Learning Tibetan

by on September 20, 2016

ཨ /á/

“Infinite space”, the holiest letter of the Tibetan alphabet.

How fitting it is, that “infinite space” is but one of the many readings and translation of this powerful letter. This gave my (beginner-level) Tibetan class our first inkling that our experience learning Tibetan would be one that would be spiritually enriching. Prof T emphasised that religious inclinations aside, the rich history and culture of Tibet meant that we weren’t learning words. Instead, we were learning heart.

Learning heart?

Prof T’s key observation, throughout his teaching experience, was that our heart would grow in kind with each language we learnt. In particular, Tibetan would bring us comfort in our times of frustration and stress.

I was skeptical. Under Prof T’s tutelage, however, it became clearer that learning Tibetan (or any language) was going to be a learning experience that transcended the written script or strict grammatical rules. His observation on language would eventually be one I shared after the course of my classes.

The road to Tibet

I have always been fascinated by the role of Buddhism in Chinese history, perhaps as a result of a childhood exposure to Chinese folklore and my Buddhist heritage. When Tibetan was presented as a course option, it was easy to make the choice to enroll. Tibet plays a central role in the history of Buddhism, as it is widely believed that Tibet shares a special bond with the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. This special bond is presented in the Tibetan lineage of Dalai Lamas (gurus), all of whom are believed to be incarnations of the Avalokiteśvara.

Tibetan, to me, was the culmination of and an expression of this special bond, and that of years of Buddhist culture and history. It would also be a refreshing experience to explore a wholly unfamiliar and alternative means of expression—the Tibetan script. More frivolously, I had also perhaps bought into the folklore surrounding Tibet as a utopia, which complemented my own romanticism of my entire exchange semester. Thus, my decision was not an unexpected one.

Rocky road

Instead of the smooth learning arc I expected, learning Tibetan created more stress than comfort.

Despite my own experiences as an English and Mandarin bilingual, as well as a semester of learning Korean, learning Tibetan placed me in a different ballpark entirely. Tibetan seemed to be an overwhelming combination of features from the three languages. With its various grammatical rules, the greatest challenge was in deconstructing the words to determine their pronunciation.

In Tibetan, letters can be ordered horizontally or vertically to form a single syllable. In every syllable, there will be a root letter which will serve as the main nucleus. This diagram adapted from RigpaWiki is a great guide to syllable constructions in Tibetan!

vowel (i, e, o)
superscribed letter
Prefix letterroot letterpostfix lettersecond postfix letterDot (to denote the end of a syllable)
subscribed letter
vowel (u)

For instance, a slight change in position of a letter may or may not change the phonetics of the word greatly, which adds to the confusion as we have to be constantly mindful of the grammatical rules in order to ascertain the pronunciation.

ཙ tsa- ,
པ pa-
ཡ ya-

But adding ཡ ya– as a subscribed letter to the root letter པ pa– would give us པྱ which would phonetically be tsa– ! Also, note that ཡ ya–, when written in subscript, is written differently as well.

Think that’s confusing? Aside from phonetic changes, the addition of specific letters as a postfix may also lead to tone changes and vowel changes. The Tibetan letters ད & ས are two examples of letters which, when used as postfixes, will convert the a–, o–, u– vowels in a syllable to umlauts ä, ö, ü.

I believe this example will make things clearer:

ཡིད་ཆས་ ‘believe’
Let’s go over this, syllable by syllable:

ཡི yi– (The slight curl placed above denotes the i– vowel)
ད –d (There is no vowel change here as i– and e– are exempt from the umlaut rule)
Therefore, ཡིད་ is pronounced as yid–.
ཆ cha–
ས –sa

Therefore, ཆས་ is pronounced as –chäs.
Hence, ཡིད་ཆས་ ‘believe’ will be pronounced as yid-chäs.
Well, that was a lot of information and we’ve barely scratched the surface. As I’m sure you can imagine, learning Tibetan is truly a test of patience—was this what Prof T meant when he said learning heart?

Attaining Enlightenment

While Tibetan seemed overwhelming at first, in retrospect, I would say that my background in English and Mandarin helped me to cope with the various grammatical rules!

