Extinction Threatens 40% of China’s Minority Languages

A widespread fear among Tibetans, both at home and in exile, is that their language will die out. Education reforms relegating Tibetan to secondary status in schools are one of the core grievances against Chinese authorities, and concern for the language’s future has been voiced in a recent petition from 91 international scholars to Xi Jinping and the last words of some self-immolators.

While Tibetan’s survival seems relatively likely, a report at ChinaNews.com [zh] shows that other minority languages in China are in critical danger. From Bruce Humes’ translated highlights at Ethnic ChinaLit:

  • Non-han languages: 55 officially designated “peoples” (民族) speak an estimated 130 languages

  • Populations: one-half of non-Han languages are spoken by groups that number under 10,000 members, of which 20+ have 1,000 speakers or less

  • Endangered languages: Manchu, Tatar, She, Hezhen can no longer be used for conversation; another 20 percent, such as Nu, Yilao, Pumi and Jinuo are approaching that state; and a total of 40 percent are in danger of extinction in the mid-term.

  • Manchu: 11 million ethnic Manchus, but only 100 or so can speak fluently and less than a dozen read and write well.

Language decline and extinction is by no means limited to China: up to half of the 7,000 languages currently spoken may disappear by the end of the 21st Century, equivalent on average to three dying out each month. Technology has helped reverse the decline of some North American aboriginal languages, however, and Tibetan has also been bolstered by blogging and online organisation and resources. Monk, font designer and software developer Lobsang Monlam discussed these developments in an interview at Trace Foundation:

Compared with developed countries, the impact of digital technology on Tibetans is relatively small and not extensive. However, in comparison to smaller communities, the impact in only a few years has been great and the progress is remarkable. To preserve the Tibetan language, there must be an appropriate forum for its use, and we must use it accordingly. There also must be proper conditions for its use. I see this as particularly important inside Tibet.

[…] From a dharma practitioner’s point of view, I serve the Tibetan people by preserving the Tibetan language. Our cultural heritage is dependent on this language. As I work hard on these projects, my motivation is pure, which is very important here.

[…] The Tibetan language still lags behind in the digital technology sphere. We are still only utilizing 5% of Tibetan’s capacity with regards to digital technologies. The language can still only be used for word processing, on the Internet and a few other applications. We have need a comprehensive character, grammar and spell check software. We also need to develop software that reads Tibetan words properly; a computer operating system that can be used in Tibetan, and software to convert old Tibetan fonts to the Unicode system. I feel these projects are very important for the digitization of the Tibetan language. We also need Optical Character Recognition software for Tibetan, various databases in the Tibetan language, speech-to-text software for Tibetan, translation software between Tibetan and other languages, and translations of important websites to Tibetan; all this is also very vital for Tibetan language.

Tibetan Dechen Pemba of High Peaks Pure Earth contributed to this post.