Learning Classical Tibetan

For the past three weeks I have been studying under a new Tibetan teacher, Lowell, who is American and is the fiancé of one of my good friends here. He has studied Tibetan for a long time and often teaches at the Ranjung Yeshi Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal. He has been super gracious to Veronika and I, by offering to give us private lessons to study literary Tibetan. He says that if we are able to complete this first book before he heads to Nepal for a few months, we should be able to read most Tibetan sentences and be able to identify most parts of a sentence. One of the advantages of learning literary Tibetan is that it can help see the differences between the dialects and actually for learning Amdo Tibetan, literary Tibetan can be quite helpful as Amdo Tibetans produce more sounds in their dialect than Lhasa Tibetans do. One of the cool things about having him as a teacher is that as a learner of the language he also understands a lot of the questions I ask. I have had many Tibetan tutors for Tibetan and sometimes when I ask a question it is just the way it is, no explanation needed. Which explaining English is the same for Native speakers.  Native speakers of their own language sometimes can be great teachers, but may not here some of the slight changes that seem obvious to foreign ears, but similar to native ears. One thing I like is that our teacher is always learning, and every time he teaches new students he learns something else he didn’t notice before about the Tibetan language.

I remember this when I was teaching the basics of Korean to several friends and each time I did it, I realized I learned something new, or the foundation of the language had been cemented stronger in my brain. Either way, helping someone learn the basics of the language if you are an intermediate or advanced speaker is a good way for you to review as well. 

Our Tibetan lessons introduce the basics of a Tibetan sentence to us, chapter by chapter and little by little. One of the slight hurdles for me is that there is a lot of Buddhist language in this textbook. Which makes sense based on the school it came from and how Buddhism has a strong influence on Tibetan culture. For me, I am learning that I may need to start researching some of the Buddhist terms separately to understand them as the names are transliterated from Sanskrit and I don’t know what they mean. I don’t want to burden anyone with asking what something is, so I know it is up to me to put in the effort to learn what I don’t know.

Our class is nice because it is for an hour and a half to two hours once a week. We get to read through the chapter together, review our homework and practice reading the text. Our teacher learned the Central dialect first and now speaks the Amdo dialect. So luckily for me, I am able to here things being read in different ways and dialects, and I am able to hear the differences. One of the main things about studying is that we really need to dedicate a few hours each week to it, so Veronika and I have met once or twice each week to get some studying done or to work on our homework together. Working together helps to bounce ideas off of each other and to see which is the right translation. Veronika also studied linguistics so many of the linguistic terms in the book she helps simplify and explain for me, because sometimes I just don’t get it.

Homemade Chai during our lessonLearning literary Tibetan on Thursdays is a lot of fun. We also have a Tibetan tutor we meet up with from Ngawa, when we all have time to read through the text together. He helps teach us how to spell the words out, and how to correctly read the word aloud. There are a lot more sounds when reading a text than in spoken Tibetan it seems. He also has very good knowledge of the Tibetan language and is always teaching us cool little tidbits of information on the differences between written and spoken Amdo Tibetan. Which it is always awesome to have a native speakers insight and I am always thankful for his support of us, and we help to converse with him in English so that he can practice the English he knows. 

I still want to speak Tibetan faster, but I realize it is only going to develop as fast as I put in the effort and start speaking myself, haha. Which I guess means I have to start asking people, how do I say this? Is this the same in written and spoken Tibetan? Or I can just have fun with it and make mistakes as I go…which is most likely the better answer.

I feel really privileged to be learning Tibetan, thanks to the help of everyone who has taken the time to help me read and spell the Tibetan alphabet, to explaining words and sounds, teaching me new phrases, or understanding the basics of Tibetan grammar. During my pursuit of trying to learn the language on my own I have acquired a lot of resources. One of the coolest things about learning literary Tibetan is after all these years of hearing key phrases and words I used to recognize my Tibetan friends say, I can now see their written form. I could have learned so much more if I hadn’t been lazy, but better late than never and I am glad that I can finally learn this beautiful language that has been around me for the last two decades. 

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. You know what I am going to say…. just say it! The only way to learn is to make mistakes. Nice work!

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