Responding to Language Endangerment

Our previous post outlined the factors endangering the Tibetan language. These were: (1) the documentation of the language; (2) the language’s response to new domains and media; and (3) the availability of materials for language education and literacy.

How ought we respond if we wish to preserve the language?

(1) Documenting the Language

Tibetan has a rich textual heritage; projects in development, such as SOAS’s ’Tibetan in Digital Communication: Corpus Linguistics and Lexicography‘ and TBRC/Esukhia’s digital library, will help organize, analyze, and make available the broad corpus of Tibetan texts in new ways. The work needed beyond this is the creation of a Spoken Corpus; since literary and spoken Tibetan have significant differences (they are a diglossia), linguistic analysis on textual corpora would be significantly different than analysis on a spoken corpus.

Esukhia is working on creating a Spoken Corpus in order to fully document the living language.

(2) Developing Materials for Language Education & Literacy

As mentioned, Tibetan is a diglossia: there is a “high” literary language that has changed little for a long time, and this contrasts with the many spoken dialects. That is, the way Tibetan is written is different from how it is spoken. This has a detrimental effect on how people learn to read Tibetan, since beginning readers must first relate the sounds of their language to the print on the page.

In other words, there is a very strong link between literary languages and their spoken form, since texts are “decoded” by sound. And because a reader must understand 98% of the vocab on a page to comprehend the text, they must connect the text’s language to language they already know. The spoken language forms this “database” of already known language (and studies confirm that our mental lexicon is stored phonologically).

We can address this gap between literary and spoken Tibetan by developing educational materials based on the Spoken Corpus research. By ensuring early reading materials have a strong connection to the spoken language, Tibetan language literacy can become a widely attainable skill.

(3) Enhancing Response in New Domains & Media

These same issues apply to new language domains (such as social media, internet forums, blogs, SMS, etc.) and media as well. By encouraging an everyday, conversational style for the literary language, modern media can reach a wider audience. (And this is how unendangered languages, like English, have become so successful and widespread).

Tools like readability formulas and graded thesauruses, developed on the basis of spoken language research, can be instrumental in helping journalists and authors write at a level everyone will understand. And if there is a standard “everyday” style of the written language, people may use it in everyday contexts, like SMS, facebook, or WeChat.

Language Vitality and Endangerment

Analyzing Tibetan according to UNESCO’s:

Language Vitality and Endangerment

We have identified 3 major factors of Tibetan language endangerment that Esukhia is working to address via language research and education development (read UNESCO’s document to get a full picture of all the factors related to endangered languages):

Factor 5: Response to New Domains and Media (1/5)

Minimal (1): The language is used only in a few new domains. All new domains, be they in employment, education or the media (including internet), must be considered together when assessing an endangered language community’s response.

Factor 6: Availability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy (3/5)

(3) Written materials exist and children may be exposed to the written form at school. Literacy is not promoted through print media (Written materials exist, but they may only be useful for some members of the community; ie, there is no “everyday media”)

Factor 9: Type and Quality of Documentation (3/5)

Fair (3): There may be an adequate grammar or sufficient numbers of grammars, dictionaries and texts but no everyday media; audio and video recordings of varying quality or degree of annotation may exist.

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The 98% Conference

The 98% Conference (Exploring the Tibetan Diglossia’s Effects on Language Education & Translation) was held from September 2nd-4th this year, covering a range of topics related to Tibetan language and education.

Following a keynote address by Samdhong Rinpoche, we were lucky to receive presentations from many experts from the Tibetan community, including: Dr. Chok Tenzin Monlam of the LTWA; Language prof. Naga Sangye Tendar; Translator Chung Tsering; Tashi Dondup of the Department of Education; Diaspora Language Researcher Yugang Oser; Norbulingka Professor of Literature Ragya Trinley; Modern Tibetan Specialist Sherab Dargye; Children Literature Researcher Kalsang Nyima; Children Literature Writer Lobsang Gyatso; Sarah History Professor Sonam Gyaltsen; Grammarian Kalsang Sherab; Serta Tsultrim of the Tibet Post; Dokru Chodar; Lobsang Monlam; Lodro Pelsang; and our own Ngawang Trinley, among others.

