Tibetans should realize that language is also political power

This article by Ngawang Choechen published inĀ  Phayul magazine is our pick-of-the-week and will be serialised.

Can Tibetan language be a soft political power? Recently, serious questions have been raised concerning the survival of the Tibetan language. From a negative standpoint, there appears to be a danger of losing the Tibetan language altogether. The Chinese communist government is attempting to eliminate the Tibetan language in Tibet. On the other hand, they are promoting their language globally as a soft political power.

Many Tibetans, both in Tibet and in exile, are also to blame for the demise of the Tibetan language. They don’t realize the danger of losing their language and are carelessly working toward that end. From a positive standpoint, there appears to be efforts made in several areas to preserve and promote the Tibetan language and I believe there will be an occasion when the Tibetan language can be used as soft political power to counter the Chinese government evil design if a concerted effort is made from all concerned.

First it becomes relevant to discuss this ancient language in some detail. The Tibetan language is spoken in all three provinces of Tibet including U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo which has an area around six times that of England. There are certain dialects within Tibet which are different from region to region. The written form of the language is the same in all three provinces. The Tibetan language is also used in the Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, etc. with their own names in various regions, such as Zongkha in Bhutan and Bodhi in Ladakh. Other regions using the Tibetan language include Zanskar, Lahaul-Spiti, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, etc. in India. Most of the northern areas of the Huimalayan region in Nepal such as Walung, Solo Khumbu, Yolmo, Lho Manthang, Nyeshang, Limi, Humla, Jumla, etc. speak Tibetan with strong local dialects. The northern region of Bhutan also speak Tibetan. Some parts of northern Pakistan, such as Baltistan, and the northern part of Burma also speak Tibetan. It is thus estimated that over eight million people of the world currently speak the Tibetan language.


Several sources indicate that the spoken Tibetan language has existed for thousands of years. Some scholars believe that a written form of the language existed during the Zhang Zhung Empire’s rule of North Western Tibet in the seventh century before the modern Tibetan scripts were created. However, it has been confirmed that the present form of the written language was devised during the rule of Tibet’s greatest King Songtsen Gampo. The King sent several highly intelligent youth, including a talented young man by the name of Thumi or Thonmi Sambhota, to India to study Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Pali. Many died during the journey t to India due to great heat and wild animals. Thumi Sambhota survived the trip and was able to study Indian languages with some great Indian teachers before returning to Tibet.

Thumi created 30 Tibetan consonants and four vowels based on the Indian alphabets and vowels. Based on a dream that he had, Thumi created 24 of the 30 consonants on the Indian characters and added six characters necessary for Tibetan pronunciation. He then devised four necessary vowels from the existing sixteen Indian vowels. He also made other necessary letters needed for Sanskrit pronunciation in Buddhist Mantras (Ngagyik).

There are various other letters used o such things as prayer wheels, scriptures and rock carvings just to name a few. I am not an expert about all these scripts. But for practical purposes, we have two scripts, namely U-chen (with heads) and U-me (without heads). It is believed that Thumi wrote eight treaties or grammar books and that only two of those have survived; Sumchupa (grammar) and Tagjug (phonics).

In ancient Tibet, the Tibetan language was used mainly for translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan. However, the common folk of Tibet used the written language for many purposes including record keeping, contracts, correspondence, story writing and composing songs.

One of the main reasons Tibetans pay little attention to the language after the Chinese occupation of Tibet is that they fear very little reward on the employment front. This is particularly true in the Chinese occupied territory where the Chinese language is mandatory in order to apply for a job.

Even in exile, many Tibetan people think that the study of English will provide more employment opportunities, especially when they must rely on their host country for such employment. Students wanting to join the Central University for Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, The Institue of Buddhist Dialectics, Dharamsala and College for Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarah and other Tibetan language/culture related institutes in India for degrees in higher learning have been encouraged by family members to study the English language instead of Tibetan.

Several wealthy Tibetan parents choose to send their children to English medium private schools in India and Nepal that require the payment of exodus fees preventing the opportunity to study the Tibetan language.

Because of lack of consistent encouragements from families, relatives, community leaders in the study of the Tibetan language, younger generations are unaware of the prospects that this language can provide. In fact, there are plenty of prospects especially for the Tibetans living in free world.

Numerous Tibetan schools, including the universities, colleges and monasteries in India and Nepal, are in constant need of Tibetan language instructors. Anyone wishing to pursue Tibetan medicine in the Department of Tibetan Medical Astrology in Dhamramsala, India and elsewhere must have mastered the Tibetan language. Those wishing to study Tibetan Buddhism in monastic universities in India, Nepal and Bhutan must also have mastered the Tibetan language.

Those wishing to work in radio broadcasting corporations in India (All India Radio), the United States (Voice of America and Radio Free Asia), Voice of Tibet, Norway, and Kunleng (Bhutan) need proficiency in both the spoken and written Tibetan language. Students applying for the prestigious Full Bright Scholarship in the United States or for a career in the Central Tibetan Administration must pass a written Tibetan language test.

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Posted by on February 20, 2014. Filed under COLUMNS,Pick of the week,Tibet. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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