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The Joy and Challenges of Learning Tibetan Language

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As I look back at the year that I have spent here at Rangjung Yeshe Institute, perhaps the most enjoyable, yet challenging, aspect of my studies has been learning the Tibetan language. For years I have felt a strong desire to be able to speak, read, and write in the Tibetan language, and from the moment I started studying here a little more than one year ago, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and heartfelt appreciation for the opportunity that was being afforded to me. The ability to converse with local Tibetans, and to begin to understand the sacred texts written by great masters and the dharma talks that are given is something that has brought an incredible sense of satisfaction into my life. 
Although I still have much to learn–and of course the learning never ends–since I have set goals for myself and feel like I have put forth a respectable amount of effort in my studies, I feel like I am making decent progress and that my aspirations are well within reach. While there are many students who are understandably anxious and nervous about studying Tibetan, I try to do my best to encourage them, because I firmly believe that, with very few exceptions, everyone can master a new language and there is nothing inherently difficult about learning Tibetan, it is just different from the Western languages we are used to and nothing more.  While we still must acknowledge the inevitable challenges involved with the study of any foreign language, it is far from impossible to become competent in the Tibetan language and there are many steps one can take in order to improve their studies; here are just a few that I have found very helpful:
·       Speak the language as much as you can, especially with local native speakers. It can be intimidating to actually try to have conversations with locals, particularly at the beginning, but each conversation is an opportunity to enhance your speaking ability and learn something new; and you will be amazed by how impressed and grateful Tibetans can be by the mere fact that you are attempting to learn their language. Try to speak the language outside of class everyday, and you will absolutely notice considerable improvement.

·       Find a conversation buddy in a fellow student who is at the same level as you. That way you can constantly engage each other in the language, without necessarily feeling intimidated, and you still get the benefit of practice and you will definitely still be able to learn from each other. It can be quite fun!

·       Don’t be afraid to study Colloquial and Classical Tibetan at the same time. Even though it can seem overwhelming at the beginning, the two really reinforce each other; I find myself learning things in Classical Tibetan all the time that help me understand something better in Colloquial and vice versa. You should expect to progress much faster with such an approach.

·       Take advantage of all forms of Tibetan media, whether printed (books, poetry, magazines, etc.), television, or song. You can easily pick up new vocabulary and familiarize yourself with how Tibetans speak and write, while simultaneously learning a lot about Tibetan culture.

·       Living with a Tibetan family is of course one of the best methods for improving your conversation skills. Although not everyone has a pleasant experience living with Tibetan families, I can at least say from my own side that it has been on the whole a wonderful experience; and I say that having stayed with the same family for a year now! I certainly would not have learned so much without their kindness and guidance.
If you are new to Tibetan language or plan to study it in the near future I hope I have been able to offer some kind of reassurance. If we have the right attitude and effort, our success is guaranteed. Of course there will be mistakes and challenges, but if anything those are signs of progress because it means that we are trying, and in trying, we will succeed. 
We must appreciate the incredibly precious opportunity we have to study such a remarkable and profound language, and be willing to have an open mind and learn from it. We must also take joy in our effort and progress, each step of the way leads to new insights and experiences which can open our mind to worlds we never knew existed. We all have limitless potential and it is our responsibility to acknowledge it and actualize it, for our own benefit and for the benefit of others.

~Joseph from the US

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