You may view full coverage of all three days of the conference, presented in Tibetan, here on our youtube channel.

‘Classical’ Literary Tibetan is a Living Oral Tradition

“Religious vitality is preserved [within Tibetan Buddhism] through the internalization of doctrine via an oral tradition, specifically, that of memorization, oral commentary, and monastic debate” (Cabezon, 1994). The emphasis of this oral lineage is even encoded in the name of one of the major lineages—the Kagyu (bka’ brgyud), or “Oral Lineage.” Furthermore, philosophical literature is often “couched in the language of debate”—to the point where “in order to understand the commentarial exegesis some familiarity with debate is required” (Perdue, 1992).

Since “Tibetan Buddhist writings have long been intimately associated with various forms of orality, an understanding of how Buddhist texts are read or encountered in Tibetan traditions requires that we consider [those forms] in which such textual encounters are embedded… [for] ‘reading’ in the Tibetan context intertwines oral and literary orientations” (Klein, 1994). In other words, the Tibetan language is the liturgical language of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and within this linguistic realm, the relationship between the literary and spoken versions of the language are not stagnant and distinct. They are interacting elements of a living oral tradition, which is both “literary” and “oral” in nature.

And since all Tibetan dialects are “related to Classical Literary Tibetan from lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactic points of view,” the orality found within this tradition bears the marks of the literary language (Tournadre, 2001). So while the literary language itself is not generally used for everyday conversation, a version of elevated speech is spoken by religious teachers and lay intellectuals even to this day (Tournadre, 2003).

This, then, is one of the ways in which a foundation in Spoken Tibetan can form a basis for studying the literary language.

Suggested reading:

Anne Carolyn Klein, “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet.”


Cabezon, Jose Ignacio (1994). Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. New York: SUNY. p. 84.

Klein, Anne Carolyn (1994). “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet,” Oral Tradition 9/2: 281-314.

Perdue, Daniel (1992). Debate in Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Snow Lion. p. 851.

Tournadre (2001). “Final Auxiliary Verbs in Literary Tibetan and in the Dialects,” Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, Vol. 24.1. p. 51.

Also see Tournadre (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan. New York: Snow Lion. p. 27, where he notes that while literary Tibetan is not generally used for conversation, “some lamas or lay intellectuals use a form of expression which is virtually Literary Tibetan… there is therefore a real diglossia in their speech.”

Speaking and Understanding Language

Some of our blog posts have been very academic sounding. Here I will try to explain, in everyday language, some of the things we’ve been talking about. Since, after all, Esukhia is really about everyday language, both using it and writing it. And here’s why:

Chances are, as you read this, you are “hearing” it. Maybe you are not reading it out loud. Yet you still can “hear” me speaking to you in your head. You are recreating my words as if they were spoken to you. You also know to pause when I do this: “,” or stop when I do this: “.” In a way, you are “listening” to me, even though you’re reading.

One of the reasons spoken language is so important is because this is how reading works. We are imagining the sounds, and re-making the speech. As I write this, I’m doing the same thing: I am imagining the sounds, and recreating speech. I’m simply saying it with words on the page instead of saying it with my mouth.

So actually, when you read, you are really listening. When you write, you are really speaking. They’re the same process. What’s more, when you listen, you are also speaking! Research shows that one thing we do when we listen is re-make the speech in our minds. Then, we guess what’s going to be said next. That’s how we follow somebody’s train of thought, and why we can finish each other’s sentences.

Then, as you speak, you are also listening. You’re listening to yourself in the future. By guessing what you’ll say next, you avoid making mistakes. The same, then, goes for reading: When you read, you are actually both listening and speaking. While understanding language, we are making language. We make guesses, fill-in-the-blanks, and add our own thoughts and experiences in order to understand what we read.

