Over and beyond their histories of repression at the hands of an imperialist state, both Hawai’i and Wales have since become exemplars for language revitalization
. Hawai’i’s successful educational endeavors have come to be seen as a model
for other threatened indigenous languages, and the case of Wales is widely regarded for its success in terms of community-initiated political drive
for language revitalization. Hawaiian and Welsh stand together with languages such as Catalan
, and Basque
as once-repressed languages and cultural identities that were able to find traction and are now seeing something of a modern renaissance.
Assuming the continuation of language repression and loss in China’s autonomous regions, do successful cases of school-based language revitalization and bilingual education, such as those of Hawai’i and Wales, offer some kind of optimism for the linguistic future of minority China? With language currently informing public dissent and precipitating Chinese state recoil in these areas, it’s difficult to say.
“In Wales [...] large numbers of people historically opposed bilingual schools, because they argued, perhaps with some sympathy, that they were nationalist training grounds. In other words, people’s heightened awareness of being Welsh, Welsh history, Welsh grievances in the past, Welsh economic exploitation, were identified in the formal education which Welsh-medium schools provided. I think that can be exaggerated for political effect, but there’s certainly an element of truth in that. If you are focusing on your own nation as opposed to imperialism, then by definition you are giving more oxygen to things like a separate history, a separate culture, a separate territory—which is very important,” says Colin Williams, Welsh language specialist and activist at Cardiff University.
Given China’s ongoing repression of minority language learning in autonomous region schools, it seems this is a perspective shared by Beijing. In theory, this does not have to be the case. As Williams remarks, “It [separateness] doesn’t necessarily translate to separatism. Being separate is not the same as being independent.” The returns to regional cultural and linguistic identity within the contexts of the semi-autonomous functionings of 1) Hawai’i within the United States, 2) Wales within the United Kingdom, and 3) Catalonia within Spain are a testament to this, though the existence of strong separatist sentiments in these regions must be acknowledged. Unfortunately, the wide variance in notions and desires concerning autonomy and “separateness” among all actors in the Chinese context largely disqualify this perspective as a point of departure.
And this, Williams acknowledges, is a crucial dimension reflected by the comparatively lesser divergence between Wales and Great Britain when compared to Chinese autonomous regions and Beijing. “Superficially, Welsh culture and English culture share the same British administration, politics, and identity in the broader world. The great advantage of Wales being close to England is that it has certain presumptions about the neutrality of the civil service, the professionalism of teachers, the resources available for the production of books, IT, etc.”
Williams continues, “You could argue that because there’s a great similarity in expectation between residence in Wales and residence in England, providing bilingualism isn't a threat or an undermining of British values or British expectations. In no way is Welsh-medium education a denial of Britishness. It’s just an extra layer of being British.”
This is in stark contrast to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, in which fissures in culture, identity, and language with the Chinese state run far deeper and with much more widespread antagonism. It seems that as far as Beijing is concerned, as long as regional identity and autonomy pose the shadow of a threat to the Chinese state, the primacy of the hegemony must be enforced—as its implementation of linguistic policies illustrate.
In considerations of their success in language revitalization, strong community voice and the tireless efforts of community activists in Hawai’i and Wales must be acknowledged—after all, as Williams puts it, “The impetus [for language revitalization] comes from the community. From parents, from activists, from students, teachers, intellectuals [...] Government policy is reactive. It’s not necessarily always innovative; it tends to follow social change.” Community will and motivation for language preservation is evident in minority China, if the protests and dissent are any indication. However, the basic foundation of receptivity on the part of the ruling government—even a hesitant receptivity, as was the case in Hawai’i and Wales—is a key aspect that is simply lacking in the Chinese context.
“If you are penalized for identifying as a certain category or group, then in time you learn not to be vociferous. You learn to be quiescent, supplicant. Not so true in democratic societies, but in authoritarian societies, you literally learn your lesson for being different, separate, and maintaining separateness. So some degree of political control, whether it be autonomy, regionalism, or a small-scale parliament, is almost vital to change the conditions of possibility for that language to breathe its own oxygen, to have its own internal strength recognized,” the expert remarks.
The relevancy of reflections on linguistic revitalization for ethnic minorities in autonomous regions of China, then, seems to lie far beyond the horizon. As long as sympathy from the central government is a requisite ingredient in this recipe—no matter how small a quantity—then existing models of language revitalization remain out of the question for minority China. “Without that, of course, it's a struggle, not a competition,” Williams concludes. “Languages are always in competition when they come in contact, but for those without any legal or political reinforcement, it's a constant struggle to survive.”