Understanding Tibetan Culture Through the Tibetan Language

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis talks about linguistic relativity, which essentially means that language shapes reality. The way we speak and the words we choose create our world (1). So, what versions of reality get created inside the minds of polyglots? Experimental evidence suggests that different personalities come through when we speak different languages as some thoughts flow more organically in one language compared to another (2). A school of thought considers language to be a living, breathing entity (3). It comes as no surprise thus that every culture by its virtue of self preservation is protective about its unique language. The Tibetan community living in exile across the world faces the fear of losing touch with its linguistic roots (4). Growing up with diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity in India, I strongly believe that in language lies a predominant part of any culture. Hence, when the opportunity to learn Tibetan language presented itself as part of my AIF Clinton Fellowship Project, I was excited and brimming with curiosity.

Page of a book showing alphabets of Tibetan language with their pronunciation.
Alphabets of the Tibetan language. The alphabet of the Tibetan language comprises thirty consonants and four vowels. (Picture Courtesy: Ms. Lhamo Trithang)

With the generosity of my host organization, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), and my project supervisor, Mr. Tenzin Norsang, I began my journey into the world of Sino-Tibetan languages. Ms. Lhamo Trithang left China-occupied Tibet for India in 2006, where she exchanged her nomadic life in the lap of nature for formal education and city dwelling in Dharmsala. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, English, French, and of course, Tibetan, she now spends her time teaching her native language to foreigners to the culture from within and outside India. While her teaching methodology consists of beginning with the alphabets, she had to customize her teaching program to meet the 25-hour demand of the two AIF Clinton Fellows placed with CTA this year. Every alternate day in the working week, Lhamo la takes out 1 to 1.5 hours for each of us individually. Having worked as a language teacher, I can empathize. It is extremely difficult to teach a new language to students in a classroom and to do so online, over a WhatsApp call with unreliable internet connection at the peak of Himalayan winters is a testimony to my teacher’s grit and dedication. Leadership is shown in various forms and Ms. Lhamo Trithang is my superhero. She has overcome tremendous challenges in life including, moving to a new country and starting a whole new life in her late teens, to attain education and become independent. I salute her spirit and shall always revere her as a highly inspiring woman leader. To say that I am grateful to her would be an understatement.

Screenshot of Ms. LLhamo Trithang and Shivangi on a Whatsapp video call, with a text of the first lesson outline in the background: welcoming others & personal pronouns.
Tibetan language lessons over WhatsApp.

For me, the teaching goes beyond linguistics. It presents a unique window of opportunity to understand the culture. If the Sapir-Whorf model of linguistic determinism is to be believed, it provides a means to think like a Tibetan. Apart from the alphabets, phrases and phonetics, I have learnt that the Tibetan culture is highly reverential. Almost every word has two alternatives – one usual and one honorific. From the eldest members of the society to infants – all names are succeeded by ‘La’ as a sign of respect. I’ve come to learn that courtesy, honor, respect, diligence, sincerity, politeness, humility, gratitude, compassion and kindness are the cornerstones of the Tibetan culture, and these values are quite evident in the Tibetan language. As I get into the practice of beginning my lessons with “Tashi Delek” and ending them with “Tuchi Che”, I am pained by the thought of a nation living in exile, constantly dealing with the fear of its younger generation losing touch with their native language. The idea of a free Tibet never seemed less radical (5).

 

References: 

  1. Lucy, J. (2001). Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 13486-13490. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/03042-4
  2. N. (2017). Chapter 8. In Psychology: Textbook for Class XI (pp. 163-165). New Delhi: National Council of Educational Research and Training.
  3. Paipetis, S. (2016). Language As A Living Entity. Journal of Global Issues and Solutions.
  4. Human Rights Watch, (2020, March 05). Tibetans are Losing Their Language. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V62zsUdcD6U
  5. Lau, H. (2017). Tibet was Never Part of China Before 1950: Examples of Authoritative pre-1949 Chinese Documents that Prove It. National Security, II(I).

Note: All images are used with due permission from Ms. Lhamo Trithang.

Shivangi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. For her fellowship project, she is integrating gender education and entrepreneurship modules into the school curricula for the Tibetan refugee community. Shivangi brings in diverse personal, academic and professional experiences to her work towards achieving gender equality. Having focused on providing gender sensitivity training and education matching, Shivangi runs her own social initiative called Drishtikona - Changing Perspectives, volunteers as a speaker for SpeakIn and as a Global Shaper for the World Economic Forum, and a Climate Ambassador for the International Youth Committee. Through her experiences, Shivangi has gained relevant skills including data collection and analysis; planning and strategizing; research and documentation, and more. Her personal and professional aims align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals especially, UN SDG 5. It is her mission in life to make the world a more inclusive place for everyone and she is passionate about human rights and mental health.

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