Revitalizing Ethnic Minority Languages in China

By LIU Dairong,   ZONG Wei, WANG Hong

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly prescribes that the People’s Republic of China is a unitary multinational state created jointly by the people of all its nationalities, and all ethnic groups have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. The Communist Party of China CPC attaches great importance to the development of spoken and written language of ethnic minorities. It has formed a network for the management of the spoken and written language of ethnic minorities at the national, provincial (municipal, regional), prefectural (municipal) and county (city) levels, which strengthened the management of the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities, promoted the normalization, standardization and organic growth of the scripts of the ethnic minorities. Fifty-three of the 55 minority groups have their own languages and scripts. As the important communication tools, the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities are also the carrier of national culture and an important valuable resource of the country. Different levels of departments and scientific research institutions have strengthened the research on the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities and attained remarkable achievements.

In China’s fight against poverty, enabling children in poor areas to speak Putonghua has also become an important part of poverty alleviation work, from which we can see that universal or standardized language is the basic condition for carrying out economic and social activities on the path of modernization. The promotion of Putonghua has played a positive role in China’s political, economic, cultural and other work, but in actuality, we have to see the endangerment of some weak dialects and the disappearance of national languages. Therefore, under the support of national principles and policies, we should vigorously promote Putonghua, and help ethnic minority residents retain their own language at the same time. We should not only help ethnic minorities integrate into today’s wave of globalization and realize their aspirations, but also help them maintain their identity and protect their native languages. According to the survey researched by The Languages of China, there are more than 120 languages in China. Among them, more than 20 languages are endangered and about 15 languages is used by less than a thousand people, even some languages have completely lost their communicative function and are on the verge of extinction.

In December 2017, the United Nations declared 2019 the International year of Indigenous languages, with the aim of protecting global cultural and linguistic diversity. Language is the carrier of culture, and the demise of language represents the disappearance of the spiritual and cultural heritage carried by this language. And the disappearance of the language also represents the core of the loss of identity of people who speak the language, and it also means that they will lose themselves. So we need to protect the language, preserve their traditional culture, and protect their cultural identity and dignity. The Chinese government, together with UNESCO, held the first World Conference on the Protection of Language Resources in Changsha, Hunan Province, and adopted the Yuelu Declaration (draft), which was officially released on February 21, 2019, calling on the international community, governments and non-governmental organizations to reach a consensus on the protection and promotion of the world’s linguistic diversity.

In China, in 2011, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee put forward the proposal of preserving the spoken and written languages of all ethnic groups scientifically. Since then, language protection research has gradually sprung up, on the basis of the database in 2015, the full implementation of the China Language Resources Protection Project to promote language protection research have become an academic hot spot. On the basis of scientific protection and legal protection, language protection is divided into static language protection and dynamic language protection. Vice Premier Liu Yandong instructed on January 17, 2014, Chinese dialects are precious cultural wealth, for that they are the carrier of Chinese traditional culture and the witness of local history and culture. It is necessary to strengthen the research and summary of Chinese dialects, so as not to make them disappear, which is not contradictory to the promotion of Putonghua.

On February 24, 2014, she again instructed, a rescue program should be implemented and the timetable must be drawn to protect the rich language resources of China. We should do a good job in sorting out Chinese dialects and minority languages, including the collection of dialect stories. And we should also pay attention to dealing with foreigners’ collection of Chinese languages in accordance with the law. In 2015, the program expanded from Chinese dialects (80) to Chinese minority languages and endangered languages (80), marking the implementation and development of China’s language resources protection on a larger scale and with greater efforts. This is an important measure taken by the CPC Central Committee to scientifically protect the spoken and written languages of all ethnic groups in response to the grim situation of the rapid decline of Chinese dialects and minority languages under the modern background.

In the academic research community, the protection of national languages, especially endangered languages, has also attracted the attention of scholars. The main achievements are reflected in three aspects, the first is to theoretically explore the significance of the protection of national languages and endangered languages, and the second is the case investigation and study of specific national languages and endangered languages. Scholars have made rescue records and descriptions of many minority languages and endangered languages in China. The third is to have conducted a digital collection of (Digital Archives) and descriptive research on national languages and endangered languages. In a word, while the promotion of Putonghua has achieved good results, the study of minority languages and endangered languages in China has made remarkable achievements in terms of theories, methods, rescue records and descriptions, audio collections and so on.

(LIU Dairong is an associate professor at the School of International Languages and Cultures, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics; Zong Wei is a Ph.D candidate at the School of Ethnology and Sociology, Ming Zu University of China; WANG Hong is an associate professor at the School of International Languages and Cultures, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics)

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