Dispatches From Xinjiang: Why Do Uyghurs Speak English So Well?

Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in a national English-speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in China. This year was no exception. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country.

The main difference is that Uyghurs are now learning to be confident in their English-language ability starting at a younger age. It’s because of people like Kasim and dozens of other award-winning role models that kids like 14 year-old Tughluk Tursunjan feel self-assured on the big stage.

Tughluk, who was this year’s winner of the Junior High School division of the “Outlook of Hope” contest on CCTV, was taught by an English instructor named Nemo, a young Uyghur man who teaches at the Web English school in downtown Ürümchi. It was Nemo who coached Tughluk on how to speak with commanding gestures and respond fluently to difficult questions. The political emphasis of his speech — one that emphasized Chinese patriotism and strengthening of the nation — seemed also to stem from his self-esteem. He doesn’t say anything directly about the difficulties of being a minority; instead, the need to overcome the stereotypes associated with Uyghurs is inferred through the doppa he wears and the goals he intends to achieve. He presents an action plan: he will develop himself so that he can teach the next generation.

Part of the reason for Uyghur English success comes from the way many young Uyghurs learn a second language at a young age. Learning a third language is of course not quite as difficult as acquiring a second. But another major factor is the way most Uyghur English speakers are self-taught. Since the Xinjiang education system requires Chinese proficiency before Uyghurs are provided English language education, most Uyghur English speakers learn English on their own, while at the same time trying to master the technical language of Chinese academia in their first two years of college. Yet unlike that sort of practical Chinese learning, English study is fueled by the desire to consume images that resonate with their own aspirations. Their ability comes from practice with friends. Although the vast majority of them have never been outside Xinjiang, their English is learned in everyday situations rather than classroom textbooks.

For many Uyghurs, speaking English on stage is one of the few occasions in which they have the opportunity to stand on an equal footing with their Han counterparts. As one former contestant told me:

“When we see that (Han) also struggle hard at this and that sometimes we can outperform them, we get a huge amount of satisfaction with the amount of progress we have made. Also, when we speak (English), our accent tends to be less strong compared to theirs. After having our Chinese accent judged as a mark of our ‘diminished intelligence’ for most of our lives, it feels like a great opportunity for us to see that we are actually worth something and not as stupid as we have been stereotyped. Instead, it is clear that we are in our current situation because of a range of complex historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons.”

In a recent interview the anthropologist Carolyn Rouse said that moving beyond the surface of racial situations requires an understanding of the agency of those affected by negative stereotypes. Overcoming the feeling that a minor person’s own sense of self is not reflected in how others see you requires many strategies. For Uyghurs, English-learning is one of these strategies. It is a kind of embodiment in which the speaker is surrounding himself (or herself) with cultural signs that reflect what he thinks he is and wants to become.

Speaking English like a professional politician is a way of signifying the kind of person Tughluk wants to be: someone who is respected for his intellect, his quality, and his humanity. He just happens to also be Uyghur. As his success circulates in Uyghur society, the values that accompany an English-speaking body are further amplified.

Of course, many young dreamers will never go to Canada like Tughluk. Many of them will never win a major contest. Yet for most of them, young adults from the rural South, entering into an English-speaking world is also a way of drastically expanding the horizon of their imagination. Being able to watch and understand the lives of others in drastically different circumstances gives them ways of imagining a future life that might be different. It helps them think through the possibilities for organizing and designing their own businesses and passions; it gives them new patterns and habits for living, new stories that help them retell their own.

Here is a partial list of Uyghur English-speaking award winners since 2004:

2004 CCTV English speaking competition

Third Place Overall: Kasimujiang Abudureyimu (Xinjiang University)

Best Pronunciation Award: Aizimaiti Rusitanmu (Xinjiang Medical University)

Audience’s Choice Award: Kasimujiang Abudureyimu (Xinjiang University)

2005 CCTV English speaking competition

Second Place Overall: Adilijiang Abudukelimu (Xinjiang University)

Fourth Place Overall: Maierhaba

2006 CCTV English speaking competition

Judges’ Choice Award: Sabahaiti (Tianjin Foreign Studies University)

Finalists: Dilidaer Duishan (Xinjiang Medical University)

Milajiguli Wusiman (Xinjiang University)

2008 CCTV English speaking competition

Outstanding Contestant: Faluke Maierdan (Xinjiang Medical University)

2010 CCTV English speaking competition

First Place Overall: Umid Haji (Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics)

Finalists: Yierxiati Bolati, Zukela Tuerhong

2011 CCTV English speaking competition

Second Place Overall: Ainiwaerjiang Abudurusuli (Xinjiang University)

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

    12 Responses to “Dispatches From Xinjiang: Why Do Uyghurs Speak English So Well?”

    1. Mamty Sunuoduola

      I enjoyed reading the article. It shows the complex dynamics of learning and speaking a language which can’t be reduced to a simple hiarachical order or economic determinism. I have a particular interest in the subject and have written a book chapter a few years ago which is available at:

    2. Insanshunas

      Nice piece, Beige Wind. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this, many of which have led to people arguing that Uyghurs have better English because there’s something inherently superior about the Uyghur language and thus Uyghurs. Always leads to interesting (and sometimes frustrating) exchanges.

