A well-respected colleague of ours recently commented that studying colloquial Tibetan in order to translate classical Tibetan was akin to studying Hindi in order to translate Sanskrit. Actually, many of our colleagues seem to share this opinion, or one quite similar (even if they recognize this particular comparison as hyperbole), as do many well-respected folks whom we do not yet have the honor of calling our colleagues (for their achievements far outweigh our own). This is the implicit view of many university courses as well, particularly ones which employ a “grammar-translation” method for approaching “classical” Tibetan (it seems that the 19th century scholastic methods of studying Latin, Greek, and other classical languages has had some influence on the field of university level language learning).
This oft-circulated viewpoint may have its roots in the vast differences that seem to exist between the spoken and literary forms of the language. Phonological evolution has left what looks like an archaic system of spelling, and the additional verbal auxiliaries in the spoken language are not generally an aspect of the written language. While the literary form of the Tibetan language is certainly quite distinct from the modern vernacular, we believe the gap between the two, especially with regard to syntax, is not as wide as it’s commonly perceived; so we’ll take this space to respond to this view:
(1) The first point is historical: There is approximately 2,500 years separating classical Sanskrit and modern spoken Hindi; the distance between spoken and literary Tibetan, in contrast, is less than half that. Pāṇini codified the Sanskrit grammar somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE (the advent of classical Sanskrit), whereas Thönmi Sambhoṭa didn’t write his grammar of Tibetan until over 1,000 years later in the 7th century CE, with standardization and reform coming three times in the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries (the advent of what we now call “classical” Tibetan). That means that unlike other classical languages, literary Tibetan does not date back to antiquity, but the middle ages—thus, the connotations given by its “classical” designation are misleading, to say the least.
Hindi, meanwhile, is a Hindustani language heavily influenced by Turkic, Arabic, and Persian languages (from the various dynasties ruling from Delhi, ie, the sultans, the Mughals, etc.): it has its own distinct (non-Sanskrit) literary history of 500 years, and modern Hindi speakers do not use Sanskrit as a common literary language. (Read more on: Tibetan phonology; Hindustani language). The form of English during this time period is Old English, which subsequently undergoes major changes after the Norman conquest; the result is Middle English (and as late Middle English transitions into early Modern English, it reaches a form comprehensible to modern speakers).
While Modern Tibetan has certainly evolved significantly since the years of “classical” Tibetan, it’s hard to say those changes could even rival those of English over that time period, not to speak of Hindi, where an additional 1,300 years of language evolution first led classical Sanskrit from antiquity into the middle ages, then through even more influential changes during the long periods of Muslim and Persian conquest, until finally it reached the modern era. Relatively isolated on the Tibetan plateau, the written language of Tibet has survived in a form comprehensible to educated modern-day speakers (something which can not be said for either Hindi/Sanskrit or even English/Old English), which leads us to our next point:
(2) The modern version of literary Tibetan is still used by native speakers of the Tibetan language, and there is a living tradition associated with the study of literary Tibetan texts. That is, the majority of people who read and study “classical” texts are, themselves, Tibetan. The language that this community speaks is Tibetan; there are monastic universities specifically devoted to nothing but scholarship on these texts, wherein lectures are attended daily, vast sections of them are memorized, and their philosophy is debated with vigor. Though there are westerners who study these texts, they are far and away the minority, and the language is not their native language (nor any variant of it). These vast resources are inaccessible to those who cannot speak modern Tibetan.
(3) Recent studies have demonstrated that language learning restricted to grammar and vocabulary do not give the student the ability to understand and utilize the language with accuracy and fluency. Language experts say that the factor that best demonstrates one’s language proficiency is one’s ability to use language—that is, to really know Tibetan, inside and out, fluently, one ought to be able to produce the language. For adult language learners, neural response patterns that mirror those of native speakers is even possible if language learning takes place in an immersive environment (ie, not in a classroom pouring over texts). Second-language reading research also points to the importance of developing oral skills in attaining reading fluency. Furthermore, knowing the spoken language is key to understanding how language structures meaning at the level of syntax and discourse: this is especially important in Tibetan, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum of grammar precision compared to, say, Latin or Sanskrit; word, phrase, and sentence order all have ramifications for meaning.
We believe a more natural fit for Tibetan language study would be to model its progression on the approach taken to learning any other number of living languages: first, one learns to speak; then, one learns to read and write; and lastly, once one has attained quite a high proficiency in the language (generally only in graduate studies, after majoring in the language and/or meeting strict language requirements), one begins exploring literature and finally the “classics.” While we understand the temptation to jump right into the heavy stuff, it’s only by knowing the structures of spoken Tibetan (ie, non-grammatical meaning encoded at the level of syntax and discourse) that one comes to understand written Tibetan; the best method for attaining this, it seems, is by learning to use the language. From our own experience, we can say that learning to speak Tibetan continues to be extraordinarily helpful in furthering our own textual studies. For these reasons (and more), it’s our opinion that the spoken language is foundational to fully understanding and appreciating literary Tibetan…
These, and other points, are also addressed in an article we’ve published online: Classical Tibetan Studies at Esukhia. Please also read our Comparison of Asian Language Studies or our Connection Between Oral Skills & Reading Fluency documents.