Australia

'Our language is facing extinction': Tibetans in Australia fight to keep their language alive

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Tibetans in Australia have come together from all over the country to come up with a plan to save their language from dying out.

Every Saturday, these children come together to study Tibetan language and culture in the northern Sydney suburb of Manly Vale.

Asked what they like about studying Tibetan, they all spoke over the top of each other in excitement.

"When we grow up, and have children, we have to teach them their language, it’s very important," one girl said.

It is clear that enthusiasm to learn is not the problem – but still, this group of Tibetan language teachers is worried.

"Our responsibility is our heritage, language, our mother tongue – to give it to another generation," Thonden Rhalo, Principal of the Tibetan Learning Centre, told SBS News.

Tibetan language teachers Sonam Lhamo and Thonden Rhalo.
Tibetan language teachers Sonam Lhamo and Thonden Rhalo.
SBS News

Mr Rhalo arrived in Australia in 1997. He had lived in India for six years, after he fled Tibet as a political prisoner.

"Inside Tibet, they can’t preserve the language, and it is dying."

At the first ever Tibetan Language Conference in Australia, attendees said it is now time to strategise so future generations do not miss out on learning Tibetan language.

The teachers in attendance said Tibetan language is under pressure within Tibet from the Chinese government.

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reaffirmed that position and said recent moves by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) show a concerted effort to crackdown on Tibetan language and culture.

In May 2018, language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison, after campaigning to promote the use of Tibetan in Tibet.

Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced for inciting separatism.
Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced for inciting separatism.
SBS News

Mr Tashi had appeared in a video by the New York Times, where he spoke of the importance of preserving his mother tongue and how Chinese government policies were eroding his culture.

"There is a systematic slaughter of our culture," he said in the video.

The 33-year-old was arrested in 2016, charged with inciting separatism.

Amnesty International has called the sentence "grotesquely unjust".

Earlier this year, there were reports the Tibet Minzu University – a university where the majority of students are of Tibetan heritage – is phasing out classes in Tibetan, and teaching most degrees in Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese government policy is that Tibetan is an official language of Tibet. Officials argue all their efforts are based on modernising the region, alleviating poverty and improving literacy.

But many Tibetans feel that is simply not the case.

"The Tibetan language is facing some kind of extinction. It is the Tibetans in exile, we have a responsibility on our shoulders [passed] from our parents to us," Lhaka Tshoko, official representative of the Dalai Lama said.

Lhakpa Tshoko is a representative of the Dalai Lama.
Lhakpa Tshoko is a representative of the Dalai Lama.
SBS News

"Normally Tibetan families take their children to festivals, but now schools have been strictly instructed to not give permission."

Associate Professor Ken Cruickshan from the University of Sydney said the benefits of attending language school for children from ethnic minorities are multi-faceted.

"We know that if children maintain their community languages, they do better at school, their English is better, but more importantly, it gives them a strong identity," he said.

"It’s very important for the diasporic community, a community like the Tibetans...their language was repressed, and that language is their identity."

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