      I think another thing to flesh out a bit would be the important role that oral/aural learning and teaching techniques have in historical “Uyghur education” and in contemporary Uyghur society. These techniques of listening/mimicry as a way of learning go a long way in helping to explain why many Uyghurs are so good at learning English (and music, and basically most things) on their own.

    3. Remona

      It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this brilliant blog!
      I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

      I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this site with my Facebook group.
      Talk soon!

    4. Beige Wind

      Thanks everybody. I look forward to reading your chapter Mamty.

      There is also a Facebook page for this blog if you want to stay up to date with everything that is going on Remona: https://www.facebook.com/ChineseCentralAsianLivingArts

      I’ve also had similar experiences with Uyghur friends Insanshunas. People often say it is because God gave Uyghurs a “soft tongue.” I think the importance of oral education would be a really interesting thing to consider; that, and the prominence of staged performance in Uyghur society are certainly two of the factors that lead to Uyghur success on stage. Fortunately there is an anthropologist who is writing her dissertation on this Uyghur English education, so hopefully well soon have more empirical evidence to draw on.

      • Insanshunas

        Right, the Uyghur and English languages are “yumshaq,” whereas Chinese is “qattiq.” I hear this all the time.

        What do you mean when you say that staged performances are prominent? That a lot of people have opportunities to be in them, or that because people are exposed to them they have an understanding of how they work, even if they haven’t been on stage themselves? I wouldn’t actually say that staged performances are really all that prominent, either. In Urumchi? Maybe, because the highest-level troupes are housed here and do fairly regular performances, and there are of course clubs and bars galore where people are performing. But Urumchi is quite a different case than basically everywhere else in Xinjiang. There are tons of performative events going on, but they’re often not staged and are of a different ethos than the activities that take place where you and I are right now.

        I think we could argue that there is something in the way Uyghurs are socialized that does lead to a “stage-oriented” (or stage-like) mentality. We like to all roll our eyes at the trope about Uyghurs and other minzu-s as “能歌善舞,” but the fact does remain that Uyghurs are socialized from a very young age to perform song and dance. They don’t necessarily do it on stage, but they *are* taught to be very comfortable getting up and performing, and a vast majority of them are at least a notch above decent at it. Dance and song are central parts of almost all ceremonies and rites-of-passage–which Uyghurs attend with great frequency because their social networks are so huge–and they’re seen as activities which never warrant being embarrassed about. Uyghurs are also, on the whole, warm and gregarious, much more open and talkative than, say, Hans tend to be (at least in my experience), and I think all of this–along with the point I made earlier about oral/aural tradition–contributes to why Uyghurs are “so good at learning English.” It’s not just English–it’s a lot of things.

        I’m preaching to a choir here, I know, but I think there are a lot of interesting factors that contribute to the question at hand. Look forward to reading the diss of the anthropologist you mentioned (I know who she is), as well as work being done by at least several other people exploring the same topic.

    5. Beige Wind

      I’m referring to what you are discussing in the second paragraph above — the way a “stage-orientation” is inculcated in Uyghur society — not the number of performances that happen in Urumchi etc. I’m talking about the propensity of people to want to perform for an audience (which could be a group of friends or classmates or a more formal setting) by telling a joke, singing a song, dancing or giving a speech. It seems to me (the anthropologist Cindy Huang also discusses this in her dissertation) that there is a greater number of Uyghurs with a propensity toward “one-to-many” performative modes rather than “one-on-one” styles of communicating in semi-formal and formal settings then you would find in most Western societies and Han societies. Maybe this is tied to ideas regarding “talent” and what it means to be a well-rounded member of society; maybe it has something to do with the centrality of oral tradition in Uyghur education (as you mentioned above); it might also have something to do with the way certain arts were cultivated and other arts (and sciences) were devalued over the past 65 years.

      The art of poetry recitation and how it builds “quality” in Han children is something Ann Anagnost has written about in her research in Nanjing (others have written about this as well), so it might be interesting to think about the influence of the Chinese education as well. The form of an English speaking competition and the way it is often related to the memorization of texts seems to be pretty uniquely Chinese (I think).

