In the Lap of the Himalayas: The Tibetan Language
Choejor (Spiritual wealth), Dhargey (progress, development) and Yeshe (wisdom)—these constitute a wonderfully potent combination of gifts that one attains when they learn the Tibetan language and way of life.
Tibetan is the most widely spoken language in the Himalaya; forms of Tibetan are in use all
the way from Pakistan to China. It is spoken in Tibet, parts of China, northern Pakistan,
Nepal, Bhutan and parts of India. It is also used in Mongolia by followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
As the only living language that gives direct access to the ancient Bon religion and Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan opens the door to a vast repository of literary, scientific and philosophical wisdom and is the primary language of classical Tibetan art, music, dance, literature, medicine, history, astrology and logic.
Apart from classical literature, Tibetan provides a window to modern Tibetan art and literature including movies, novels, poems, music, songs, and news. Tibetan is also essential for studying the culture, history and languages of the Himalayan region.
The Genesis of Something Extraordinary
Prior to arriving at ANU as a student, Ruth Gamble worked as an interpreter for Tibetan monks. She came to ANU because it was the only place in Australia where she could pursue a PhD using her Tibetan language skills. She ended up pursuing her PhD part time and taught Tibetan and other subjects while conducting her thesis research.
At the time, there was no Tibetan language offering anywhere in Australia. Ruth collaborated with fellow PhD candidate Tenzin Ringpapontsang to begin developing a course to learn Tibetan. They first taught the course as a summer intensive, and then turned the materials they used into an E-Textbook for use in other classes, with help from ANU tech wizard Grazia Scotellaro
and Chung Tsering. Chung is one of the most well-known Tibetan-language writers and
translators in the Himalaya. Chung later settled in Australia and continues to be teach the ANU Tibetan language program, apart from his role as Support Coordinator at the Ethnic Community Servive Co-operative.
The ANU Edge
The Tibetan Program at ANU was the first Tibetan program worldwide to be offered with an entirely online option. In the present day, it is one of only two Tibetan study options, in Australia. What sets the program at ANU apart is its amazing expertise in Chung Tsering as well as in the way it is set up—as an online course with remote learning, which makes it accessible to people from all across the country and internationally. Thirdly, the teaching material was designed from scratch, developed with Australian students in mind and for people who want to learn both colloquial and literary Tibetan. Most Tibetan courses focus on one or the other; we combine them.
The program has also recently expanded from just individual units to a full-fledged minor, and it also now addresses regional variants and dialects. This is significant in that Australia is home to a large Tibetan population. Tibetan Buddhism has widespread interest across the country, as
do the subjects of wellness and meditation.
A Privilege and a Gateway to the Future
Learning Tibetan is a real privilege. There aren’t many places that teach it, but it is important in multiple ways. Most of the time, people learn Tibetan because they want to access Tibet’s enormous textual tradition, its manuscripts and literature. Through these texts, readers have access to one of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan was the target language of one of the largest translation projects in history, in which thousands of Indian and Chinese Buddhist texts were rendered in Tibetan. The results of this project provide scholars with access to texts and traditions not preserved anywhere else. As part of Tibetan language
studies at ANU, students can improve their conversational skills and begin to engage with Tibet’s famous literary canon.
Other learners may also be interested in Tibetan language studies because they are keen to be involved in development work, environmental change, and want to work in the Himalaya. The Himalaya is one of the most important ecological regions on the planet, and all of Asia’s major rivers come from there.
The other thing to remember is that Tibetan is one of a group of around 25 Tibetic languages
that are spread across Tibet and the Himalaya. Other Tibetic languages include Dzongkha,
the official language of Bhutan, Sherpa and other Himalayan languages. If you learn one
of these languages, it is easier to learn others.
Understanding Tibetan allows speakers to access rich cultural texts and traditions, to play a part in preserving these traditions and gain contemporary links to a country and region undergoing rapid change.
There are lots of things I like about Tibetan. I still get a kick from picking up an old manuscript, reading through it, and it becomes like a portal place where the text was written down. The paper is probably made from trees on the Plateau, and you can see bits of bark and the like in it, the author or scribe has made notes in the margin that tell you what they think of the text. I really like that experience. I also really like talking to grandmothers in Tibet and across the Himalaya. They are so surprised when I start speaking to them! And they tell the best stories.
– Dr Ruth Gamble