China is a linguistically diverse country, with over 300 distinct languages spoken across its territory. Despite this, language policies are limiting, and only support one language for each of the country's 56 recognised 'nationalities'. This means that at least half of China’s languages are currently losing speakers or signers, as they are forced to switch to dominant languages.
“Most people in China, whether they belong to the Han majority or a minority group, speak an unrecognised language,” says Dr Gerald Roche, a Senior Research Fellow in Politics at La Trobe University and a La Trobe Asia Fellow. “These languages are at risk of erasure or suppression, limiting the options of those who speak them and putting them at a disadvantage in favour of recognised languages.”
Dr Roche points to the impact of language erasure in Tibet, where his research indicates there are more than 30 unrecognised languages, not including Tibetan. People who sign and speak these unrecognised languages are being forced to abandon their own languages in favor of Tibetan or Chinese to access basic services.
“People who use these unrecognised languages face linguistic barriers everywhere: in schools, media, government, healthcare, the legal system and more,” says Dr Roche. “There’s a clear demonstration of the gradual dilution of the Chinese constitution’s language freedoms, which is part of a broader plan to universalise Mandarin among the entire population.”
Other languages, despite recognition, are being gradually suppressed through a limiting of resources.
“Recognised languages such as Uyghur, Mongolian, and Tibetan are given little support for comprehensive education,” Says Dr Roche. “A growing number of subjects are taught only in Mandarin, forcing speakers to adapt and prioritise their learning. It severs their connections to their family, community, and heritage.”
Dr Roche recently gave testimony on the subject of language and ethnic identity in China to the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China. It is his hope that the United States can exert its influence to push for more recognition of these issues in China.
“We are now in what the United Nations have declared to be the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. It’s an occasion to emphasize the drastic predicament of the world's most vulnerable languages, and to make interventions to improve the lives of Indigenous people everywhere,” says Dr Roche. “China’s efforts to isolate its citizens from international civil society need to be countered, and the United States has the opportunity to lead by example on these issues.”