By Ngawang Choechen
Cary, North Carolina
Can Tibetan language be a soft political power? Recently, serious questions have been raised concerning the survival of the Tibetan language. From a negative standpoint, there appears to be a danger of losing the Tibetan language altogether. The Chinese communist government is attempting to eliminate the Tibetan language in Tibet. On the other hand, they are promoting their language globally as a soft political power. Many Tibetans, both in Tibet and in exile, are also to blame for the demise of the Tibetan language. They don't realize the danger of losing their language and are carelessly working toward that end. From a positive standpoint, there appears to be efforts made in several areas to preserve and promote the Tibetan language and I believe there will be an occasion when the Tibetan language can be used as soft political power to counter the Chinese government evil design if a concerted effort is made from all concerned.
First it becomes relevant to discuss this ancient language in some detail. The Tibetan language is spoken in all three provinces of Tibet including U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo which has an area around six times that of England. There are certain dialects within Tibet which are different from region to region. The written form of the language is the same in all three provinces. The Tibetan language is also used in the Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, etc. with their own names in various regions, such as Zongkha in Bhutan and Bodhi in Ladakh. Other regions using the Tibetan language include Zanskar, Lahaul-Spiti, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, etc. in India. Most of the northern areas of the Huimalayan region in Nepal such as Walung, Solo Khumbu, Yolmo, Lho Manthang, Nyeshang, Limi, Humla, Jumla, etc. speak Tibetan with strong local dialects. The northern region of Bhutan also speak Tibetan. Some parts of northern Pakistan, such as Baltistan, and the northern part of Burma also speak Tibetan. It is thus estimated that over eight million people of the world currently speak the Tibetan language.
Several sources indicate that the spoken Tibetan language has existed for thousands of years. Some scholars believe that a written form of the language existed during the Zhang Zhung Empire's rule of North Western Tibet in the seventh century before the modern Tibetan scripts were created. However, it has been confirmed that the present form of the written language was devised during the rule of Tibet's greatest King Songtsen Gampo. The King sent several highly intelligent youth, including a talented young man by the name of Thumi or Thonmi Sambhota, to India to study Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Pali. Many died during the journey t to India due to great heat and wild animals. Thumi Sambhota survived the trip and was able to study Indian languages with some great Indian teachers before returning to Tibet. Thumi created 30 Tibetan consonants and four vowels based on the Indian alphabets and vowels. Based on a dream that he had, Thumi created 24 of the 30 consonants on the Indian characters and added six characters necessary for Tibetan pronunciation. He then devised four necessary vowels from the existing sixteen Indian vowels. He also made other necessary letters needed for Sanskrit pronunciation in Buddhist Mantras (Ngagyik). There are various other letters used o such things as prayer wheels, scriptures and rock carvings just to name a few. I am not an expert about all these scripts. But for practical purposes, we have two scripts, namely U-chen (with heads) and U-me (without heads). It is believed that Thumi wrote eight treaties or grammar books and that only two of those have survived; Sumchupa (grammar) and Tagjug (phonics).
In ancient Tibet, the Tibetan language was used mainly for translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan. However, the common folk of Tibet used the written language for many purposes including record keeping, contracts, correspondence, story writing and composing songs.
One of the main reasons Tibetans pay little attention to the language after the Chinese occupation of Tibet is that they fear very little reward on the employment front. This is particularly true in the Chinese occupied territory where the Chinese language is mandatory in order to apply for a job. Even in exile, many Tibetan people think that the study of English will provide more employment opportunities, especially when they must rely on their host country for such employment. Students wanting to join the Central University for Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, The Institue of Buddhist Dialectics, Dharamsala and College for Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarah and other Tibetan language/culture related institutes in India for degrees in higher learning have been encouraged by family members to study the English language instead of Tibetan. Several wealthy Tibetan parents choose to send their children to English medium private schools in India and Nepal that require the payment of exodus fees preventing the opportunity to study the Tibetan language.
