Tibetan language, along with the culture and country itself, is often portrayed as being shrouded in mystery.
In truth, in recent years a number of the world’s polyglots have turned their attention to the language. With this increased interest, more and more books and guides has been published on Tibetan language. There are some really great introductory texts, so for those of you ambitious and motivated enough, you really don’t have an excuse.
So, if that’s the case you’ll most probably be wondering, how hard is Tibetan to learn?
The simple answer is that it is not too difficult once you overcome some of the basic hurdles.
- Vocabulary – There are a few English loan words in Tibetan, but I wont lie, the vocabulary looks a little alien at first. Pick up a phrasebook and using some space repetition software you’ll be picking up the core vocab in no time.
- Grammar – The big grammar problems with Tibetan are the two types of verbs (intentional and unintentional), cases with associated suffixes, and learning all the rules for verb formation. Because there are two types of verbs you have to always be aware which one you are using and then apply the appropriate rule. Verbs in Tibetan are made up of 3 parts — root+tense+auxiliary.
- Speaking/Listening – There are not many alien sounds in Tibetan compared with English, tones can be used but are not necessary and stress is equally applied to each syllable. Not too difficult.
- Writing/Reading – The script looks beautiful and thankfully won’t take too long to learn. If you are already familiar with abugida scripts you’ll have a head start. It is written from left to right and each symbol is relatively easy to distinguish after a weekend of practice. There is something really lovely about learning this script so I thoroughly recommend spending the time.
So there you have a simplified answer to our key question, however there is little bit more too it than just this. Let’s dive in further!
So, how hard is Tibetan to learn really?
Tibetan has been influenced by a number of key languages. Therefore you can find a number of loan words from Indian, Persian, Arabic, Mongol, Chinese, Portuguese and English. The language which has had the biggest influence in terms of loan words is Chinese, but there are a few words from English that would be worth learning.
Basic English Loan Words
- Coffee – ཁོ་ཕི – kho phi
- Ticket- ཊི་ཀ་སི – ṭi ka si
- Police – པུ་ལིས – pu lis
- Petrol- པེ་ཊོལ – pe ṭol
- Bus – འབའ་སེ – ba se
- Sandwich – སན་ཊ་ཝིཆི – san ṭa wichi
- Helicopter – ཧེ་ལེ་ཀོབ་ཊར – he le kob ṭar
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — ku shu dmar po ray — simply place the verb ray at the end
- It is John’s apple — di John gyi ku shu ray — gyi denotes possession
- I give John the apple — ngas John la ku shu tay gi yö — the verb is in three parts, main verb + tense + auxilliary
- We give him the apple — nga tshos khong la ku shu tay gi yö — simple suffix for we plural
- He gives it to John — khos di John la tay gi du — indirect and direct objects come before the verb but their relative order isn’t fixed
- He doesn’t give it to John — khos di John la tay gi min du — changing of the suffix on the verb for negatives, need to learn the different combinations
- She gives it to him — mos di khong la tay gi du — he/she pronouns are different
- I gave John the apple — ngas ku shu John la tay pa yin — change of the two suffix forms on the verb as it is past tense
- I must give it to him — ngas di khong la tay go yo — use of the suffix go to denote the auxiliary
- I want to give it to her — ngas di mo la tay go yo — must and want use the same auxiliary
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Tibetan. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Tibetan grammar has a subject-object-verb word order.
- Cases – In Tibetan, there are 9 cases. These cases are denoted by a suffix particle. These particles are attached to whole noun phrases.
- Articles – In Tibetan the definite article exists te, but it is rarely used. In the case of indefinite articles the word chig is used which translates as one.
- Pronouns – The pronouns for subject and object are the same, however they can change depending on the type of verb in the sentence (intentional verb vs unintentional verb) or who you are speaking with.
- Nouns – There are no genders in Tibetan and plurals are denoted through context or the use of plural words like many, few, two attached to the noun.
- Adjectives – the adjective goes in front of the noun and is usually a two syllable form in which the second syllable can change in the cases of comparatives and superlatives.
- Verbs – There are two types of verbs, intentional (to go, to drink, to see) and unintentional verbs (to feel happy, to feel sad). bare in mind that some verbs can be both depending on whether the action was an intentional choice, or rather it happened unconsciously or without intent. The verb is made up of three parts – main verb + tense + auxiliary. This means you always have to be aware these three parts when forming the verb.
- Auxiliary verbs – They form part of the verb form above and are added to the end.
- Be – In Tibetan there are three types of the verb be. There is du to express location, ray to say A is B, and yö-ray to talk about well known facts. This type of rule will take some learning.
- Have – There is no verb for have in Tibetan, rather they use a possessive particle on the subject of the sentence and du or yö is placed at the end of a sentence conditional on the subject of the sentence.
- Negatives – Negatives are formed by placing a certain particle on the end of the verb. These suffixes are conditional on the subject, tense, and type of verb in the sentence.
