Like a River Flowing

5 Dec

I’m learning another language again. Yes, I know. Clearly, this is the insanity talking, because why the nine hells would I decide to pick up another miserably hard Asian language with tones and an intricate writing system? Well, actually it kind of went along the lines of Professor Xu telling me there was a graduate seminar on basic Tibetan that she was holding for her students. This meant that I had damn well better be there, or else. (It was implied.)

So, Tibetan. Yeah.

It turns out that the teacher of this class is a grad student my age, a Tibetan guy named Dorjee. He wants to study at UC Boulder. Small world, huh? His English is rudimentary and he doesn’t know any linguistic vocabulary at all. Which is a problem, since I don’t know the Chinese words for linguistic terms either. So for the past month or so, I’ve muddled along in class, reciting after the teacher along with everyone else. The class is small, no more than ten students, but I’m thankfully not the only foreigner there. A Korean woman old enough to be my mother – we determined this when she cheerfully announced that her middle daughter is my age and studying at college in Seoul – is also part of the department. I’m glad that she’s there; occasionally, when things are going not-so-swimmingly, Ann and I will glance at each other and exchange these beautiful, “what the hell are we doing, learning Tibetan in Chinese?” looks.

The class is primarily based around how to read Tibetan. I’ve learnt more spoken Tibetan (Lhasa dialect, if you’re interested in that sort of thing) from the Talk Tibetan podcast, which I highly recommend. I can safely say one thing for certain after a month of classes every Wednesday morning: written Tibetan is patently ridiculous. This isn’t racism or language elitism; you’re talking to a girl who voluntarily studied Chinese and their character-based writing system is so insane it defies belief and makes strong men and women cry.  [See the section on writing in David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard for validation from another source.]

Tibetan at least has the common decency to have an alphabet. Good for it. Well done, Tibetan. Unfortunately, every letter has, by default, the [ah] ending. So, a letter reads gah, kah, jah, or tzah, etc. In order to use the other vowels, diacritics (squiggly lines put above or below letters) are used to differentiate between a gah, gi, gu, ge, or go. Not hard, right? Well, not if you’re trying to glean a method to the madness at 9 am and only have a thoroughly unhelpful syllabary in Chinese and Tibetan at your disposal. I only managed this one with the help of Susan and the Internet, both of which are awesome.

Another fun thing is that spoken Tibetan and written Tibetan have diverged somewhat since the Buddhists adapted Sanskrit to the vernacular in the eight century. So any given word will have a few unvoiced consonants. I can’t bitch about this nearly as much given the English language’s propensity for hanging on to extra letters here and there in words. (through, I’m looking at you.)

We haven’t even gotten into grammar or basic sentence syntax yet, but from what I’ve gleaned from research on the internet, it will indeed make me cry. They have two ways of saying “goodbye” for crying out loud – galeshu is if you are leaving and galepe is if you’re the one staying behind. I’m curious as to what word is used if both parties are leaving, but I shudder to ask. Knowing my luck, it’ll be an entirely different word.

My personal goal in this class isn’t to become the next world-renowned scholar in translating Tibetan manuscripts into English. I know my limitations, people. Frankly, I’d like a little conversational Tibetan, enough to get me around in Lhasa or Kham when I go, not that I’m visiting either in the near future. It’s definitely winter here and if you think I’m going anywhere where they measure the snowfalls in feet you’d better have another think coming. Still, a little emergency Tibetan of the “hi how are you where’s the bathroom?” variety wouldn’t be amiss. Besides, how many people get to say they are being paid to study Tibetan? That’s what I thought.

Note: If you are Tibetan and thoroughly offended as to my representation of your native language, let me know, for Buddha’s sake, but be aware that I’ll probably take the opportunity to bug you about my homework problems and where my grammar is going wrong.


3 Responses to “Like a River Flowing”

  1. Karen December 6, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    Wow, I’m intimidated and I’m not even studying Tibetan. However, my one year of conversational Japanese at the community college gave me a clue. You are a brave girl. Can you paste in Tibetan language phrases into Google and get a translation? Hmm, when I edited your paper, it did not work too well. There must be idiomatic or colloquial Tibetan as well. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  2. Cathi December 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Jane, I am rereading all of your posts in my training class to learn the new Continental computer reservation system called SHARES. Your stories are comforting as everyone in our class is ready to retire, quit, rebid to the lobby, or otherwise, throw in the towel and give up. The youngsters are surfing fb whilst the seniors (those of us with more than a decade of seniority) are diligently trying to learn. The system itself dates back to the early computer days of DOS (you probably don’t even know what that is!!) and is so archaic and outdated it’s laughable. Note; DO not try to use your passes anytime in the month of March when we supposedly turn off our modern, fastair…. we all predict total chaos. At any rate, your stuggles and fortitude are inspiring me to hang in there:)

    • Jane December 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

      Hi Cathi! Mom was bitching about the new computer system too, but if United’s been using a DOS system, it’s about time they updated. (I didn’t know any DOS systems that are still running!) I’m not planning for any travel in March. I’ll bet it’ll be bucketloads of fun for you all! :D You’ll get the hang of it, trust me. Good luck!

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