Below is the abstract for Esukhia‘s presentation at the IATS 2016 conference (IATS being the International Association of Tibetan Studies). The conference was held in Bergen, Norway this year, and included some 400 participants from all over world. Esukhia presented on teaching Tibetan as a second language in higher education; we would especially like to thank Tsering Gonkatsang of Oxford for hosting this very important panel on an issue that is vital to so many students of the Tibetan language, and giving Esukhia such a kind introduction during the panel’s opening remarks.
This presentation is about Tibetan as a Second Language (TSL) and its pedagogy, and in particular, the method Esukhia uses for Tibetan language education. Fundamental to this approach is the belief that creating a sound modern pedagogy is a scientific process, not an intuitive one. It is based on research, not guesswork. Our focus herein is identifying those features of second language acquisition & linguistics that are salient to higher-level Tibetan language studies; we then discuss the practical application of those features as they relate to Tibetan language specifically, along with real-world, experiential insights from implementing TSL in an immersion learning environment (Esukhia Asia).
Where we begin in our search for a modern TSL pedagogy is very big picture. First we ask: What is language? What is language in general? How does it work? And what is it used for? Here, we point out that language is primarily oral & primarily social. Our real-world, shared experiences accumulate mental representations; our speech community habituates us to patterns of sound that stand for those mental representations; and our texts, in turn, stand for the sounds that stand for our shared experiences. Here, we cite historical and linguistic evidence showing that orality and a shared social context are key components of language in general, and even of comprehending text specifically (and that phonological processes, like prosody, play an especially important role for unspaced & unpunctuated texts).
Next, we ask: How do we learn language? We start by making the distinction between knowledge & skill, noting that the research conclusively tells us language is the latter (specifically, language is the set of skills known as: speaking, listening, reading, & writing). Language learning requires practice, not study. Here, we provide a brief overview of the general principles of second language pedagogy within a historical context, showing that Grammar-Translation (the common pedagogy for Tibetan even to this day) is inherited & vestigial of a classical education; it is neither modern, nor is it research-based. We conclude with a summary of the multidisciplinary research applicable to creating a modern TSL pedagogy.
We then hone in to specific language concerns, asking: What about Tibetan? In what ways is Tibetan just another language, and in what ways is it unique? What are its particular features, and what follows from that? What does it imply for how we learn it? We state emphatically that literary Tibetan is not a dead classical language, but a living diglossia. Within, we note that literary Tibetan is in no way analogous to classical Sanskrit; instead, it parallels languages like Arabic in time frame & L1 literacy (and we especially point to advances in the field of teaching Arabic as an L2). We conclude that a Tibetan language education would best serve the highest number of students if its target was native-like proficiency, even if the end goal is textual study.
Finally, we discuss how Esukhia puts this theory into practice: 1) students learn in an immersion environment to practice oral skills in a social context; 2) a 1:1 student:teacher ratio provides students the maximum opportunity for producing language, while ensuring they receive level-appropriate, comprehensible input; and 3) students build reading comprehension through oral reading practice, which gives them the rhythmic & prosodic skills necessary to disambiguate Tibetan morphology.