What Makes Tibetan an Exciting Language to Learn?

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One might ask, why learn a surprisingly difficult language spoken by only a couple million people? And especially, why learn a technical medieval variant of this language that basically nobody speaks and Tibetans study for decades to earn degrees to understand?

Before we speak about why one might learn Tibetan, let’s look at what makes it challenging.

First, the alphabet and spelling are fascinating. Obviously, it’s a totally different alphabet from English. Just learning to associate approximately correct sounds to the consonants is a bear (and then later you have to learn to unlearn the approximate sounds you learned and learn to pronounce the consonants more like actual Tibetans pronounce them). Most of the first couple of years are spent learning the consonants and their sounds–while at the same time learning the Wylie transliteration scheme, and then learning to forget the confusing Wylie transliteration scheme because while helpful, it’s phonetically misleading.

But what’s really confusing (and fun once you get it) about Tibetan is that the ligatures use a complex grouping of subscripts, superscripts, prefixes, suffixes, and secondary suffixes to create consonant clusters that represent a sound. Each sound is a mix of tonality, aspiration, vowel, and consonant, so it’s multidimensional. In fact, this system is so complex and replete with silent symbols that this video on youtube.com claims it’s the hardest language in the world to spell.

Second, it’s tonal. This doesn’t matter so much when reading and writing it. But for speaking and understanding, it’s vital.

Third, it’s largely monosyllabic. Many Tibetan words are monosyllabic. Predictable, there are an incredible number of homophones. Worse, in spoken Tibetan, it’s common to not pronounce suffix consonants, so there’s even less to go on. And remember that spelling isn’t easy to remember. According to one study, Western Tibetan scholars have spent 70% of their time with Tibetans asking them to spell things they’ve said so that they can understand them.

Fourth, there are four different scripts in common use.

Fifth, for an English speaker, the sentence structure is almost entirely reversed. It’s kind of amazing how backwards everything is from English–except when it’s not, of course.

Sixth, there’s no punctuation. Well, there are a couple punctuation marks, but they don’t really use them consistently, so they can’t be trusted. Traditional Tibetan script is like Sanskrit–a whole bunch of syllables run together. There are no periods, no commas, no dashes, no capital letters. Even recognizing names is challenging since most Tibetan names translate into Tibetan words or phrases.

Seventh, the various articles in the language seem to have a dizzying array of possible and contradictory uses. The article ཀྱང་, for example, can mean anything from and, or, but, however, even, then, although, of course, and pizza. Not pizza, really. But you get my point. When you see a kyang (<– that’s Wylie transliteration), it’s a bit like life–you definitely know something is happening, but you have no idea what. The whole language is like that. Super contextual. Articles might be conjunctive. They might be disjunctive. They might be a word. Who knows?

Eight, most of the classical Tibetan books were originally woodblock carvings. Because of this, and because they were meant to be memorized, they are terse and highly abbreviated.

Ninth, there isn’t really a definitive, searchable dictionary available online. Strange as it seems, it’s not a trivial question to ask how to say a word in Tibetan. You can’t always look it up. Partly this is because of a lack of resources. Partly its because Tibetan seems to have lots of dialects with many variants of spellings and meanings.

OK. So, got it. It’s an exciting language to learn.

So why learn it?

I’m learning it for the fame and fortune. I don’t know about you.

Of course, that’s not a valid motivation for learning Tibetan. Whatever fame and fortunate one might get from learning Tibetan, another great reason to learn Tibetan is that by learning it you are sticking it to the man. And by “the man” in this case, I mean the horribly oppressive corporate-communist state of China that is conducting cultural genocide against Tibetans.

In 1949 China invaded Tibet, “liberating” it by bombing over 6000 monasteries, destroying the sacred buildings along with priceless holy relics, some of which were thousands of years old and dated back to Buddhist India. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans fled Chinese occupation by walking over the Himalayas, hiking for 20 or 30 days across the highest mountains in the world carrying little more than a few articles of clothing, a bag full of roasted barley flour, and whatever belongings they could grab and carry. In the last decade, around 150 Tibetans have self-immolated–set themselves on fire–as a form of protest against the occupation. Over the past 60 years of Chinese occupation, it is estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by various causes due to the occupation. Radio Free Asia estimated that 200,000 Tibetans went missing during this same time. To put those numbers in context, it is important to realize that today the estimated total population of Tibetans is a little more than 6 million.

Beyond the brutal occupation, there is also an on-going cultural genocide. In many regions in Tibet, the Chinese government is trying to eradicat the Tibetan language. The schools in Tibet are often required to teach in Chinese instead of Tibetan, meaning that for some Tibetans their native language is becoming a second language. While China has to some degree allowed more practice of Buddhism in Tibet, the state still maintains a tight grip on how it is practiced and how many monastics are allowed. Freedom of press and free practice of religion do not exist.

