I'm thinking about learning Chinese for the future possibilities of the terrain work of linguistic anthropologist now. Don't you anyone have any views on the potential possibility of usage Chinese in thi manner? Or do the Chinese minorities take Chinese as a foreign language?
Note that China has fifty-something officially recognised ethnic minority groups and it's impossible to say anything about "Chinese minorities in general".
Let me summarise my experiences from several months of travel in Zhejiang, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang. I don't know how generalisable they are, but they should give you some idea about differences between groups.
- Hui. This is a minority group that doesn't have its own language, and a variety of Chinese is their native language. Most Hui people are Muslim, and therefore many of them learn Arabic to some degree, but it is clearly a foreign language for them.
- Xibo. A small minority group in Xinjiang, stemming from Manchurians. In the case of the Xibo man I met, Mandarin seemed to be his second native language, and he was fully proficient in it. He was also fully proficient in the Xibo language, which included reading and writing its Mongolian-based vertical script.
- Naxi. A minority group in Yunnan. As far as I could tell, they speak Mandarin very well, perhaps on a near-native level. Note that Naxi has an interesting writing system but the Naxi people I met could not read or write it, even though they spoke the Naxi language.
- Uyghurs. Unlike Hui and Xibo, they don't speak Chinese as their native language. Most Uyghurs in Urumqi speak conversational Chinese, and some speak it extremely well. On the other hand, in Kashgar, a town with Uyghur majority, it's quite easy to find people who can't speak Chinese or can speak very little. In general, the greatest differences in Mandarin proficiency that I've met were among Uyghurs.
- Kyrgyzs, Mongols. All members of these minorities I met spoke Mandarin well, even though it was clear that they spoke it as a foreign language.
- Tajiks. Even Tajiks who lived in Tashkurgan, a remote town near the Pakistani border, spoke good Mandarin. Fun fact: Chinese Tajiks don't have their own writing system, and generally write Uyghur and/or Chinese. They are therefore often trilingual, and know three completely unrelated languages: Tajik (Indo-European language family), Uyghur (Turkic language family) and Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan langauge family).
- Tibetans. I met a Tibetan nomadic family on the Gansu/Sichuan border, and the mother didn't speak Chinese at all. Her 7-year-old son, however, spoke perfect Mandarin.
- Han Chinese. It's not a minority group, but it's worth noting that while the great majority of Han Chinese speak Mandarin as either first or second native language, there are some who only speak the local Chinese dialect and know little Mandarin. For example, in a small town in Zhejiang I again experienced the situation where the daughter spoke perfect Mandarin (she was, in fact, my Mandarin teacher), but I couldn't directly communicate with her mother, who only spoke Wu. In PRC such situations seem to take place in smaller towns and villages, with people from older generations. In Hong Kong, however, there are many people from all social backgrounds and generations who can't speak much Mandarin.