Concerned Parents Opposed to Proposed Changes to Mongolian Language Texts, Inner Mongolia

By Prof. Li Narangoa

Mongolian schools in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China started from 31 August this year. The start of school, however, filled the hearts of parents, teachers and students with concerns, anxieties and resentment. On the 26 August, 2020, an announcement was made by the Inner Mongolian Bureau of Education, just a few days before the beginning of school. Most parents subsequently refused to send their children to school, as they were opposed to the newly announced proposal, particularly the introduction of Chinese language teaching from the first year of school and the replacement of Mongolian History and Politics textbooks with Chinese. Rumours about this change had been circulated on social media since late June 2020. No explanation was given by the local offices of education despite frequent requests from concerned parents. Even the Inner Mongolian Bureau of Education, which is the highest organisation managing education matters in Inner Mongolia, shocked both parents and teachers by remaining silent until the proposed changes were announced. Thousands of petitions with over tens of thousands of signatures were submitted to local governments and the Bureau of Education, as well as the government of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, in an effort to revoke the proposal.

Inner Mongolia is one of five Autonomous Regions founded in 1947 and became part of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The administrative language was decreed to be in both Chinese and Mongolian at the time, but Chinese has become the dominant language. Hence the broader language environment, especially for those living in urban areas, is Chinese. The main media outlets are in Chinese. Parents have been struggling to maintain Mongolian as the mother tongue of their children in urban areas. The Inner Mongolian school education system has been successful producing bilingual students fluent in both their mother tongue and in Chinese. Promoting Chinese as the ‘National common language’ was, therefore, viewed by Inner Mongolians as unexpected and unnecessary.

Parents’ protests have been based on three aspects, based on wellbeing, cultural and legal factors. First and foremost, parents and teachers have been concerned about the wellbeing of their children. Currently, Mongolian school children learn Mongolian, their mother tongue, from year one and Chinese and English from year two and three of their schooling. With the current curriculum, teachers were already struggling to finish all the content within the Mongolian language textbook. If Chinese were to be added to this, it would place a much larger workload on young children. Moreover, the newly proposed Chinese textbook is the same as the one used by their Han Chinese peers. In general, school children under the Chinese curriculum would have learned approximately 3000 characters by the time they enter their first year of schooling. Hence it would be an incredible pressure on Mongolian children, who would be starting with no knowledge of Chinese characters to learn in Chinese and be expected to achieve the same level of results.

Parents are apprehensive that bureaucrats do not understand the wellbeing of their children. They do not want their children to become learning machines, concerned about their childrens’ mental and physical wellbeing when pushed to such an extent. Reportedly, the contact hours for the first year of school will be extended from 26 to 33 hours per week. The proposal by some local school administrators to add after-hours tutorials in order to assist the Mongolian children to catch up, would further extend the learning hours and children would then have to complete their homework in the evening! Beyond immediate concerns, the parents are also apprehensive about their childrens’ futures and how this change of curriculum would effect results within the national university entrance exam. Previously, Mongolian high school children were able to answer the exam questions in Mongolian and the Mongolian language exam was one of the main subjects. If Mongolian students start to learn Chinese alongside their Han Chinese peers and have to take Chinese language as the main subject rather than Mongolian, they would be required to compete against millions of Han Chinese students. One or two marks of difference within an exam result can make a huge difference as to the university the student can attend. The higher the marks, the better the chance the student has to enter a good university, which is inevitably linked to a better career.

Second, parents are also concerned that their children won’t be able to learn their own language properly if the two main social science subject textbooks (history and politics/morality and law) will be in Chinese and taught in Chinese. These two subjects are important for learning academic vocabulary and developing analytical thinking in their own language. If these subjects are replaced with Chinese textbooks, there is the potential to not develop deep and precise modes of expression in either language. This would not only effect their children’s personal development but could also be detrimental for the future of the Mongolian language and script. Parents have been expressing a fear that if these two main subjects are initially changed then other subjects changes are likely to follow. They are concerned that if the proposal is implemented there will hardly be anyone writing and publishing books in Mongolian in the near future and that would be the end of the Mongolian language and script. Inner Mongolian protestors are not opposing the use of nationally unified textbooks but the plan to change the teaching delivery from Mongolian to Chinese and replacing the Mongolian with Chinese textbooks. Apart from the language textbooks, the Inner Mongolian schools have been using Mongolian textbooks translated from Chinese and parents are requesting to translate the new nationally unified textbooks into Mongolian. The change will also impact Mongolian teachers. They will have to be re-trained or removed from the position to do something other than teaching.

Third, parents argue that the proposal not only did not involve broader consultation with the Mongolian community, nor an official status as a lawful document: no numbers, no stamps, nor an official red letterhead (hongtou wenjian). Therefore, they pointed out that the document is against the Chinese Constitution (Article 4), as well as the self-rule law for ethnic regions of the Peoples Republic of China (Article 36). Both laws grant ethnic minorities the right to use their own language as a means of education. The Inner Mongolian protestors argue that this is not promoting ethnic harmony, as the proposal claims, but will cause social and ethnic conflict if implemented. Inner Mongolia has been a ‘model’ Autonomous Region without significant protests at this scale. Mongols are recognised for living in accordance with the Central Government and Communist Party, but Inner Mongols could lose their trust in the government if this proposal were not revoked.