By learning and studying the Tibetan language, you are helping the Tibetan people maintain and cherish their heritage.

They have an amazing heritage. Around 500 AD, a loose collection of war-loving tribal nomads that lived in the high mountain plains around the Himalayas discovered Buddhism. Under the leadership of Dharma King Songtsen Gampo (approx. 569 – 649 AD), temples and monasteries were constructed around the country. King Songtsen Gampo also sent a collection of advisors to India to translate Buddhist texts and bring them back to Tibet.

These advisors faced many, many challenges. They needed to cross the Himalayas, braving winter storms and bandits. Once in India, they had to survive a hot, tropical climate and face diseases such as malaria. But the biggest challenge of all was that at that time Tibet did not have a written script into which the Sanskrit texts could be translated. This challenge, however, came with some profound benefits.

The written form of classical Tibetan was literally created to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit. While it does not retain all of the grammatical complexity of the original Sanskrit, because it was purpose-made for the job, it does a remarkable job of preserving the works of the great Nalanda tradition. In several transmissions, over the course of hundreds of years, Tibetan scholars translated and re-translated and refined their translations. Tibetan Buddhism is unique in the world in that it is the only tradition to have received a transmission of all three vehicles of Buddhism: Hearers’ Vehicle, Bodhisattva Vehicle, and Vajrayana Vehicle (this is a bit of a loaded claim that I don’t have time to unpack or apologize for here except to acknowledge the complexity of it).

Even more beautifully, the Tibetans didn’t sit idly on these texts. Over literally thousands of years, they listened, contemplated, and meditated, generating realizations and profound wisdom. This wisdom is reflected in an incredibly rich, layered system of commentaries and commentaries on commentaries and commentaries on commentaries on commentaries. They have also developed a system of textbooks for teaching Buddhist ideas. And while some systematization has occurred, in many ways, the Tibetans embraced multiple perspectives. Different monasteries and different schools within monasteries all have their own textbooks and commentarial tradition. At its best, this system of difference is used in debate as a pedagogical tool, using the differences to challenge students to think about the Buddhist ideas, internalize them, and make them their own. Of course, it has not always been so rosy and there certainly has been a fair amount of parochialism and suppression of unfavored beliefs, sometimes with political motivations.

The point of all this, and what I found stunning when I first understood it while studying Maitripa, is that only a tiny percent of all of this scholarship has been translated. Very, very little of this is available in English. Further, much of what has been translated was translated by early pioneers of Tibetan-English translation and often their understanding of the concepts was not mature.

Even if you study Tibetan and you do not get to the point where you can read classic texts or listen to a Geshe give a talk in Tibetan, there is still incredible value. I learned an incredible amount in my Tibetan class from Dr. William Magee as he lectured about the trade-offs in translations for different Buddhist terms. Take a term like “renunciation” (ངེས་པར་འབྱུང་བ་, nges par ‘byung ba). In English, this term reeks of Christianity, guilt, sin, and suffering. It is utterly wrapped up in the western Christian psyhcology. It also does a horrible job of communicating the actual Tibetan understanding of the word. UMA Tibet prefers the translation equivalents, “difinite emergence” or “the conviction defiitely to emerge [from cyclic existence].” It is an expression of self-compassion, turning toward happiness and away from ignorance and suffering. It is not a deprivation–and certainly not a pentance or

Even if you study Tibetan and you do not get to the point where you can read classic texts or listen to a Geshe give a talk in Tibetan, there is still incredible value. I learned an incredible amount in my Tibetan class from Dr. William Magee as he lectured about the trade-offs in translations for different Buddhist terms. Take a term like “renunciation” (ངེས་པར་འབྱུང་བ་, nges par ‘byung ba). In English, this term reeks of Christianity, guilt, sin, and suffering. It is utterly wrapped up in western Christian psychology. It also does a horrible job of communicating the actual Tibetan understanding of the word. UMA Tibet prefers the translation equivalents, “definite emergence” or “the conviction definitely to emerge [from cyclic existence].” It is an expression of self-compassion, turning toward happiness and away from ignorance and suffering. It is not a deprivation–and certainly not a penance or repentance.

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So, to review.

Learning Tibetan is exciting, fun, and challenging. Some punctuation would go a long way toward making the language easier to understand. However, by learning it, you are supporting a people that have spent the last 1500 years preserving and expanding one of the most profound thought systems humanity has ever conceived. You also get to stick it to the man in the process. And you may gain access to an incredibly rich tradition of thought, the full depths of which most of the western world has barely glimpsed.

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Andrew Hughes

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By Andrew Hughes