Interview with Dr. Robert Barnett: “Tibetan Language: Policy and Practice”

By Matt Adler, Culturally Curious | January 20, 2015

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve taken an interest in Tibet. As a high schooler, I was a member of Students for a Free Tibet and last year, I participated in the International Campaign for Tibet’s lobby day in D.C. As a Jew, I feel great solidarity with the Tibetan people- a people displaced from their land and striving to maintain their culture both at home and in their Diaspora.

A key aspect of culture is language. In this interview, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Tibet expert Dr. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about the Tibetan language. The language is complex and in fact there are various dialects that are (upon first encounter) mutually unintelligible. A Tibetan told once told me his mother met the Dalai Lama. He asked her how it went. She said “it would’ve been better if he spoke Tibetan”- the two spoke different dialects. Dr. Barnett sheds light on the dialects of Tibetan as well as political, economic, and educational issues facing the language. I am grateful for the time he took to share his thoughts with me. Here is the unedited interview below:

  1. To what degree is the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan emerging as a lingua franca (in diaspora communities and/or within Tibet) and why?

The Tibetan spoken among exiles is more or less a variant of Lhasa Tibetan – you can hear some differences in accent and phraseology, but there’s no problem for speakers of each variant to understand each other. So Lhasa Tibetan has become a standard for those who interact with exiles, and is the form of Tibetan that’s usually taught to foreigners. That’s a function of history and politics, not statistics, though: the exiles are not significant numerically – 97% of Tibetans remain in Tibet – but they are influential outside Tibet through their engagement with the media, politics, and religion. Within the entire Tibetan area, Lhasa Tibetan is spoken or understood by roughly half the population and is the dialect used on Tibet TV, so it’s the most prevalent form of Tibetan.

But Amdo Tibetan, spoken by about a fifth to a quarter of all Tibetans, is of huge and growing importance, even though Lhasa Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan are mutually unintelligible at first encounter. But it only takes about a month of familiarization for a Tibetan to become accustomed to the differences, which are mostly vowel changes and consonantal switches (for example, ‘b’, ‘j’, ‘e’ and ‘i’ in Lhasa are sounded approximately as ‘w’, ‘shj’, ‘a’ and ‘e’ in Amdo), so speakers of one can quickly learn the other. Amdo Tibetan is now competing with Lhasa Tibetan as a major form of the language, simply because so much cultural and intellectual creativity – music, film, television dramas, poetry, fiction, essays, commentaries and debate – is produced by Tibetans from the Amdo area, including among exiles, and circulated on dvds or other media. This is partly because language policy is much more progressive there than in the Lhasa area. Kham Tibetan, also spoken by about a fifth of all Tibetans, is easily intelligible in its standard form to both Amdowans and Lhasa Tibetans, and recently has been given a television station of its own, so it is significant too.

  1. How has Chinese occupation impacted the Tibetan language?

The Chinese take-over of Tibet introduced mass media to Tibetans for the first time – modern printing, radio, and later television and more recently DVDs and so forth. It also imposed a certain, limited set of ideas and vocabulary on the population and established an official, foreign language as the dominant form of discourse, with the result that Tibetan became “minoritized” and seen as secondary or deficient. This kind of aggressive intervention in a society comes at a very high cost for traditional culture and for the people, but it leads to beneficial outcomes too, such as compulsory education, increased literacy and some standardization of local languages. The Chinese concentrated at first on translation of Chinese texts into Tibetan, but only texts with certain politically-approved ideas, with intensive repetition of certain key political words, terms and concepts – a kind of force-feeding of socialism, modernization theory, and Chinese nationalism. You can see how damaging this is if you talk with Tibetan political leaders of a certain kind who have been brought up on this narrow range of concepts; it is often a painful experience. Tibetan prose style in newspapers and political texts has been damaged beyond belief by the bureaucratic style and format of Chinese communist verbiage. The Chinese also introduced a special, invented form of Tibetan for use by broadcasters on television which was intended to be pan-regional, but is actually rather ugly. During the high Maoist era they also tried to remove all forms of honorific language from Tibetan too (something which only exists in Lhasa Tibetan, and which is not universally popular among Tibetans), but this effort had been abandoned by the 1980s.

