In our last post (Speaking Tibetan is Classical), we said that a language education that truly embodied classical principles would involve not just “reading” and “translation,” but also speaking, listening, and writing—in other words, all four language skills. We discussed the history of how classical Latin lost these communicative skills, and how Tibetan borrowed Latin’s Grammar-Translation method via Sanskrit.
We then said we’d next talk about how Tibetan is nothing like Sanskrit (or Latin)—though even if it were, we’d suggest that we use all four language skills, anyway. (We note that you may find spoken immersion programs for any of your favorite ‘dead’ classical languages, like Ancient Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit).
Tibetan is not a Dead Classical Language
Tibetan is not a dead classical language. It seems that, being a literary language of classical Buddhist texts, Tibetan has been conflated with Sanskrit. But Sanskrit is Indo-European; Tibetan is Sino-Tibetan. These languages come from totally different parts of the world.They’re unrelated linguistically.
Sanskrit dates back to antiquity, to at least 5th century BCE (the informal Prakrits were then already distinct from formal Sanskrit); Buddhism doesn’t reach Tibet until well over 1,000 years later. Tibetan’s literary heyday is not antiquity, but the middle ages. They’re unrelated in time period.
Tibetan is a Living Diglossia
Tibetan is not dead; it exists as a living tradition (see, for example, our previous post: Classical Literary Tibetan is a Living Oral Tradition). Visit any Tibetan monastery and you may witness how texts are alive: they are recited, taught, read, and studied. Read any text written by living Tibetans and you may witness how little the literary language has changed.
What is a diglossia? A diglossia is when a language has a strong contrast between the language used for formal, prestigious, literary purposes on one hand and informal, everyday, common uses on the other. But even though they are distinct, they exist as a continuum between formal and informal contexts.
The quintessential diglossia is Arabic. If we compare it to Tibetan, both have a large body of culturally-defining literature (Tibetan Buddhist Canon / the Quran) and both scriptural languages date to the 7th century (the Middle Ages, not Antiquity).
So while we can distinguish between the kind of language used for speech versus the kind used for writing, both are still living forms used by native speakers. And reports from Arabic classrooms suggest that students easily and naturally learn to speak/listen in vernacular and read/write in literary, side by side.
We may do the same for Tibetan! Esukhia strives to provide just this: a comprehensive language education, that works with all four language skills, and mirrors native-like understanding.