Bvzenap Ahemet, 19, a Uygur girl from the far western region of Xinjiang, is glad her efforts to learn Mandarin have paid off.
Four months after being employed by Shangyi Clothing in February in Hotan Prefecture, she was promoted to workshop supervisor and translator for the general manager as her Mandarin is far better than her coworkers.
Thanks to a government scholarship, Bvzenap gained a place at a senior high school in the coastal city of Qingdao in September 2013.
Unfortunately, she had to drop out of school a year later as her mother fell ill and needed to be taken care of.
"Mandarin made me employable even though I didn't finish school," she said, adding that she would like to return to education one day.
China has 56 ethnic groups. The majority group is the Han, and Mandarin the official and most widely used language. In Xinjiang, however, many lack even basic Mandarin, which not only means they are at a disadvantage in the job market, but this language barrier is also impeding economic development in the region.
"Efficiency is a top priority in a market economy while Mandarin, the most commonly used language in China, is a basic necessity for employees," said Huang Xing, director of the Institute for Chinese Ethnic Minority Languages under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Wang Ping, general manager of a glove company in Kashgar Prefecture, offers a three-month Mandarin course to her 2,000-plus Uygur employees.
"The biggest problems are the language and working efficiency," said Wang, adding that her other factory in east China's Shandong Province can produce eight times more gloves than her Xinjiang plant.
The Xinjiang plant can only become profitable by becoming more efficient and language is the key, said Wang, adding that Xinjiang's position as the gateway to middle and western Asia, and beyond, means that she is determined to stay.
As the central and regional governments have invested heavily in bilingual education, Wang is confident about the future.
In northwest China, which is home to more than 22 million people of 47 ethnicities, Xinjiang now produces about 60 percent of China's raw cotton. The majority of textile companies, however, are in the eastern coastal areas, far from Xinjiang.
The regional government is hopeful that textile companies will relocate from the east, and solve its long-lasting employment problems.
Hidden unemployment in rural areas in southern Xinjiang is high due to the rapid growth of the population, barren land and fewer enterprises.
PROMOTION OF MANDARIN
As part of efforts to address poverty and boost economic growth, Xinjiang began to use Mandarin as an instruction language in schools from 2004.
In the past, most classes were taught in minority languages and Mandarin was taught as a subject with one class each day. Few students can speak Mandarin as there is little chance for them to use it after class, especially in rural areas.
There are currently two types of bilingual education in Xinjiang. One requires math, physics, chemistry and biology to be taught in Mandarin. The other requires all subjects to be taught in Mandarin except music, art and PE. Minority languages, including Uygur and Kazak, are compulsory.
A central work conference on Xinjiang in 2010 made bilingual education a national strategy to boost regional development.
By the end of 2014, more than 2 million ethnic minority students (kindergarten, primary and middle schools) are receiving bilingual education, accounting for 75 percent of all students, up 102 percent from in 2009, according to the regional education department.
Progress is more prominent in cities and less encouraging in rural areas in southern Xinjiang.
In Urumqi, the regional capital, the government has invested more than 6 billion yuan (943 million U.S. dollars) in bilingual education since 2010. All schools use bilingual instruction in class in Urumqi, according to a statement from the municipal education bureau.
In Hotan Prefecture in southern Xinjiang, however, where 97 percent of its 2 million population are Uygurs, only 52 percent of students are enjoying bilingual education, according to the prefecture education bureau.
Hanikiz Jilil, 12, a grade-six student in Tusara Township Primary School in Hotan Prefecture, blushed when she was asked about her age and dreams by a Xinhua reporter, as she could not answer in Mandarin.
"None of these kids speak Mandarin when they go home," said Tursungul Memtimin, 42, a doctor from Hotan hospital, whose 16-year-old son attends senior high school in east China's Shandong Province.
A lack of bilingual teachers is also affecting the students' proficiency of Mandarin. Xinjiang has a shortage of more than 30,000 teachers proficient in both Mandarin and one local language, according to the regional education department.
Among 4,300 teachers in Hotan City, Hotan Prefecture, only 30 percent are bilingual, said Xu Hui, head of the municipal education bureau.
The regional government has approved 254 million yuan for a program from 2013 to 2018 to provide language training for ethnic minority teachers to make up for the shortage in the region.
It will take times for bilingual education to progress in Hotan, where 97 percent of the population are ethnic Uygurs, said Xu, adding that language instruction cannot be rushed.
To lift themselves out of poverty, however, locals in Hotan must learn the Mandarin, said Xu.
"Mandarin is a force of productivity," said Xu.
NEXT GENERATION TALENTS
As part of measures to boost Mandarin education and attract more talent to Xinjiang, the government established the Xinjiang Class in 2000, a program that funds junior middle school-aged students from Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uygurs, and sends them to cities throughout eastern China, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Currently 37,000 students from Xinjiang are studying in 93 schools in 45 cities in east China. More than 95 percent of the 43,000 students in the program went on to attend university and returned to work in Xinjiang between 2004 and 2015, according to the regional education department.
Jufargul Nurkehan was among the 9,122 Xinjiang students who in 2013 was selected to study in east China.
The 17-year-old Kazak girl from Urumqi County, who is studying at Beijing No.10 Middle School with about 300 of her peers from Xinjiang, is determined to go back to Xinjiang.
"I don't want the inland people to treat Xinjiang as a backward region where people still ride horses to school and where there are terrorists," said Jufargul, who wishes to go to the prestigious Peking University to study public administration.
"I want to change their prejudice and make my own contribution to building a modern Xinjiang," said Jufargul, who is currently the president of the Xinjiang Class Student Union at the school.