This article has been published in Enabling Education 12
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Title: Supporting Language Learning in Qinghai Province, China
Author: Chunfang, L
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2008

Supporting language learning in Qinghai Province, China

China is ethnically and linguistically diverse, with 56 officially recognised ethnic minority groups, speaking up to 80 languages – in addition to the official Chinese language, Putonghua or Mandarin (also known as ‘Chinese’ outside the country). The country has a policy stating that “every nationality has the freedom to use and develop its own language”. All ethnic minority primary and secondary schools should teach both ethnic minority language and Chinese curricula, and the right to receive education in the first (mother tongue) language should be respected. There is, however, a gap between policy and implementation. Here, Lou from Save the Children UK (SC UK) outlines work piloting a more effective way of language learning with the Tibetan minority group.

The challenge in Quinghai
Qinghai province in northwest China has 43 ethnic groups, of which the Tibetan ethnic group is the largest. Many families live in remote areas with poor access to basic quality education or other services. Because of its diverse population, since 2003 the Qinghai provincial education department has piloted two main approaches to bilingual education:

  • Model 1: areas where Chinese language use is limited. The ethnic minority language is the medium of instruction and Chinese is introduced as a subject.
  • Model 2: for areas where Chinese use is stronger. Chinese is the main language of instruction, with the ethnic minority language used if necessary. Unfortunately, this model does not respect the ethnic minority culture and language.

Qinghai lacks qualified bilingual teachers, with fewer than half able to speak and use both Tibetan and Chinese in class. In Tongde County, more than 90% of the population is Tibetan. The schools follow Model 1, and in some primary schools no teachers are able to teach Chinese. Some are not qualified teachers and have had only short-term pre-service or in-service training. The lack of teachers means they have very heavy workloads, making it impossible for them to undertake additional training.

Evidence from Tongde shows that, in Chinese language lessons, teachers have poor language skills. They can only focus on grammar, vocabulary and reading; and teaching styles are built around rote learning, resulting in students’ disinterest in learning languages.

Some parents, government officials and educators do not value learning Tibetan, and challenge the development of bilingual education. They see Chinese as the language of economy, the one that will help their children pass exams, get a higher education, and provide a better economic future for the family. School administrators and teachers have also objected to bilingual education. Some fear that studying Tibetan will slow the learning of Chinese, and that any textbooks made available in Tibetan will not contain the curricula needed for national examinations. Insufficient textbooks means teachers’ time is spent translating Chinese materials, which are not always culturally relevant to maintain student interest.

Finding solutions
With the support of Qinghai provincial education department, SC UK set up a language learning resource centre in Douhesuo primary school, Tongde County. It is a pilot project illustrating a different approach to language education. The centre is based on the internationally accepted idea that children need to listen and speak before they can learn to read and write a second language. The centre is designed to:

  • recognise and support understanding of Tibetan language and culture.
  • help Tibetan students improve their Chinese language skills, especially their listening, speaking and reading abilities.
  • improve students’ life skills.
  • promote community participation in education through managing and running the centre.

Child-centred learning
The project team wanted the centre to increase second language exposure and give children a chance to hear and practice Tibetan and Chinese in a natural learning environment, rather than in a formal classroom. The centre offers space to develop thinking skills and the ability to work together – a child-centred learning environment that enhances peer interaction and child-environment interaction. From the beginning, the staff stressed that the centre is a place where children can decide what to do, with volunteers setting up spaces for children to experiment, practise, and learn.

A child reading a book at the language learning resource centre
A child reading a book at the language learning resource centre

Using volunteers
We needed to find people with Chinese and Tibetan language skills who were open to finding new ways of working with children. Fifty-three Tibetan students from Qinghai Normal University were selected as volunteers. They went through intensive training to ensure a common understanding of the function and aims of the centre; to improve their skills playing with and working with children; and to help them design and plan language learning activities and materials. In groups the volunteers developed lesson plans using local resources – they identified themes relevant to students’ local contexts, using an innovative theme-based language approach.

Selecting learning materials
Language learning resources were selected and designed to develop children’s interest in learning Chinese and Tibetan. Books using very simple Chinese were chosen, as were DVDs of children’s stories, songs and chants in Tibetan. Since few quality Tibetan children’s books are available, we trained volunteers to make Tibetan language learning materials, such as big books and picture stories using role-play and games.

Developing life skills
Children’s life skills in Qinghai Province are very low; their traditional lessons cover only Tibetan, Chinese and Mathematics. In class they usually only listen to the teacher. And the teacher shortage means not enough attention is paid to students’ overall development; only to academic performance and exam technique. Consequently, schools are often perceived by parents as irrelevant, not teaching useful skills or conveying useful information. This contributes to high absenteeism and drop-out rates. Teachers in many schools do not value the potential input of parents, and parents have no opportunities to understand the importance of education for their children, believing it to be solely the school’s responsibility.

SC UK therefore felt the centre could improve children’s life skills and language skills, through well-planned, interesting activities. We also thought it could develop ways to involve communities in their children’s education. We designed activities to improve children’s ability to understand themselves and improve their self-esteem, by providing opportunities to succeed and to communicate better with others.

The activities are developed around themes. Children are asked what they would like to learn about. All themes are related to the children’s real life, e.g. health and hygiene, environmental protection and science. Community members are involved in the whole process, from centre design through to on-going management. The centre also provides many relevant books for community members, for example, books on agriculture.

The project will now concentrate on demonstrating to more teachers and education authorities just what a difference active language learning can have on children’s educational successes.

Lou Chunfang is Save the Children’s Research and Education Officer in China. Contact:
Save the Children China Programme
Apartment 051, Entrance 2, Building No.2
Jianwai Diplomatic Compound
Beijing, 100600
P.R. China