Because of lack of consistent encouragements from families, relatives, community leaders in the study of the Tibetan language, younger generations are unaware of the prospects that this language can provide. In fact, there are plenty of prospects especially for the Tibetans living in free world. Numerous Tibetan schools, including the universities, colleges and monasteries in India and Nepal, are in constant need of Tibetan language instructors. Anyone wishing to pursue Tibetan medicine in the Department of Tibetan Medical Astrology in Dhamramsala, India and elsewhere must have mastered the Tibetan language. Those wishing to study Tibetan Buddhism in monastic universities in India, Nepal and Bhutan must also have mastered the Tibetan language. Those wishing to work in radio broadcasting corporations in India (All India Radio), the United States (Voice of America and Radio Free Asia), Voice of Tibet, Norway, and Kunleng (Bhutan) need proficiency in both the spoken and written Tibetan language. Students applying for the prestigious Full Bright Scholarship in the United States or for a career in the Central Tibetan Administration must pass a written Tibetan language test.
Tibetan Buddhism is spreading rapidly in many western countries. As a result, the Tibetan language is being studied in those countries. Several western universities have included the study of the Tibetan language, culture and religion in their curriculum. Today, there are many great western scholars such as Prof. Robert Thurman. There are other great westerners who are great Tibetan language translators for the Tibetan Lamas. Recently, Geshe Kalsang Wangmo who was the first ever western woman to obtain a Geshe Degree in Tibetan, which is equivalent to Ph.D or even higher visited the local Tibetan Buddhist Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. After a study of Tibetan language and Buddhism for over 17 year study, she has become fluent in the Tibetan language and Buddhism. There was once a Buddhist teaching in Greenville, North Carolina. The Tibetan teacher was speaking strong Kham dialect. The translator was a young westerner who was fluent in the Kham dialect. Finding a great translator in this dialect with such ease is typically very difficult, even in the Tibetan community. I have been invited by a few Dharma centers in the United States to translate for the Tibetan Buddhist teachers, specifically in Kansas City, Maryland and Florida. One time I was in front of a large gathering and having difficulty finding the correct English words for certain Tibetan Buddhist terms. An American in the audience was providing the correct terminology for me. Many courts in the west are constantly looking for Tibetan speaking interpreters, and I have made myself available for those opportunities on several occasions. I believe those who wish to pursue a career in the Tibetan performing arts through the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala must also be knowledgeable of the Tibetan language. Thus the importance of the Tibetan language is ever increasing.
When I was a school principal in Nepal in the 1990's, I organized a seminar on the importance of the Tibetan language. I invited Tibetan language experts, Tibetan language teachers, members of Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), Tibetan Women's Association (TWA), and a representative from the Office of Tibet. Each participant was given 10 minutes to present his/her viewpoints regarding the importance and usefulness of the Tibetan language. The participants provided the audience with their far-sighted views and I believe the seminar was a great success.
Many organizations, such as the TYC, TWA, Tibetan Associations and the Tibetan schools are putting forth their best efforts in preserving and promoting the Tibetan language. They do this partially by creating bilingual magazines and newsletters. Many Tibetan associations in the west have been arranging Sunday classes using the Tibetan language, despite facing numerous hardships such as a lack of classrooms, appropriate teachers, transportation, and creating parent and student interest.
Members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala have been producing plays for the preservation and promotion of the Tibetan language. Many other Tibetans are composing and singing Tibetan songs. Many westerners sing Tibetan songs as well. Recently, videos on You Tube showed members of the Zogchen community of Choegyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche who were joyfully performing Tibetan dances to celebrate the birthday of their spiritual teacher. Many sang Tibetan songs along with recorded songs. I have taught two Tibetan songs and one simple Tibetan dance to some of the members of the local Buddhist center here in Raleigh, North Carolina. We performed during the Tibetan New Year in the parking lot in front of the center. Almost all non-Tibetan members happily took part in it, as well as another birthday celebration of HH the Dali Lama.
Several private Tibetan newspapers are now appearing in India. They definitely help in preserving and promoting the language, but it will be challenging for the journalists when focusing on the facts and maintaining true journalistic ethics. Some young Tibetans are also producing Tibetan documents. Recently a website in Tibet was launched. Similarly, excellent articles, books, etc are produced in Tibet by Tibetan scholars despite numerous obstacles from the Chinese authorities.
