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  • Becoming Bilingual in School and Home in Tibetan Areas of China: Stories of Struggle YiXi LaMuCuo
  • Norbert Francis (bio)
YiXi LaMuCuo. Becoming Bilingual in School and Home in Tibetan Areas of China: Stories of Struggle. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019. 183 pp. Paperback $119.99, isbn 978-3-030-14667-2.

This study from the Tibetan communities of China is a welcome contribution to the field of language learning and language loss, considering the scarcity of information in recent years coming out of these same communities on the relevant questions. Precisely, what concerned observers have today are many questions. Following a survey of previous work internationally and of basic concepts in the study of bilingualism, the chapters present a series of five indepth interviews recorded by the author on-site. The participants document their experience from three of the principal stages of bilingual contact between Tibetan and Chinese:

  • ∘ the early post-1949 government policy that promoted the Tibetan language along with a generation of native speaking cadre to administer the newly incorporated region;

  • ∘ reaction against Tibetan language promotion beginning in 1959, to be taken up again during the ferocious suppression through the years of the Cultural Revolution; and

  • ∘ a period of relative opening, beginning in 1977.

The central concept that is developed throughout the chapters is the distinction between additive and subtractive bilingualism. Interested readers should consult the study on a parallel language research problem in East Asia that addresses this key concept. For Hokkien (Southern Min), subtractive, or Replacing Language, bilingualism already characterizes its subordinate relationship with Mandarin Chinese. The critical age bracket for language [End Page 56] erosion, according to the Hokkien study, is the elementary school-age population.1 The additive-subtractive distinction is closely related to the two language education options for learners: záng wéi zhu 藏為主 and hàn wéi zhu 漢為主, respectively, Tibetan-medium and Chinese-medium of instruction. A current debate in Tibetan-Chinese bilingual education specifically turns on how the increasing shift toward the Chinese-medium option is being implemented; that in its progressively Chinese-biased implementation, school programs appear to be leaning toward the subtractive outcome for Tibetan. Over time, the option of Tibetan-medium instruction appears to have been transitioning to instruction of Tibetan as a school subject, with its concomitant reduction in hours of instruction, learning materials and effective teaching methodology.2 Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge, as professor YiXi would concur, that it is too early to make a definitive assessment of actual student learning outcomes regarding school-related Tibetan language proficiency, for example in the domain of literacy. There is simply not enough pertinent information on student achievement available that can broadly inform this research problem.

Based on current research models and descriptive accounts of language contact in the Tibetan region (including now the interview text samples of chapters 4–6), two logical possibilities on the related question of linguistic competence3 can be considered:

  1. (1). that language shift toward modern standard Chinese has not advanced to any significant degree, individual cases aside; and that family-based native-speaker competence in Tibetan communities (including urban centers) remains fundamentally intact in the school-age population.

  2. (2). a minority of young bilinguals, in daily contact with monolingual speakers of Chinese and electronic media, has shifted toward dominance in Chinese accompanied by a measurable erosion of competence in Tibetan (i.e., Replacement Language development).

Given the deficit of reliable and confirmed empirical data, neither scenario can yet be discounted. In fact, a careful reading of chapters 4–6, correlated with partial results from recent linguistic/ethnographic surveys does not allow us to exclude either (1) or (2) at this time. The distribution of Tibetan speakers over an immense geographical expanse, divided among numerous dialects, both linguistically close and distant, and variants not mutually intelligible, complicates enormously the fieldwork evaluation of verifiable cases of outright erosion (shift of the speech community to Chinese), convergence between dialects or variants, bilingual mixing and preservation.

An interesting analysis of the interview material focuses on spontaneous alternation, switching between Tibetan and Chinese, by participants. A number of features of this kind of bilingual speech present themselves for further study: [End Page 57...


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