Today, in the post-Mao era, the language of state mouthpieces like the newspapers, television, radio and official texts (including history texts) is still locked in the Leninist era from 35 years ago – to read an official Tibetan newspaper day after day, with its wooden terminology and endless praise of the state, is a mind-numbing experience. And China’s education policies in Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region are very damaging for Tibetan language: all middle schools there (unlike Qinghai) are required to use Chinese as the teaching medium. This is starting to happen in kindergartens now too. So a lot depends on whether the Qinghai or the Lhasa model of education is adopted in the future.

But, although there is much they are not allowed to write about, other areas of culture and language in Tibet that are less important to the state have flourished since the 1990s, making claims of cultural genocide seem overstated. The huge increase in education, publishing and distribution of commercial media has led to a surge in creative writing and publishing in Tibetan, particularly in poetry, short story writing, popular music, religious texts, and more recently in film, particularly in Amdo. But the larger problem is that Tibetans who are fluent in Tibetan find it hard to get good jobs, even in Qinghai, so in the longer term this is likely to act as a general economic disincentive for the future of Tibetan language, and the current renaissance faces serious risks and challenges unless progressive policies are introduced.

  1. What is the greatest challenge faced by people trying to preserve the Tibetan language?

We can see that the use of Tibetan is becoming partial: it’s vibrant in some areas, like the countryside, many people’s homes, the monasteries, and the areas of cultural renaissance by Tibetan artists and intellectuals. There are also Tibetan-language dramas on television, and newspapers in Tibetan, though these are almost all translated from Chinese. But in other areas of society and life, the language faces severe challenges: can Tibetan-speakers find worthwhile jobs, other than as language teachers? Certainly, it would be very rare to get a white-collar job without being fluent in Chinese, and the same for technical and commercial jobs as well. Almost all discussions and writing in China about anything considered important are done in Chinese. And, despite the regulations and the laws, officials in any meeting where a Chinese person is present revert to Chinese language. In other words, Chinese is hegemonic, it dominates all the sectors seen as “modern” and important. And Chinese policy-makers and thinkers seem to have no concept of true bilingualism: their policies are termed bilingual but are always Chinese-dominant. It’s as if they’ve never been to India, Hong Kong, or Scandinavia, where equal fluency in two languages or more is common. The struggle to put Tibetan on the same level as Chinese is huge.

  1. What role can non-Tibetans play in preserving Tibetan language and culture?

Maybe we should refuse to let visiting officials from Tibet talk to us in Chinese, as they almost always do? But few of us get that chance, and even fewer would dare to take it. Small gestures sometimes help: I admire a former student of mine who walked out of a screening of a Tibetan film at MoMA once because they showed it in a Chinese-language version. If we visit Tibet, we should demand that tour guides and operators are fluent in Tibetan. And showing whenever possible that we value Tibetan culture is worthwhile, too – and not just the bits that westerners find useful, such as religious teachings, but all forms of expression.

In theory, we should be able to help by sharing with Chinese people the lethal histories of colonialism and cultural swamping by our own societies, so that they can pressure their leaders to avoid repeating that cycle before it is too late. But we’re no position to lecture others, sadly. Even so, admitting the failures in our own cultures, we should try, each in our own way. As for bilingual language policies, we should be encouraging China’s planners to go to countries where these have been shown to work, and certainly not the US or the UK, to witness how successful policies operate. And we should be producing and disseminating research that shows the long-term economic value that comes from a strong bilingual education system.

Robert Barnett is the Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. His books include Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field (with Ronald Schwartz, 2008), Lhasa: Streets with Memories (2006) and A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Petition of the 10th Panchen Lama (1997). He has published articles on modern Tibetan history, Tibetan films and television dramas, and women and politics in Tibet, as well as on religious policies, political leadership, oral history, and exorcism rituals in contemporary Tibet. From 2000 to 2006 he ran the annual Summer Program for foreign students at Tibet University in Lhasa, as well as training projects in Tibet on ecotourism, teaching and oral culture. He was the founder and director of the Tibet Information Network, an independent news and research organization based in the UK. He is a frequent commentator and writer on Tibet-related issues for the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and other media outlets.


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