My gripes with the lack of phonetic sense in Tibetan would be echoed by someone learning English for the first time—fishing and phishing, and as shared above, in Tibetan where tsa– can also be written as pya. It was also taxing to keep track of tone changes in Tibetan. Thankfully, my years of experience with the Chinese hanyu pinyin , a system that represents Mandarin characters in the Roman alphabet and visually marks the four tones, paid off. I regularly resorted to using hanyu pinyin to annotate and ascribe tones to the Tibetan words.

The notion of vertical syllable construction was also a familiar one, with Chinese and Korean both utilising vertical construction, see 相+心 = ‘think’ (in Chinese) and
[ㅅ+ㅏ] [ㄹ+ㅏ+ㅇ] ‘love’ (in Korean).

It was interesting that in learning what seemed to be an entirely new language, I would come to realise that it would involve the integration of my existing languages. In this case, with Tibetan having Sinitic influences, my Mandarin background featured even more prominently. While initially challenging, the goal of mastering the basics of Tibetan became more attainable as I started using these language similarities to my advantage.

Prof T regularly reminded us that a language is a permanent friend, and it would connect us to amazing individuals who share the same word. I would venture to say that the experience of learning connects people even across languages. If we looked long enough, the similarities across languages becomes obvious, the same as with people.


As lessons progressed to include a wider vocabulary, the special bond between Buddhism and Tibet became more obvious. For instance, my classmate Evan reflected that Tibetan literature “tends to emphasise tranquility and has an incredibly huge vocabulary for philosophical expressions”. At times, it is difficult to translate directly, or find similar words which encapsulate the full meaning of Tibetan words with philosophical bearings. For instance, the word ལཱ་མ། /la-ma/ from Dalai Lama ‘Great Teacher’ or ‘the person leading you to the way of Buddhism’, is recorded as 喇嘛 /la-ma/ in Chinese. A direct translation would leave us with 上師 /shang-shi/ ‘senior teacher’, which would fail to capture the essence of respect and the religious bearings of ལཱ་མ།.

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi’s quote accurately summarises my takeaway from my Tibetan experience. The Tibetan language cannot be separated from its Buddhist underpinnings, a philosophy that is premised on self-cultivation. Tibetan is a medium through which these Buddhist teachings are articulated and propagated. Typically, language vocabulary shares a dialectical relationship with the prevailing cultural context. The focus on self-cultivation that gave rise to and that is expressed through Tibetan vocabulary inevitably made me more mindful of the role of language in self-cultivation. The vocabulary I choose to use in daily speech is and will shape a reflection of who I am.
ཨ /á/

‘Infinite space’, the holiest alphabet of Tibetan.

Tibetan, and any language actually, shows us the infinite space we have—to express, to connect, and to grow. This take-away could be credited to Prof T’s way of teaching, or maybe it was a result of the Tibetan attitude. In any case, the entire process of my Tibetan beginner course truly did feel like it was a training of the heart as Prof T went through Tibetan fables, and emphasised the importance of enjoying the language. He was less concerned with our pronunciation because, as he would often say, “the locals will find you cute when you mispronounce a few words!”

Learning Tibetan taught me to appreciate the differences and similarities of the different languages. More importantly, as Prof T intended, I did learn heart—I learned that hearts weren’t so different after all. Perhaps, one of the goals of learning a language is to open our hearts to infinite possibilities which would then create in us, space to be more accepting. After a semester of Tibetan, the space in my heart is perhaps not yet infinite, but it has surely opened up. I wish more of us could say the same of our language experiences. Has language grown your heart, as it did for me?

36 Responses to “Learning Tibetan”

  1. Ahn Michael

    What a beautiful storytelling <3 As someone also (fairly) bilingual in English and Mandarin, and with lots of experience learning other languages' patterns (including various attempts at Tibetan), the experiences you shared resonate closely with my own. I am determined to learn it now, to make a place for it in my life and in my heart, which is what led me to your reflectings. I hope your journey with Tibetan has not ended <3

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