      The value and meaning Uyghurs attach to performance is extremely fascinating. I’m excited to see what kind of scholarship will come out of this field of study over the next few years.

      • Insanshunas

        Thanks for the clarification. Because what I’m researching and studying has so much to do with “the stage” as an important watershed “moment” and concept, it tends to be in the forefront of my mind.

        I think the issue at hand has a lot to do with all the things you mention at the end of the first paragraph in this comment. You make an Interesting point about poetry recitation, Han culture, and education. I think there’s got to be something there–but we also mustn’t forget the Central Asian educational and social tradition of poetry memorization and recitation as a possible force in this, as well. Uzbeks and Tajiks I know well in the US have told me some great stories about the importance in their societies of being able to recite poetry in everyday situations, and even of some painful stories of failing college poetry courses because they messed up one line in their recitation final exam. And I’ll never forget an experience this May, in which the proprieter of a soft-serve ice cream empire in southern Xinjiang spent more than half of our car ride from Kashgar city to the airport reciting to me, from memory, the opening section of Adil Tuniyaz’s “Qäshqär yär shari.” Obviously the centrality of Uyghur-language poetry is changing in the contemporary context: educational policy and practice, the growing Uyghur-language illiteracy of minkaohan Uyghur children, the obsession with learning Chinese and English *over* learning Uyghur, and the like are all actively shaping and changing how Uyghurs use and interact with the language, and that of course affects how people do or don’t interact with poetic, fiction, and other forms (like maqal-tämsil, idi’om, tepishmaq, etc.). But the historical forces seem very much to be there.

        I do agree that English-speaking competitions seem to be a pretty Han/Chinese phenomenon, though. I must admit to not having looked into it, but I have a feeling that they don’t happen too many other places in the world, or at least not with the same drive and competitiveness.

    6. Beige Wind

      What you say about song and dance as a major part of frequently attended life-cycle events is huge part of this as well. It is nearly impossible to grow up in Uyghur society and not learn how to dance. I’m not sure that this fully explains the desire to be on “center stage” though. Maybe the form of performances at an olturush (sitting) or tea circle is an even stronger influence when it comes to the “one-to-many” mode of performance?

      • Insanshunas

        I’m not sure–I actually think that the “one-to-many” mode of performance might be stronger at weddings than it is at other kinds of social events. Since starting to play dutar and sing muqam, I’ve performed both kinds of music (along with Uyghur dance and various types of Western music) at both weddings and at chay-s (and recently as a last-minute guest to an olturash at a restaurant by my apartment), and I think that weddings have been far and away the more performance oriented and stage-like context.

        Intimate social gatherings such as olturash/olturush and chay-s are an important influence, of course–I’m thinking and writing a lot about them, myself, as is another Western ethnomusicologist working on his Ph.D. on Uyghur music. I think that weddings (and other kinds of toy-s) are still more fundamental in the artistic-social/stage development of young people, though, than are the olturash and chay, as the latter gatherings are the domain of adults who are of the same age and gender. The proverb “aka bar yerde ini yoq, acha bar yerde singil yoq” [the younger brother goes not where his older brother goes, the younger sister goes not where her older sister goes] speaks nicely to this: perdishep, or the conceptual distance or ‘curtain’ that is supposed to exist between people in all kinds of relationships, must not be violated in intimate social gatherings, and so people are not going to be participating in them until they get much older and have a group of friends with whom to gather. (And the proverb itself is still separated into gendered groupings, speaking to that element of male/female separation as well!) But weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and even meshrep (where and when it’s still taking place)–these are inclusive events that cross the lines of gender and age groups: though men and women generally sit on separate sides of the wedding hall, there are sometimes mixed tables, and the dance floor and stage are mixed as well. Everyone grows up attending and being socialized at these events.

        • Beige Wind

          I guess I was mostly thinking about the sort of gatherings which replace role of meshrep in shaping the lives of young people. I was mostly thinking abut parties where I have seen teenagers take turns performing for a group. But you might be right — life-cycle events might be more formative. Sounds like you have been to more of them than I have … and you are the one getting the PhD in ethnomusicology, I’m just a cultural anthropologist with a thing for music. :)

