“Speaking Tibetan is Classical” is the title of this post. Why? Because in the classical age of classical education, the quintessential classical language—Latin—was a spoken, living language. It was used for communication. Here, we’d like to explore what happened to speaking classical languages. Why do we study Tibetan the way we do today? Languages, across history and across cultures, are spoken—why don’t we speak Tibetan?!?!
How is Tibetan studied today?
A common way of studying the classical Tibetan language today is what’s called the Grammar-Translation method. Despite that it is used for classical Tibetan, it (itself) is not a classical method. What does this method look like?
- The classroom language is English
- Students memorize Tibetan vocabulary by relating it to an English word
- Students memorize Tibetan grammar structures (using an English-language framework)
- They then analyze texts word-by-word, translating each into English, and then “working out” the meaning (in English)
That looks like an awful lot of English for learning a language that isn’t English… Our question is, where did this method for teaching classical Tibetan come from? Why do we use it? Who designed this method?
Where does it come from?
To start, we can ask what other languages are taught this way? It turns out that there aren’t many. If you’ve ever studied Spanish or German or some other “modern” language, you’d notice it’s very different. These languages are more likely to be taught using communicative techniques. You’ll speak it. You’ll hear it. You’ll write it. You’ll use all four language skills.
But perhaps you have experience with another “classical” language—like Latin or Sanskrit. Here we find the Grammar-Translation method we’re used to seeing for classical Tibetan. And classical Sanskrit has a strong link to Tibetan, in that they’re both canonical Buddhist languages. I think we can safely assume that Grammar-Translation comes to us from Latin, via Sanskrit.
In another post we’ll ask, is Tibetan really similar to Sanskrit? But for now, let’s go further down the rabbit hole: Why is Latin taught using Grammar-Translation? What are the reasons or the grounds for that? Let’s take a look at the history…
A Classical Education—in Latin
If we go all the way back to the classical ages of the classical education, we’ll find that Latin was the language of learning for the Roman Empire (and the Roman Catholic Church). Even after that, educated peoples all across Europe continued using Latin. By “use,” I don’t mean they “studied” it: they communicated with it, not only in writing, but also in speech.
(Let’s not forget to mention, too, that texts were more ‘performed’ or ‘recited aloud’ than ‘read’ in the modern sense of the word… Some experts go so far as to claim that ‘reading’ texts, in the classical context, were never a silent or private activity, but purely oral and social in nature.)
People used Latin to talk about math, science, philosophy, religion, and other subjects. When they wrote papers or books, they used Latin. When they met other scholars, from other parts of Europe, they spoke using Latin. And, even when they did “study” it, they studied it in Latin-only contexts. When did that change? Why?
Classical Latin—in Education
In 17th-century Europe, a broad swath of social changes affected education: Europe was becoming more nationalistic, and education more accessible. There was a drive to replace Latin with the European vernaculars in education, and it succeeded. Books began being published, in the vernacular, that explained Latin grammar (before the late 17th century, books that taught Latin were invariably in Latin, and students that ‘studied’ Latin studied in Latin).
Students studied Latin grammar, divorced from its living language context, for no particular purpose (other than it was a tradition to study Latin). Subjects began being taught in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. People started writing in the vernacular more than ever. Latin lost its use as a communicative tool. Yet students who grew up learning Latin this way began applying it to foreign languages. Grammar-Translation was born.
But soon enough, the scientific revolution caught up to language study. Linguistics, especially Second Language Acquisition study, snuffed out Grammar-Translation quick enough—which is why we don’t see it broadly applied to “modern” languages anymore—but it remained, vestigially, as the default choice for the “dead” classical languages, divorced from its roots as a means of communication.
In other words, if we ask the question from above: “Who designed it?” the answer is… kind of no-one. It just happened, due to circumstances. When more effective pedagogies, actually designed for teaching languages, arose, Grammar-Translation was naturally phased out—except for the dead classical languages, which felt they had no other choice.
A Classical Education for Tibetan requires speaking in Tibetan
The point here is that Esukhia believes “a classical education in Tibetan” would be far more effective than simply studying “classical Tibetan” divorced from its oral and social contexts. “Learning a language” is something different from “learning about a language.” Studying in Tibetan, the way a classical education studied in Latin, requires that we use Tibetan as a means of communication—or in other words, like the actual language that it is.
If we’re studying in English, we’re thinking in English; if we’re thinking in English, we aren’t thinking in Tibetan. Which means we aren’t, for example, “reading” Tibetan. We’re decoding the Tibetan, word-by-word; any “comprehension” that takes place is English comprehension… Grammar-Translation precludes us from developing actual reading comprehension, in Tibetan. (Compare how you’re reading this English post to how you “read” in Tibetan; can you really call the two processes by the same name?)
Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll discuss if Tibetan is really a dead classical language (like Sanskrit)…