These reasons are why it’s so incredibly important to learn a language by speaking it and by hearing it (not just reading it). You need to know a language backwards and forwards to understand it. For example, let’s say I walk from the supermarket to the movie theater. Once I arrive at the movie theater, someone asks me for directions to the supermarket. Since I can imagine taking my walk in reverse, it’s very easy to tell them how to get there!

In the same way, if I practice speaking a language, I will be much better at understanding it, both when I hear it and when I read it. The better I know how a language sounds, the better I can read it, because I will “hear” the way it is supposed to sound. This helps me understand what it the text is saying. That’s because a book says something; it talks to you. This is one of many reasons that studying everyday spoken Tibetan is so important in order to learn how to read Tibetan.

Language Production & Comprehension

This post is about two languages processes: production and comprehension. These may both be again subdivided by a) speech tasks and b) literacy tasks. In other words:

  • Language production processes:

    • Speaking

    • Writing

  • Language comprehension processes:

    • Listening

    • Reading

Now, the fact that we can speak about these tasks as being divided this way does not mean that they are divided so in actuality. In fact, all current psycholinguistic research seems to say that these are simply two sides of the same coin: that is, these processes go hand-in-hand.


*Production & comprehension are cooperative language processes: Listening comprehension drives predictive production gears to anticipate future speech (we can finish each other’s sentences).

P & C - OUTPUT (1)

*Producing speech drives predictive comprehension; we understand what we are saying and what we are going to say (we can auto-correct our own future speech mistakes).

But let’s start at the beginning:

Speech is as old as our species and is found in all human civilizations; reading and writing are newer and less widespread. These facts lead us to expect that readers would use the visual representations that are provided by print to recover the phonological and linguistic structure of the message. Supporting this view, readers often access phonology even when they are reading silently and even when reliance on phonology would tend to hurt their performance.”

This is nothing new. The importance of phonics for beginning readers is beyond well-established. Yet in many Tibetan language learning contexts, the link to phonology (in both speech production and listening comprehension) ends after learning basic alphabetic phonics and phonemic pronunciation (at the syllable level).

Going back to our division of processes, then, we see that this method addresses a single aspect of language—reading comprehension—to the neglect of all production processes (speaking and writing) and all phonological processes (speaking and listening). This leaves students with a very myopic view of Tibetan’s linguistic terrain, to say the least:

  • Phonological processes:

    • Listening comprehension

    • Speech production

  • Orthographical processes:

    • Reading comprehension

    • Writing production

The evidence, on the contrary, says that phonology is actually an integral aspect to both reading and writing processes. This points to the conclusion that representations of the mental lexicon, whether they are accessed via phonology or orthography, are actually primarily stored phonologically. Phonology, therefore, is not merely key in the learning-to-read process; it is key to reading comprehension as well. Indeed, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that oral reading fluency is one of the best measures for reading comprehension.

This point on oral reading fluency (the ability to read fluidly, with proper intonation) directs us nicely toward another phonological feature of language: prosody. A reader who is unfamiliar with the natural rhythm of a language cannot access its prosody, an aspect that helps to resolve lexical and syntactic ambiguities in both speech and reading. Since Tibetan has so little punctuation with which to signal prosody, how can someone unfamiliar with the spoken language perform such essential (and basic) interpretive tasks?

Meanwhile, fluent readers of text must also access meaning at the level of discourse. Readers must make use of long-term memory to understand reference, relevance, and implication in order to understand how sentences are integrated into a larger causal structure by analyzing events in terms of goals, actions, and reactions.

These comprehension processes are built on automaticity and language experience; suffice it to say, the more language experience, the better one’s comprehension. Here, we are especially referring to non-linguistic language experience, or the environment of the language, where one is actively involved in interpreting contextual clues based on culture and situation: these become even more vital in text, as they are given subtly by language choice instead of concretely by context (think of how much easier second language listening comprehension is in person than on the phone—writing is even further removed by the subtraction of the prosody of speech).