    7. Tom

      Hi I found your discussion really interesting. I have another theory which is based on my having lived a long time in Mongolia. First let me state that Mongolian and the Turkish languages do have fundamentally the same grammar.Which is one of the reason why they are commonly included in one namely the Altaic language group. Why that is the case is a hotly debated subject among linguists. (Genetic relation vs. language osmosis through proximity). Uyghur and Mongolian are therefore very comparable.
      Now it so happens that every foreigner marvels at the abilty of Mongolians not only to learn English but also any other European language. Maybe the ability is not greater than that of Europeans but it is definately by many degrees greater than that of East Asians and especially Japanese and Chinese.
      I have thought about it and discussed it with other “western” foreigners. Interestingly it never came up that Mongolians like to dance or to recite poetry. The first one because dancing hardly plays a role in traditional Mongolian culture and the second one as never striking us as relevant. Nor did anyone ever contrast the liking of “peformance” of Mongolians to the reticent behavior of other East Asians.
      Instead I (and others) believe the solution has to do with a fundamental diffences in the languages as such and how one learns them. To the funadmental difference as such: Mongolian (and the Turkish) languages have something that is recognizable as “grammar” to a European. That is not do say that Chinese doesn´t have “grammar”. It is just that “grammar” in the way that it was defined by the Greeks more than 2000 years ago and which underpin all Indoeuropean languages can be discerned in the Altaic languages as well. Things like conjugation and declination, participles at al.
      And then the fact of having “structure / grammar” as such is important. Even though the structure is very different. But at least there is structure. In Chinese word order rules supreme, structure is much less important and the words are never changed at all.
      All that constitutes a first barrier for Chinese compared to Uyghurs or Mongolians. The second barrier has to do with the way language is taught. And that is due to the fact that grammar is much less important. To build a sentence in an Altaic language you must absolutely understand and learn the grammar. The words are like so many building blocks which can be changed and combined almost at will as long as you know the rules. Again much like in any European languages.
      In Chinese the grammar is much less important. That makes the language deceptively easy when you start. But if you want to become literate and fluent you must learn, learn and learn. A lot of the meaning that is conveyed by grammar in other languages must be expressed either by word order or by adding another word. Not to forget Chinese specialities like the tetralogues which have no real equivalent neither in the Indoeuropean nor the Altaic language groups.
      The very fact that Chinese is so “analytical” (that is without change in the word itself) enabled it to be written in hieroglyphs. Which gave rise to rote learning as the preferred method of language teaching and the often remarked upon phenomen that Chinese or Japanese will learn any number of words to an extent which is simply astonishing but are then utterly unable to string a sentence together. Whereas Mongolians (and maybe Uyghurs) are generally not as hard working but will be able to communicate very quickly. I wonder what you think

      • Insanshunas

        Interesting comment. There must certainly be grammatical and other linguistic explanations for the ease with which Uyghurs (and, per your example, Mongolians) learn English, but since linguistics is not my field of study I don’t necessarily feel qualified to put forth any linguistics-generated theories about this phenomenon. One question, though: Japanese, per my understanding, shares a fundamentally similar grammar to the Turkic (not Turkish, FYI) languages. In your view, does the writing system alone disqualify Japanese speakers from being able to learn English as well as Mongolians and Turkic-language speakers?

        I’ll try to restrain myself here, but I have to admit that I find it fairly insulting that you seem to dismiss my observations as being silly (that’s my interpretation, at least–I could be misreading). I’m PhD student researching music and folklore, and I have a long background in music and other forms of stage performance. I’m a fluent speaker of Uyghur who has spent nearly three years living in Uyghur Xinjiang (fair bit of time interacting with and conducting research on various aspects of contemporary Uyghur society), and I’ve thought–and, even more importantly, talked with Uyghurs–a lot about the issues I brought up in my posts.

        My point was not that Uyghurs like music and dance and poetry; ergo they are good at English. Instead, my point was that I think that some of the same performative impulses that form a bedrock for music and dance and poetry (and, VERY IMPORTANTLY, for the willingness of people to get up and do them in front of others) also form a bedrock for language acquisition and for the relative confidence of learners to attempt communicating. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, after all my time spent in China, that Uyghurs are much, much, much more willing to attempt to communicate in English than are Hans. While linguistics as a discipline can undoubtedly offer some explanations for that, we would be remiss to ignore the fact that there are *also* social phenomena that shape how these very different groups of people, who speak very different languages, interact with this language that is foreign to them.

        My point might have gotten mired in the amount of detail I was trying to include in earlier posts, fair enough. Here’s another version of the ideas I was working out: Uyghurs (in stark contrast to Hans) grow up in an environment in which they are socialized to be outgoing, talkative, and performative. (They also grow up with siblings, whereas most Hans don’t.) Moreover, Uyghurs are heir to strong oral traditions of poetry recitation, music, and folklore (in contrast to the broadly writing-focused traditions of the Hans), and aural learning continues to be the most important mode of education for many people. These things *must* (they simply can’t *not* in my mind) be part of why many Uyghurs who have studied English for three years by taking a short-term night course and then watching movies can speak English five times better than many Hans who have learned the language from elementary school through college.

        There are many reasons for the phenomenon we’re discussing here. Linguistics alone does not explain it.


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