The communist Chinese government is making every effort to wipe out the Tibetan language in Tibet, while at the same time promoting their language all over the world as a political soft power. They even do not allow the Tibetan students to study Tibetan history and religion in the Lhasa University. The fact is that the Tibetan language learning/teaching process has always been closely intertwined with the Tibetan religion, culture and history. There is no stand-alone textbook for the Tibetan language. Therefore, when Tibetan language teachers asked the Chinese authorities to provide them with a text which contains only language, they could not produce such a book.
Moreover, graduates who show a proficiency in Tibetan, but are lacking in the Chinese language are denied employment in government jobs. Tibetans composing Tibetan songs are arrested and imprisoned on various pretexts. Conversely, many Tibetans here in the free world are intentionally or unintentionally causing the loss of our own language. Many of the parents in India and Nepal prefer sending their children to English schools where there are hardly any opportunity to study Tibetan language. Many Tibetan parents of such children do not provide Tibetan language classes for their children even during long vacations at home. More shockingly, many parents, and even grandparents in Nepal, India, and especially in the west, boast of speaking in English to their children at home. When I was working for a Tibetan community in the US, we had Tibetan language classes in the community hall. I put a note on the door of the community center saying, "Please speak Tibetan in this building". One day, a child came to me and sarcastically asked me, "Do the Americans who enter this building also speak Tibetan?" His Holiness, the Dali Lama, has always stressed the importance of speaking the Tibetan language at home, especially in the west. Many Tibetans involuntarily mix English, Hindi, Nepali, or the language of the host country with Tibetan when talking amongst Tibetans. Within Tibet also, Tibetans casually use numerous Chinese words in place of Tibetan words. Some recent arrivals from Tibet mix Chinese words in with their Tibetan conversations out of habit such as Kuwangchhue for Nyentokpa (police). Similar language mixing occurs overwhelmingly to those of us who come from Nepal or India, using Nepali or Hindi or English words such as Juta for Lham (shoes) phone for Khabar, movie for Loknyen, etc.
Once I had an argument with a Tibetan dance teacher about writing a Tibetan song in Roman English instead of Tibetan. His argument was that students are more comfortable in Roman English as they are not proficient in Tibetan. I pointed out to him that although the students will face some difficulty, they will slowly learn the Tibetan language through the song along withh learning the song itself. If many of our responsible teachers feel the same about their students' abilities, young Tibetans will not pay much attention to their own language. Thus they will end up graduating weak in their language, and prefer speaking in English, even during gatherings as is happenings most of the time especially in the west.
A few years ago, the Office of Tibet in New York organized a Tibetan professional conference. English was used during the conference. Some of the participants raised objections, but the reasoning was that those with little knowledge of the Tibetan language will understand better in English. One Tibetan participant from Charlottesville, Virginia was not satisfied and left the conference. Perhaps use of the Tibetan language with instant translation available would have been the better option.
When I was working in a school in Nepal, we prepared a Tibetan and English bi-lingual play about the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and performed on his birthday in front of a large gathering. The play consisted of several scenes: the regent finding the vision in the holy lake of Lhamoe Lhatso, his recognition tests in Amdo, enthronement of the young Dalai Lama in Tibetan capital, obtaining the Geshe Lharampa degree, Tibetan uprising against the Chinese invasion in Lhasa on March 10, 1959, the flight into exile, the reception by India at the Indo-Tibetan border, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The public enjoyed the play, and some shed tears when the little Dalai Lama ascended the throne. I wish more Tibetans present such plays in Tibetan with an instant translation into English and I believe others can perhaps produce better than I did. I saw many plays in Tibetan but did not come across a bi-lingual one so far.
I strongly believe our younger generations should work harder to learn our language, and I believe they can. Recently, I witnessed a young Tibetan woman who came to the United States as a little girl from India, and she was speaking fluent Tibetan in front of a large gathering in Minnesota. Moreover, she was appealing to all Tibetans to preserve and promote the Tibetan language. I saw few others doing the same. When I first watched our former North American representative Tenzin Choeden la speaking Tibetan in New York, he was really struggling in Tibet. But after spending sometime in Dharamsala in India, he started speaking not only fluent but using honorific terms. Ms. Kalsang who first joined Office of Tibet, New York as a volunteer several years ago did speak very little Tibetan. But after a couple of years she started speaking fluent Tibetan.