With these factors in mind, then, we could say that language comprehension is related to language production in an educational context in the way that one has truly learned something when one “knows it backwards and forwards.” If I’ve just arrived at the movie theater and I’m asked to give directions to the supermarket, it will be extremely helpful if I have just walked from the supermarket to the theater: I may simply imagine walking the same route in reverse. Likewise, if I’m able to produce language (speak it or write it) I will be that much better prepared to comprehend it (hear it or read it), and vice versa.

In summary, phonological processes are an indispensable aspect of language learning because: a) the mental lexicon is designed to be accessed phonologically, even if one is readingb) prosody is imperative to interpretive processing, and must be recreated by the readerc) automaticity and speed must be developed for oral reading fluency, and these factors directly affect reading comprehension at higher levels of sentence and discourse; and d) language experience also incorporates non-verbal aspects of language, which must be imaginable and predictable by a reader.

A few concluding remarks drawn from psycholinguistic research:

“The two processes of production and comprehension are carried out using the same representations and processes.”

“Language production’s impact on language comprehension is so pervasive that understanding production is essential to understanding comprehension.”

“Comprehenders are fundamentally affected by their experience of language”

“People use production processes to guide comprehension (and in fact use comprehension processes to guide production).”


Treiman et al., Psycholinguistics: Language Comprehension and Production, available:

Macdonald, Maryellen C. “How language production shapes language form and comprehension,”

Pickering, Martin J. and Simon Garrod. “How tightly are production and comprehension interwoven?”

Lyon, G. Reid, How Do Children Learn to Read?

Lynn, Jennifer. Need for Speed: The Relationship Between Oral Reading Fluency and the… Capella University, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Proquest 2008. p. 49.

Translation and development with Dirk

Highlighting the unique approach Esukhia employs to its language and translation services, Dirk, who has been part of the project for 2 years, discusses his role…



Dirk in the Indian foothills of Dharamsala

“My technical title at Esukhia is ‘Translation Department Director,’ though as the native English speaker of the office, most anything official that needs to be written in the English language goes through me. I’m also involved in a lot of the other projects, such as spoken language research, which in turn informs our development of materials and methods for teaching Tibetan as a foreign language.

“The other side of this research is the collaboration that we do with other second language teachers and specialists, who are up-to-date on the current methods of teaching foreign language. We use their input, along with our research, and apply those findings to the specific context of the Tibetan language. That’s the research, development, and innovation side of things at Esukhia, which we believe is quite unique, though we are still learning how to best implement all of these ideals within the context we find ourselves in here in India.

“Traditionally what has happened with the Tibetan language is analysis modelled on foreign grammars: Westerners describe and teach Tibetan by using grammar models based on English or other western languages and Tibetans describe and teach Tibetan by using their traditional model, which is based on Sanskrit grammar. While these are important for some specific contexts of learning, what we hope to do is move away from the traditional grammar models and begin to apply teaching methodologies that are based on leading second language learning research, which all seem to point to the importance of spoken language immersion in gaining language proficiency. We think this is especially important for Tibetan, since so much meaning is given non-grammatically…

“Something else we’re doing is looking for ways to bridge the gap between western translators and academics on the one hand and scholars from within the tradition on the other. Realizing that native speakers have a unique grasp on their own language and literary history, we believe that creating translations in collaboration with Tibetans should be a focus of both current and future translation methodology. Collaborating with experts on the Tibetan side of things who may, of course, only speak Tibetan also requires an expertise in the spoken language—another reason for Esukhia’s focus on colloquial language learning.”

Phd mentoring with Jampa

Providing more than simply Tibetan language courses, Esukhia also offers the use of academic advice for those interested in Tibetan culture and history. Jampa from Esukhia discusses his position as a mentor for Phd students… 



Jampa in Dharamsala

I was one of the first teachers here to join Esukhia. I first  taught Buddhism online which was very interesting.  Then I began to do colloquial Tibetan, and following this I began to teach and explain Tibetan Buddhism texts with an organisation; texts from abbreviated to proper form.