- Questions – There are a whole host of questions words to learn and with yes/no questions there are different endings again conditional on subject, tense and whether the verb is intentional or unintentional.
- Direct and Indirect Objects – subject + dir./indir. object (order is not fixed) + verb.
Tibetan has 50 phonemes made up of 27 consonant sounds and 23 vowel sounds. Tibetan does have tones however they are not so important to the meaning. Stress is also not so important and each stress is given to each syllable.
There are a few sounds in Tibetan that are not common in English, but not enough to slow you down too much and the difficulty is quickly overcome.
- Consonants – m, k, j, p, w, n, t, l, s, ŋ, h, ɲ, ts, kʰ, pʰ, ʈ, tʰ, ʂ, tsʰ, ʈʰ, tɕ, kʲ, l̥, tɕʰ, ɹ, kʲʰ, ɹ̥
- Vowels – i, u, a, e, o, ɛ, ɔ, iː, aː, uː, eː, oː, ɔː, y, ĩː, ũː, ø, ãː, õː, ẽː, ɛ̃ː, ỹː, ø̃ː
Tibetan has its own distinct Indic script. The script was developed in the 7th century from the Brahmi script originating in India. The purpose being to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into the Tibetan language. There are 30 basic consonant characters, along with 6 reverse characters and 5 thick characters. Around these 4 potential vowel symbols can be added. Each syllable is therefore made up of the core consonant around which can be added one of the vowels, but the vowel symbols are not necessary.
My hovercraft is full of eels – ངའི་རླུང་འདེགས་གྲུ་གཟིངས་ནི་ཉ་མན་ལི་ཡིས་གང་གི་འདུག
The red script denotes the consonant symbols and the blue script denotes the vowel symbols. As you can see, the vowel symbols can be placed above or below the consonant symbols. Also note that vowel symbols are not necessary for each consonant.
- The script is written from left to right.
- There are 45 letter symbols, 30 basic consonant symbols, 6 reverse consonant symbols, 5 thick consonant symbols.
- There are also 4 vowels symbols.
- The reverse and thick consonants are rarely seen in Tibet.
- There are two ways of writing the script. Headed where each letter is written separately, and headless where the letters are linked together.
Why Learn Tibetan?
In answer, there are a three key reasons to learn Tibetan.
- If you are in any way interested in Himalayan mountain culture or Tibetan Buddhism for that matter, then having a working knowledge of Tibetan gives you infinitely more access to the people of these regions.
- Very few people try to take on this language because of its relative obscurity, however this means that returns on investing any amount of time in learn Tibetan are relatively high. The locals will truly appreciate you making the effort.
- Somewhat related to the above reason, Tibetan is a declining language and any attempt to preserve it performs a service to both the local and world culture for generations to come.
But, lets not stop there. Lets explore this question further.
Standard Tibetan is a Sino-Tibetan language. It is an official language in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. It is also spoken in Nepal and India. Standard Tibetan, also known as Lhasa Tibetan, is spoken by 1.2 million people. It is regulated by the Committee for the Standardisation of the Tibetan Language.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
Tibet is a province in Southwest China formally known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is part of the greater Tibetan ethno-cultural area which also contains parts of Nepal, India, Bhutan, along with some of the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan in China.
Tibet plays host to some of the tallest mountains in the world including Mount Everest at 8848m. There are a number of major rivers that orginated on the Tibetan Plateau including the Yangtze, Yellow River, Indus River, Mekong, and Ganges. The weather is extremely dry and extremely cold for much of the year and very hot in the summer. There is very little rainfall throughout the year other than when the Indian monsoon effects eastern Tibet.
Culturally, religion has played a very important part in the region. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in Tibet along with parts of Mongolia, India, and other provinces of China. Much of the art are representations of dieties along with the famous thangka painting style and sand mandalas. Tibetan architecture has been strongly influenced by both China and India. The most famous building in Tibet is almost certainly the Potola Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. In terms of food, Tibetans eat a lot Barley which is made into noodles or momos. Meat dishes feature a lot of yak or goat, and yak butter and cheese is also popular.
The local Tibetan economy is predominantly subsistence agriculture, although tourism plays a part. Given the harsh conditions, raising livestock is a common occupation.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages but hasn’t included Tibetan.
Therefore, i’d have to perform an educated guess as to it’s relative rating. I’d rate Tibetan as a category 4 language along with languages like Turkish, Kymer and Ukrainian. This means it would take 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Tibetan.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.
4 thoughts on “How Hard is Tibetan to Learn for English Speakers?”
Thanks for this. Esukhia is also a great tutoring school and reasonably priced. There are helpful lists of more resources here: https://guhyasamajacenter.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/learn-tibetan-resources/
and here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qLUYME0HFfy78ZEtoctFHoVMHj3HV174p2eNWvs4cv8/edit#gid=0
Thanks for the comment!
Tibet is not Tibet Autonomous Region only. Tibet includes Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan inhabited areas parceled and incorporated into four neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan. There are more Tibetan living outside the TAR than within it
Thanks for the detailed feedback.