: Language lessons help deepen ethnic ties in China’s Xinjiang

URUMQI, July 5 (Xinhua) — Gazing at the lips of her teacher, 36-year-old An Ping thinks for a moment and bursts out with a string of unfamiliar words: “Eyuinez dikilar opdan turuwatamdu.”

“It is a greeting for Uygur people meeting in the street. It means ‘How is your family?'” says An, a community official of the Han ethnic group in Tianshan District in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

She 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.

An 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 says.

As adults, An says, 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 has learned each day when her 10-year-old son goes to bed at night.

“It’s worth the effort,” she says. “If I can speak their language, I can communicate better with Uygur people, which will bring us closer and help me do a better job.”

CEMENTING TIES

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 Xinjiang autonomous regional 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.

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. The Han language, Mandarin, is the official national 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 everyday, and a good command of the Uygur language will help them deal with complaints more quickly and strengthen ethnic relations,” says Li Jinyang, deputy director of the Regional Civil Service Administration.

“We will give them an exam after their course. Those officials who perform well will have preference in promotions,” he says.

People from 55 ethnic groups inhabit Xinjiang, and 13 are indigenous, including Han, Uygur, Kazak, Hui and Kirgiz. Their languages belong to three different language families: Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-European. The Han and Hui groups both speak Mandarin and the others have their own languages.

Many village officials have actually taught themselves the local language in poor rural areas of Kashgar Prefecture, in southern 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,” says 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.

The township government has 26 Han officials, half the total, and two thirds of them can speak fluent Uygur like Li. The others communicate with villagers using simple Uygur words and expressions, he says.

RESPECT

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,” says Hao Shiyuan, an expert on ethnology and anthropology and 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,” says Hao, also president of the Chinese Ethnological Society.

“The root of ethnic unity lies in the common people.”

Uygur language classes run by reputable, private education institutions in Urumqi are crowded with students, 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,” says Liu Derong, 57, a retired accountant who studies Uygur at the privately-run Xinjiang Science and Information College.

“I speak Uygur when I go to Uygur shops, and the bosses are always very happy,” she says. “A Uygur friend once asked me why I study their language since I am old. I told her: I do so to communicate more with you. You can speak such fluent Mandarin, so why can’t I speak your language?”

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

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

An says there are a number of Uygur children in her community and they 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.” Enditem

(Liu Baosen and Li Xiaoling contributed to this story)

Xinhua News Agency

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