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How Effective Has China’s Language Policies Been in Facilitating Minority Learning?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2763 words Published: 3rd Nov 2020

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Bilingual education in China has for the most part, been ineffective in facilitating minority learning. Since the middle of the 1980’s when the government legislated, revived and developed bilingual education, the state has proposed that the fundamental purpose of bilingual education has been to enable the learning of a second language through one’s own language (Zhou, 2001). The state promoted the idea that proficiency in a second, more widespread language like Putonghua can promote the academic advancement and development of the individual and society as a whole (Qingxia and Yan, 2001). However, despite the government’s efforts to use bilingual education to improve the level of education within minorities, studies show that high drop-out rates and low levels of literacy continue to plague minority students (Lin, 1997). This brings into question the effectiveness of the Bilingual Education Policy on minority education. This report will aim to analyse the overall effectiveness of the policy in regards to models of teaching, students resources, and teaching materials, and examine how this research stands within the region of Xinjiang, as well as propose methods to improve the levels of bilingual education in this region.

Literature review:

Models of teaching

Lin (1997) suggests that an important factor influencing the effectiveness of bilingual teaching in China is the approach schools take in implementing bilingual education. Lin (1997) introduces two models of bilingual education most adopted by minority schools:

  1. Mandarin is the main language of instruction. Teachers teach texts in Putonghua and use minority languages to explain concepts.
  2. Minority language is the main language of instruction. Putonghua is introduced after students are fluent in their own language.

Lin (1997) goes on to explain how most schools which use the first model of bilingual education, is detrimentally affecting the learning of minority students. Lin (1997) explains the immense difficulty for students to gain an appreciation and interest in their schooling when they are not able to learn in their mother-tongue. The Han language is a complex language with a hieroglyphic writing system, that is often very different to the phonetic writing systems of most minority languages (Lin, 1997). As a result, students often find learning Putonghua extremely challenging, and quit school before they reach secondary school (Lin, 1997). Cummins’ (2001) findings supplement Lin’s (1997) study, stating that when a school teaches in a language that is not the mother-tongue of students, students come to school unprepared of the complexity involved in learning another language, and often end up feeling discouraged regarding furthering their academic development.

Lin (1997) explains that only a small portion of minority schools use the second model, which is the more effective method of implementing bilingual education. The schools who use this model are those that have a functional writing, receive consistent funding, have quality textbooks and teachers, and value the education of its students (Lin, 1997) Teaching and learning in one’s mother-tongue allows students to express their complex ideas more clearly, and as a result, gain more confidence in their abilities, as well as an interest in learning (Lin, 1997). Cummins (2001), goes on to say that minority language promotion in school allows students to better transfer complex ideologies and concepts to their majority language, and as a result, effectively develops both the minority language and majority language.

Lin (1997) and Cummins (2001) show that mother-tongue promotion is the strongest form of bilingual education. The main limitation of these studies is that they lack empirical evidence to their claims. The case-study section of this report will aim to verify or refute their ideas by observing the real life situation of bilingual education in Xinjiang. 

Instructional material

Lin (1997) explains that due to limited funding from the government for translation training, translators and compilers of textbooks are often unqualified and poorly trained. As a result, minority textbooks are often of low quality, and unable to give students a clear understanding of the national curriculum in a language they are more comfortable with. Another study by Rong (2007) came to similar conclusions regarding bilingual education in the context of a lack of teaching materials in minority languages that are of good quality. Rong (2007) also goes on to explain that compiling translated materials for a minority language would require at least a generation to train scholars and teachers so that they would be capable of compiling and editing materials. Since bilingual education was only reintroduced in the 1980s, it won’t be for at least a few decades that minority schools would have access to well translated textbooks.

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Lin’s (1997) study also explores how the physical lack in availability of quality instructional material has made it difficult for minority students to improve their literacy levels. Minority textbooks are often 50 times longer to publish than those written in Han Chinese (Lin, 1997). Since firms are not allowed to commit price discrimination and mark up prices for minority textbooks, publishing firms are often making a loss (Lin, 1997). Lin (1997) notes that once government subsidies are incapable of covering publishing costs, minority textbooks are often cancelled and delayed, which negatively affects the level of teaching within minority schools. Minority schools which do not have access to textbooks are forced to use Putonghua as their only language of instruction, and learn syllabus content without the help of their local language (Lin, 1997).

These studies show how the effectiveness of bilingual education in China is greatly limited by the lack in availability of quality minority textbooks.

Teacher qualification

The effectiveness of bilingual education is also deeply compromised by a shortage of qualified teachers (Gao and Wang, 2017). Lin (1997) explains that poverty in areas within minority regions and the low social status of minority people have negatively impacted the inflow of qualified teachers. Furthermore, the effective training for minority teachers is lacking across minority regions (Ya, Songyu, and Zuckermann, 2014). Currently, places like Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou and Tibet where bilingual education is at its early developmental stages (Liu, 1997), some teachers do not have professional training or qualifications to deal with adequate bilingual translation whilst teaching. Anaytulla (2009) explores how students subject to these suboptimal learning conditions show little enthusiasm for learning Putonghua , due to them having no confidence in their teachers’ abilities. Anaytulla (2009) shows that these students are often unable to gain the proficiency in Putonghua that is required to gain admission into higher levels of study or dropout halfway through their academic careers.

