Language learning speaks volumes for new understanding

Updated: 2013-08-02 09:00

By Cui Jia in Urumqi (China Daily)

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Employment advantages

Li Hongling hopes that learning Uygur will eventually make it easier for her 11-year-old daughter to find work. "Speaking Uygur will always be an advantage in Xinjiang's employment market and now people are required to pass a test in Uygur before they can take up a job with the government," said Li, 35.

According to a directive issued by the regional government in April 2010, all newly recruited government workers must take Uygur language courses and pass exams before reporting to their posts. Workers already employed by the government will also receive lessons. They will not be promoted or become heads of townships or villages if they fail the tests.

At the moment, Chen spends her mornings teaching 40 community workers from the Gangcheng district of Urumqi, where 30 percent of the residents are Uygur. For most of the students, the 20-day intensive course is their first experience of the language.

"No one can learn a language in such a short time, so all I can do is teach them a learning technique," said Chen, who told her students at their first class that if they really want to better serve the Uygur residents, they must continue to study when the course comes to an end. She urged them to talk to the locals because they are the best teachers.

Chen taught the group to say "As-salamu alaykum", an Arabic greeting that means "Peace be upon you", as a respectful greeting. However, some people complained and said it would be inappropriate to use the phrase because only Muslims should use it, citing the fact that Islam is the dominant religion among the Uygurs.

"I told them that it's just a normal expression in the Uygur language and equivalent to saying 'ni hao' ('Hello') in Mandarin. I don't understand why they like to make simple things so complicated."

Cui Xuhua, 43, deputy director of the Gangcheng administrative committee, studied Uygur briefly last year, but admitted he's forgotten most of what he learned at the two weeklong courses he attended.

"The teacher told us to remember the pronunciation, rather than teaching us to recognize the letters. As a community worker, I feel it's important to have a direct conversation with residents, and not use an interpreter. Otherwise, it feels as though there's a barrier between us. That could prevent us from understanding what the residents really want, the things they like and those they don't. Understanding people makes all the difference."

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