Originally I studied for 14 years I in a monastery as a monk. I was educated in the practices of Tibetan Buddhism in great depth. Following this I joined a school in India and also joined Sarah College for Higher Tibetan Studies.

My teaching is done through Skype – the online video service, which is an easy way to teach people abroad. I also do work with PhD students and focus on Tibetan culture and history, we have a lot of discussions and explanations for academics in this field. At the moment there are around 5 students, they are mostly in Europe, and we look at history and culture from Tibet.

Its really interesting as the students can read and write really well. Its at quite a high level. They’re doing their last thesis and dissertations at the moment, and they are about to graduate, so its quite an important time, and they want to make sure the information is all correct.

I help students to translate and understand texts related to their research. Things like the 7th Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as historical texts. Its very interesting and unique.

For more information please visit:

Buddhism Courses with Khenpo Ogyen Rinzin

Offering more than simply Tibetan language to students, Esukhia also provides courses in Tibetan Buddhism. Khenpo Ogyen Rinzin discusses his unique role as a teacher of the courses…


Khenpo Ogyen Rinzin in Dharamsala

I joined Esukhia a few months back. At the moment my work is translating a Buddhist text which gives an introduction, and has everything together, which gives a better understanding for everyone, and I transcribe it into spoken language.

I also do online teaching for Buddhism courses, like a basic course. Sometimes students request to learn Buddhism in their online classes, so I teach this to them.

It’s more like an interpretation of the pechas (Buddhist text). Three kinds of people do the courses at the moment, university students , one who wanted to learn Buddhism in some depth, and we also have a group of Belgians who want to learn the pecha better, so I teach them as a group with the use of Skype.

For the translation of the different pecha, it is sometimes difficult in spoken language. For the students in Belgium, it is sometimes quite difficult to explain to them, and it can be hard at times. I see them on the screen and they see me on a projector. They also want to share the story to the Tibetan children, so this is really helping the Tibetan culture and our future. It’s good for everyone.

I was a monk in my hometown in eastern Tibet. When I arrived in India I did 2 years in a Tibetan school, then a monastery here in India. Then I did one year for preparation of Tibetan Buddhism texts. In order to join we have to have a good qualification behind us.

After my graduation from Sheda, I did 2 years teaching in monasteries, then in a workshop at Sarah College for Higher Tibetan Studies, and I also taught further in other places.

There are other teachers at Esukia who teach the Buddhism course too. Sometimes there are lots who want to begin with Buddhism, but it is good to learn the language a little first, then try to understand the Buddhism after.

I am very happy to be here, and when I was teaching at another school and small kids don’t understand the text I tried to teach them. Here it is better as the students are older and Skype is a good way of teaching people. In the schools I had to look after everyone but here I just need the computer!

Introducing the Advanced Buddhist Studies Program (ABS)


The Advanced Buddhist Studies Program (ABS) is designed for students who wish to study the texts and topics of a traditional monastic education, but who feel they cannot join a monastery’s shedra for various reasons (ie, non-monastics, couples, women, etc.) or who would prefer to study in a less traditional setting (ie, in one that fosters teaching methodology, classroom participation, and group study and activities, not just lecture & rote memorization).

Another issue with today’s monastic education is the lack of non-dharmic language study; for example, while interpreters and scholars who have studied at the monastery are well-prepared to understand a dharma talk on a wide range of subjects, they may still have difficulty with talks that stray into advice for daily life, storytelling, and other subjects that are not specifically Buddhist. They are also ill-prepared for other simple tasks such as reading the newspaper or writing a short essay on daily life.

ABS will address these shortcomings for non-native speakers by offering an intensive program where language skills (speaking, reading, and writing) are treated as linguistic cornerstones that further one’s understanding of the complexities of Buddhist philosophy, while retaining key features of the monastic education, such as strong textual study, lecture (enhanced by class participation and group discussion), and debate. Although it is not a substitute for monastic education, ABS provides the student with a complete overview of Buddhism and a strong basis in speaking, reading, and writing Tibetan.

For more details, please visit our google doc here.

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