21 Chinese Ethnic Minorities Have 27 Written Languages

Currently, 21 of China's ethnic minorities have their own written language, including 27 written forms. There are more and more Chinese who are bilingual in their native dialects and Mandarin.

Except for Muslims, China's ethnic minorities use Chinese. China's 53 ethnic minorities have more than 80 different languages. Before China was liberated, only the Mongolians and Tibetans had their own written language. Most of the ethnic minorities did not have a written language.

In the 1950s, the state began to help the 12 ethnic minorities including the Zhuang, Bouyei, Yi, Miao, Hani, Naxi, Dong, Li, Jingpo create sixteen written languages based on the Latin alphabet. The Dai, Lahu, Jingpo and Yi people were helped to improve their four original written languages into five written languages. The Uygur and Kazakh groups' languages were reformed into a written system.

In the process of creating the written languages, the state allowed the ethnic minorities to choose which languages they wanted to use. Some minorities, after trying the new written language, found that the new written language didn't suit their needs and chose to use a new language.

The Li group abandoned their new Li language in favor of Chinese. In 1982, the Uygur and Kazakh groups reverted to their original language using Arabic characters. The Yi group dropped their newly created written language in favor of the standard Yi language.

After the reforms in the ethnic minorities' written language, the new written language were more simplified. The ethnic minorities who now had a written language began bilingual education from primary schools to higher education. Ethnic minorities that didn't have a written language began using Chinese or other ethnic minorities' written language to teach.

According to statistics from 1995, more than 6 million students, approximately 40 percent of the ethnic minorities in primary and middle school, were enrolled in bilingual education classes that year. Before 1950, the illiteracy rate among ethnic minorities was higher than 95 percent.

Today, the illiteracy rate of ethnic minorities has dropped to around 68 percent.

Many ethnic minorities have newspapers and magazines written in their own language. In 1998, seventeen ethnic minorities published 83 newspapers and 184 magazines.

China's ethnic minorities have not escaped the changes brought on by the information era. Eleven ethnic minority languages including Mongolian, Tibetan and Uygur have developed a standard keyboard, word processing system and language database. Towards the end of 1996, Tibetan standards in characters and keyboards became the first ethic minority written language to become a national standard. Some ethnic minority written language encoding standards have received state and international recognition, the first step in developing software programs for ethnic minorities' written language. The Tibetans even have their own website on the Internet.

Based on polls of ethnic minorities in the late 1980s and estimates of ethnic minority groups since the 1990s, China currently has more than 68 million people who use the written ethnic languages, around 60 percent of the total ethnic minority population (based on a total 115 million population). Experts say that as the economy develops, more ethnic minorities will become bilingual in their native dialect and Mandarin.

(People’s Daily)

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