Many people think of Esukhia as a school for Tibetan language. They think of themselves as students, and as such, they believe they’ve come here to study Tibetan language, and that it is by studying that they will learn the language. They believe not only that language is a subject that can be separated out from the milieu of human experience, but that specific subjects in specific language domains, like Buddhist texts, can be studied in isolation from the rest.
Actually, if you believe that schools are places that students go to study, and that languages are just vocabularies organized by grammar rules, then Esukhia is not a school. And it has no students.
If you are here, you aren’t studying the language. (And if you are, it’s not helping you acquire any language).
To understand what I mean by that, I’d like to start by asking a simple question: What is language?
What is language?
When I ask students here, “What is language?” someone invariably answers: “Language is communication.”
That’s a right answer.
What tends to be forgotten when we (try to) study a language are the requirements of communication: 1) what is actually being communicated; and 2) that there are two or more people involved.
1) What is being communicated?
If I say the word, “apple,” what have I communicated to you? What comes to your mind?
Chances are it is not the dictionary definition of an apple (a bunch of words explicitly describing the fruit), but a mental representation of an apple, a sense-impression. Maybe it’s the image of an apple, or a memory, or even a taste or an emotion. (For example, if I say, “mushy apple” you will get a different feeling than if I say “crisp, juicy apple”—language is a living thing).
The sound “apple” stands for your mental representation of your experience of real, actual apples. Since we have each had experiences of apples in conjunction with the sound “apple,” I understand what I mean by apple when I say it, and you receive this understanding through my use of that particular sound.
And what about writing? It is one abstraction further. The written word “apple” is a symbol representing the sound “apple” which stands for your mental representation of “apple” which is based on your actual experiences of apples!
So here we come to one of our principles of language learning: language is primarily oral. And, when we’re talking about the Tibetan language in particular, it is a primarily oral tradition. It is written in a script that, by its lack of interword spacing, belays this orality. (For those of you who yearn for academic citations, please see the list of references at the bottom).
Thus, the first thing we need to do to learn a language is create links between sounds and real experiences. This link takes time and repetition: research suggests an average of 14 exposures per word. (Here, an exposure means you hear and comprehend the sound, relating it to an experience that has created an impactful mental representation).
But, of course, your “sense” of a word only begins once you’ve internalized it. Remember, communication is an inherently social activity…
2) How many people are involved?!?!
Being exposed to language over time gives a cumulative weight to the meaning of words (and groups of words, and how groups of words may interact). Our concept of “tea,” for example, is not any one specific cup of tea we drank. It is not the 14th cup of tea we drank, the moment we may have internalized, “Oh, that’s what ‘tea’ means.” It is a little bit of every cup of tea we ever drank… Not only that, but who we drank it with; where we drank it; when; and how.
Perhaps you have tried Tibetan tea. Somebody gave you a cup and said, “Here, it’s tea.” You tasted it; it was salty and buttery, and somewhere deep inside, if not aloud, you said, “No it’s not. That’s not tea.”
Tea =/= ཇ་ . If we translate word-by-word, or use English as our frame of reference, we will be in a constant state of cognitive dissonance with a real understanding of the Tibetan language. Shared experiences are the basis of our shared understanding of what language means. And if we can’t even understand simple, everyday words like “tea” in Tibetan, what hope could we have for understanding something more complicated, like religious philosophy?
Language is a function of the social brain (see references). We build a shared understanding of meaning by participating in a shared story; in other words, language is sociocultural, and inextricably so.
As native speakers of our own languages, we are used to being able to curl up, alone, with a book. If we are university students, we are intimately familiar with self-study. We’ve reached the point where authors can speak to us through their words.
What we’ve forgotten is that it took 10, 15, or 20 years of intensive language immersion to develop that skill; that we were supported by our family and our friends, our teachers and our classmates, and our whole speech community along the way. That we were immersed within the shared story of our own language and culture. So that even though we are engaging with language individually, all of that language is socioculturally encoded…
That is what Esukhia is trying to provide: an environment to engage, orally, with native speakers who are able to share the lived story of their language and culture with non-native speakers of any level…
Esukhia isn’t a school; you’re not a student
That’s what I mean when I say Esukhia is not a school. Esukhia is the environment: by understanding what language means in context, learners acquire an ability to communicate. To use the language, and to understand it when it’s used.
That’s what I mean when I say Esukhia has no students: Language skill is derived from shared experience of the trials and tribulations of communicating 1:1 with a native speaker, not through study.
That, at least, is the philosophy…
Dunbar (2003). “The Social Brain: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective.” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 32: 163-181.
Grabe, William. Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 1991. p. 388.
Kuhl, Patricia K. (2007). “Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?” Developmental Science 10:1 (2007), pp 110–120.
“Social interaction is essential for natural speech learning. The social hypothesis links early speech learning and neurobiology, and sheds light on developmental disabilities such as autism. The hypothesis also relates speech development to recent findings in neuroscience on ‘mirror neurons’.”
Lynn, Jennifer. Need for Speed: The Relationship Between Oral Reading Fluency and the… Capella University, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Proquest 2008. p. 49.
—Oral reading fluency (the ability to read fluidly with proper rhythm and intonation) is one of the best measures for reading comprehension.
Lyon, G. Reid (1997), “How Do Children Learn to Read?” Adapted from her report on Learning Disabilities Research. Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.
Mercer, Dr Neil (2015) Oxford Podcast on Education, Language, & the Social Brain.
Richards, Jack C.; Rodgers, Theodore S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 5. Also see: Coady, James; Huckin, Thomas (1997). Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
—Phonology is used as a processing mechanism during reading for word recognition, a.k.a. “phonemic awareness.” pp. 40-42.
Tournadre, Nicolas (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan (MST). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
—”It should be emphasized that prosody and accentuation are extremely important for reading Literary Tibetan, whether verse or prose. Even from a grammatical point of view it is essential to make the right pauses and these follow some prosodic rules. If those rules are not applied, the text becomes incomprehensible…” emphasis mine. (Note that Tournadre defines “Literary Tibetan” here as everything from 7th century to modern day). p. 479.
Treiman et al., (2003). “Language Comprehension and Production,” Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology, Volume 4: Experimental Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
—”Speech is as old as our species and is found in all human civilizations; reading and writing are newer and less widespread. These facts lead us to expect that readers would use the visual representations that are provided by print to recover the phonological and linguistic structure of the message. Supporting this view, readers often access phonology even when they are reading silently.” Pages 527-548.
—“…there is good evidence that phonology and other aspects of linguistic structure are retrieved in reading (see Frost, 1998 for a review)” and “…again, though writing retrieves orthography, phonology plays an important role in this process, just as it does in the process of deriving meaning from print in reading,” pages 10 & 42.
—“…prosody can help resolve lexical and syntactic ambiguities” and “…several researchers (see Warren, 1999) have demonstrated that prosody can disambiguate utterances” and “…if readers translate visually presented sentences into a phonological form, complete with prosody, these benefits may extend to reading (Bader, 1998; Slowiaczek & Clifton, 1980),” page 27 & 28.
Also see neuroscience findings linking rhythm to reading skills, for example: “…researchers found that those who had better musical training also had enhanced neural responses to speech sounds. In poorer readers this response was diminished.” and “It turns out that kids who are poor READERS have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat. In both SPEECH and music, RHYTHM (read: PROSODY) provides a temporal map with signposts to the most likely locations of MEANINGful input (emphasis mine).”