We should all follow their examples. More younger Tibetans should appeal to their fellow younger Tibetans because youth tend to listen to their age group more.
Survival of the Tibetan language depends mainly on the Tibetan people themselves. Many languages have already become extinct in the world, whereas other languages are flourishing. If we try to read the original text, the language used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales can hardly be understood these days. Most Tibetans cannot read Lanza, Ngagyik, etc. In order for a language to survive, people need to use it often, as in daily conversations, communications, business transactions, religious studies, academic pursuits, and media to mention a few. The more the language is used, the easier it becomes to use.
Concerted efforts from all concerned are required not only for the survival of the Tibetan language, but for the preservation and promotion of it globally. The main responsibility falls on the shoulders of Tibetan parents, especially in the western countries. Our leaders need to advise the parents to use every opportunity to speak Tibetan at home. The parents should encourage their teenage or even adult children to watch interesting programs from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia such as Kunleng. The Department of Education at Dharamsala should also produce more learning materials in order to improve the Tibetan language for our youth. They need to ask Sherig Parkhang (Tibetan Printing Press) to provide more interesting reading material, as well as audio and video CD's designed to teach and promote the Tibetan language. It is imperative that Tibetan be spoken at home, as well as during Tibetan gatherings, such as meetings, gatherings and celebrations. Office of Tibet, Tibetan Associations, TYC, TWA, and numerous regional associations need to organize Tibetan literary competitions such as debates, elocution and public speaking in order to improve the spoken language. Similarly essay competitions among the school and college students should be organized frequently to improve the written language. Many singers compose and sing wonderful Tibetan songs. Short documentaries and movies in Tibetan be produced by individual Tibetans. Even under the Chinese rule in Tibet, courageous singers compose meaningful songs in Tibetan including one that openly praises the Dali Lama and Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. These people should be openly recognized for their contributions so that others will follow suit.
Tibetan parents need to encourage their children to attend religious teachings of Lamas, even if the children do not understand the text. I recall when Gan Ngodup Sangmo in Minnesota used to take her daughter (who was about five at the time) for Buddhist teachings. The little girl would sit cross-legged and remain patiently with her mother until the end of the long teaching sessions. This is admirable. Some parents do not encourage their high school or even college students to accompany them for Buddhist teachings. They state that their children will not understand or are not interested. Once there was a teaching by Khamtul Rinpoche in Minnesota on a certain 33 points. I encouraged my daughter, who was 14 at the time, to attend the teaching, and I would give her $1 for every point she remembered. When we returned home, I was amazed that she had remembered 24 points. I know that many parents must be using reward programs to encourage their children to become involved in our language, religion and culture.
The most important step that I think now is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama should be approached to be the biggest promoter of the Tibetan language. His Holiness should appeal to colleges, universities and Dharma centers wherever he is invited to introduce Tibetan language classes into their institutions and curriculum. Similarly, whenever he meets leaders of foreign countries, His Holiness should request that they introduce Tibetan language broadcasting services in their countries. General Tibetan public including religious teachers, scholars, public figures, etc also use all the available social media for materializing the above concepts.
These efforts will increase worldwide awareness of the Tibetan political situation, lead to a more genuine support for the cause as well and can become a soft political power to counter the communist Chinese government's evil design of propagating their language and culture all over the world.
Many readers may feel the introduction of the Tibetan language into major colleges and universities in the world, as well as broadcasting programs to be an absurd idea. It may even seem laughable to them since such a small fraction of people on earth speak Tibetan. But I strongly believe that if a language is systematically, carefully and strongly promoted, its impact will dramatically increase in a short period of time. For example, the English language was initially introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous Canterbury Tales during the 14th century. No one would have thought that the English language would have become so widespread within a few hundred years. Thus, we must remain optimistic!