Greg Fay, Manager, Uyghur Human Rights Project
Listen to the full interview on SoundCloud and find a transcript below.
Last month, Uyghur linguist Abduweli Ayup was sentenced to 18 months in prison as a result of his language education work. In this interview, Ayup’s former student Michael describes to UHRP Project Manager Greg Fay the threat to the Uyghur language posed by China’s bilingual education policy, the importance of language to the Uyghur people, and the ways in which Ayup successfully worked to promote Uyghur language instruction within China’s system. Michael’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.
Q: Could you tell me how you met Abduweli Ayup and how you would describe his work and his plans for international study?
A: I met Abduweli at a university in Urumchi in the fall of 2008 and he was a teacher of mine. I studied under him and when I told him that I was interested in the relationship between language and the education system, specifically how Uyghur language was being used, or not used, as a language of instruction in the education system in the Xinjiang region, he agreed. He was very enthusiastic to speak about this because as someone who is very much interested in the vitality of his language and culture, he has very strong feelings about the marginalization of the Uyghur language in the system of education. So he was able to introduce me to many students who had firsthand experience as min kao min and min kao han through the system of education. They were able, or enthusiastic to share with me their experiences with being a non-native speaker of Chinese, and the difficult process of enculturation, if that’s what it is, of a min kao han.
Q: What are the challenges facing Uyghurs to speak their own language, and how did Abduweli Ayup describe those challenges to you?
A: The challenge is, in technical terms, the unstable diglossia in the Uyghur region, where there is an imbalance and a pressure for Uyghurs to learn and communicate in Mandarin Chinese versus the pressure that Han Chinese feel in learning Uyghur. So the general encroachment of Mandarin Chinese in normally or historically Uyghur domains, such as in the school system, of course, in 2002 with Mandarin Chinese replacing Uyghur as the language of instruction at tertiary institutions, the K-12 schools kind of followed that lead, whereby Mandarin became a dominant language. Abduweli was interested in not working against any of the prescribed language policies, but rather in just maintaining some safe spaces for speaking Uyghur. He definitely was an individual, or is an individual, who perceives of multilingualism as a benefit, but his perspective is that of additive bilingualism as opposed to subtractive bilingualism. He advocates for the addition of languages to one’s repertoire. He’s also extremely well informed on research that advocates for mother tongue, learning in one’s mother tongue at the primary school level and then after a strong foundation in the social and academic language skills of one’s native language, then using that to build upon competency in additional languages. He was a very strong proponent for developing competence in Uyghur language, and knowing that the Uyghur language was being marginalized or basically being displaced from the system of education, that’s why he was interested in starting a private school to provide that, to supplement what was happening in the K-12 system.
Q: Why do you think language is such an important issue for Uyghurs?
A: Language is a very important marker of an ethnic identity. I think that he wanted to, Abduweli was interested in allowing for people to practice that aspect of their identity. I think that in some respect, people often have a very sentimental relationship with their language, with their mother tongue. It’s such a core aspect of one’s identity that, I think those feelings only become apparent when in relief of policies that seek to exclude or marginalize those languages. So when you feel that your language is coming under attack or that your language is not valued in a particular social environment then that has the consequence of wanting to hold on to it tighter and to maintain it and perhaps a parallel can be in maybe the sartorial, an extension of that might be people wearing Islamic dress in cases where religious expression is being suppressed. I think that people take their language use as granted until basically, unless someone tries to take that ability away or tries to suppress it and then I think that there’s a very visceral reaction whereby people want to seek to advocate for their language. So it’s not kind of a natural thing to fight for language rights. That only happens in the context of a socio-cultural political system where that ability is being suppressed and then as a result it kind of compels some people to advocate for their language.
Q: How about the Uyghur language kindergarten that Abudweli Ayup opened in 2012, do you know more about his plans for that school?
A: Yes. His plan was to start a private language school to supplement the education, especially the language education that Uyghurs were receiving. It started, he was trying to get the licenses to start these schools in Kashgar, and he was able to operate a school but it was initially closed down. And then I had the opportunity to visit one of his schools in the summer of 2013, in July 2013, and he was offering English and Uyghur at that time. I know that they had plans to offer Uyghur language classes in Urumchi. There was a great popular demand for it. Abduweli was very active on message boards. He solicited public opinion about the desire of such a school before starting it. I think he felt encouraged by the very positive reception of the development of such a school. So there was certainly an audience for it, and there were customers who were very excited to take such classes. At the course I went to, I spoke to some of the students. It was a packed classroom of 30 students, eagerly learning, and he wanted to create that space for the development of academic language skills in Uyghur. Of course social language skills can be developed in informal environments. But the vocabulary and the phrasal structures used in social environments differ much from academic environments where you’re learning perhaps a vocabulary particular to a certain subject matter or domain, learning how to do math in Uyghur is a skill that he probably wanted to encourage. Learning how to engage in critical thinking, collaboration and communication in academic Uyghur were some of the objectives of the school.
Q: So it sounds like it was very successful?
A: Yes it certainly had some momentum. When he was beginning his Uyghur language kindergarten, that was due to popular demand. And the location where he was going to have it, initially he had the school in the central part of Kashgar and then he kept having to change locations due to, I guess, where the government would allow him to set up his school. I mention that because his Uyghur language kindergarten was, I believe he said, near a marketplace near the outskirts of the city, and even at that location which was I guess less convenient, he still had a requisite number of students sign up to take these classes.