Mongolian parents’ resistance has been a peaceful one, keeping their children at home and submitting petitions. They have been determined not to cause any unrest. The parents’ simple means of peaceful resistance, however, has faced huge pressure by the local authorities to send their children to school. Parents who went to pick up their children from schools but were prevented by local security guards in some places were mistakenly represented as demonstrators on the street and as trouble-makers by some media outlets, distributed further by Western social media. Most parents seem to think that these pressures have been carried out by some local corrupt officials who get used to bullying citizens and lying to the authorities above them, while acting unlawfully. They believe that the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Government and the Chinese Central Government will take appropriate measures to question these corrupt officials and they have been hoping that both level of government will listen to their petitions. Whether parents’ peaceful requests and petitions will be heard by the authorities remains to be seen.

Petition signed by Mongolian primary school class parents, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

Further readings:

https://madeinchinajournal.com/2020/08/30/bilingual-education-in-inner-mongolia-an-explainer/

https://www.languageonthemove.com/will-education-reform-wipe-out-mongolian-language-and-culture/

 

ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 2 ‘Reading Between the Lines’

Reading Between the Lines: The Adoption of Cyrillic and the Continued Role of the Traditional Mongolian Script

By Rebecca Rich

I was recently fortunate enough to participate in the ANU’s second iteration of the Modern Mongolia course, a winter-based study tour which saw sixteen students delve into a wide range of topics impacting Mongolia today. Throughout our time in Mongolia we also dipped our toes into the Mongolian language. Under the tutelage of Dr Bat-Ireedui, one of the writers of the Lonely Planet’s Mongolian Phrasebook and Dictionary,[i] we learnt some basic phrases and tackled the Cyrillic script. During these lessons it occurred to me that upon first arriving in the country it would be easy to mistakenly assume that Mongolia has always utilised this alphabet in written communications. Once you scratch the surface, however, and look beyond the Cyrillic coating on the buildings and menus within the city you will find that Mongolia did not always adopt this script and that the change to Cyrillic is rooted in Mongolia’s political past.

The Traditional Mongolian script as displayed at the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. Photo: Rebecca Rich.

First originating in the 12th century, the Mongolian script is comprised of 26 letters consisting of seven vowels, two diphthongs and 17 consonants. The script is a vertical one and is written from left to right, derived from the Uighur alphabet and linked to the Tibetan script.[ii] Following the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) in 1924 and under the influence of the Soviet Union, the MPR successfully and officially adopted the Cyrillic script in the 1940s.[iii]

Over the course of several lectures we heard of the many detriments of Soviet influence in Mongolia during the period of the MPR; however, one of the main benefits that was reiterated throughout these lectures was the literacy rate of nigh on 100 percent. Through this lens it is easy to see that although the Soviet Era severely limited the political freedoms of the people, education of the expanding population was a focal point and it greatly improved during this time. For this reason Mongolians still harbour feelings of gratitude and view the period when the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union with mixed feelings.

Following the democratic revolution in Mongolia during the early 1990s and the rise of the sovereign state now simply called Mongolia, it was debated in parliament whether Mongolia would dispose of Cyrillic and readopt the Traditional Mongolian script to echo the dissolution of the MPR. However, this ideology was short lived as it would cause a large portion of the population to become illiterate overnight, untenable for a country that prides itself on its literacy rate.[iv] Furthermore, due to the recent adoption of the Cyrillic script it is largely phonemic: that is the written script represents the sounds of the spoken language. Albeit similar to the development of English, the Mongolian language has adapted over the centuries—with one letter representing several vowel or consonant sounds—making mastery of the Mongolian script much more difficult than Cyrillic.

Although the Cyrillic script is adopted throughout the country, in parts of central Mongolia, as well as within the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the Traditional Mongolian script—also known as the Old Mongol script—is still utilised as the main script for writing in Mongolian. Furthermore, after the democratic revolution, the script became a compulsory subject in schools and its popularity has been steadily increasing. It remains to be seen whether or not the traditional script will play a larger and more official part in everyday Mongolian life in the future, but I believe it is fair to say that even if Cyrillic continues to be used for practical purposes, with the traditional script so closely tied to Mongolian identity it will certainly not be rendered obsolete.

 

Road sign with Cyrillic script.

[i] Bat-Ireedui, Jantsan, et al. 2014. Mongolian: Phrasebook & Dictionary. Lonely Planet.

[ii] “Mongolian Alphabet.” Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed 24 October, 2016. www.britannica.com/topic/Mongolian-alphabet.

[iii] Yukiyasu, A. 2006. “Integration and Separation of ‘Language’: Language Policies of Mongolian Peoples in the USSR and Mongolia, 1920–1940.” Reconstruction and Interaction of Slavic Eurasia and its Neighboring Worlds, Osamu, L. and Tomohiko U. (eds.) Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, pp. 309–34, http://srch.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no10_ses/11_arai.pdf.

[iv] Franck, B. 2010. “Sounds and Scripts of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Practices in Contemporary Mongolia.” Inner Asia 12(2): 231–52.