Analysis of a case study: 

This case study will analyse the practice of bilingual education within the Xinjiang region, in regards to its model of teaching, instructional materials, and teacher qualification. This section will also aim to analyse how well the research conducted in the previous section sits within this region of China.

The Xinjiang Regional Education Bureau required its schools to follow the first model of bilingual education in 2002. Mandarin was required by schools to be the language of instruction, and mother-tongue was to be taught as a subject. Prior to 2002, Xinjiang followed the second model of bilingual education. This change was justified by the Xinjiang government as it was a means to improve the standard of Putonghua among minority graduates, so they would be more competitive in the workplace. Even though this policy required all schools to abide by the new bilingual education policies by 2005, the pace of implementation has varied across the region due to the different levels of capability each area has towards teaching Putonghua

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Some areas within Xinjiang have experienced the adverse effects of following the first model of bilingual education proposed by Lin (1997). Within the southern Xinjiang districts (Aksu, Kashgar, and Hotan) whereby Uighur is most popular language, many students have limited understanding of the Han language prior to starting school (Anaytulla, 2008). Anaytulla (2008) found that these students would learn by rote learning, and could not understand the meanings of school content when taught in Putonghua. However, in large and medium sized cities in Xinjiang, Putonghua is commonly used within social domains as a means for intercommunication between ethnic groups (Anaytulla, 2008). Students who grow up within these bilingual and multilingual communities barely experience the adverse learning affects of using Putonghua as the primary language of instruction in schools (Anaytulla, 2008).

The Uyghur community does not experience the adverse effects low quality minority textbooks has on bilingual education. Studies show that high quality Chinese-Uyghur textbooks have been available for students since the 1980s (Dwyer, 2005).

Aligned with our research, the minority population within Xinjiang also experiences a lack in qualified teachers capable of bilingual education. Prior to 2002, minority languages were used as the primary language of instruction in Xinjiang, which meant that the Putonghua proficiency of teachers was little to none (Anaytulla, 2008). As a result, once schools were required to use Mandarin as the main language of instruction, many teachers did not have a level of Mandarin high enough required to teach. These teachers were unable to produce good teaching results when required to teach using Han materials (Anaytulla, 2008). Studies (Anaytulla, 2008) show that teachers who aren’t proficient in what is supposed to be their area of expertise, negatively impacts student attitudes towards learning. Anaytulla (2008) highlights that during her time in Xinjiang, students were often distracted during class and fidgeting with their textbooks, as they could not understand the Putonghua their teachers were speaking (Anaytulla, 2008). These students wanted a teacher that was both fluent in their minority language and Putonghua, so they could provide supplementary explanations for Han lessons in their mother-tongue (Anaytulla, 2008). These students explained that incapable teachers often forced them to self-learn by going through their Chinese-Uyghur textbooks, which is not only timely, but also leaves gaps in their understanding (Anaytulla, 2008).

Schluessel (2007) notes that currently it’s unreasonable for the government to expect the Xinjiang regions to have the teaching capabilities necessary to facilitate bilingual education. Schluessel (2007) explains that currently, there are only 4737 mandarin teachers available to the 1,616,211 students in Xinjiang. This level of teacher-student ratio is currently unable to facilitate effective levels of teaching, resulting in high levels of illiteracy across the region (Schluessel, 2007). Furthermore, experienced teachers are often concentrated in city regions in the North of Xinjiang, where there are better urban facilities and living conditions for teachers (Schluessel, 2007). The South of Xinjiang is far poorer than the rest of the region, and as a result, doesn’t attract an inflow of skilled Mandarin teachers.


It can be seen that the most of our research conducted regarding the problems of bilingual education also align with that of Xinjiang. From the case study, it’s clear that minority regions that have functional writing systems and high popularity, have less troubles in publishing quality textbooks for students. However, other problems like the education model and lack of quality teachers still continue to negatively affect bilingual education in Xinjiang. Therefore, in order to improve bilingual education, policies need to be implemented regarding the training of bilingual teachers. Minority teachers should be fluent in both their mother-tongue and Han Chinese (Strawbridge, 2008). Han teachers should also be capable in explaining concepts in minority languages (Strawbridge, 2008). The government should also invest in better teaching facilities within rural areas, to attract skilled teachers towards the poorer regions of Xinjiang (Schluessel, 2007). Our research section showed that mother-tongue education plays a crucial role in effective bilingual education. Minority schools within Xinjiang should place more of an importance on ensuring its students develop/maintain a strong hold of their mother-tongues.

Implications and suggestions of action and further research

China is country that is home to 55 official minority nationalities (Johnson, 2000). Each one experiencing different levels of the effectiveness of bilingual education. This report only analysed one region. More research should be done into the areas of improvement for each minority region. This report also did not take into considerations other reasons impacting the level of education for minorities outside of education policies. Factors such as discrimination and bias still affect the education levels of minorities. In addition, minorities themselves sometimes reject the idea of bilingual education, as they believe it is a means of wiping out their ethnic culture, identity, and language. These factors all need to considered for future research on the effectiveness of bilingual education. 


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