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Jeremy Burke

In February of this year, Trace Foundation’s Latse Library launched its first language class, Pakéling: Fundamentals of Tibetan Language and Culture. This elementary level class was intended for adult students to learn conversational and written Tibetan. It also offered those already familiar with Tibetan the opportunity to refresh or improve their skills.

The class was taught by Tenzin Norbu, an instructor at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University who teaches all different levels of students at the university. The students who attended the course were from various backgrounds and nationalities (Tibetan, American, Korean, French, German, Italian, Sri Lankan), but all had a shared desire and interest to deepen their understanding of Tibetan culture through the study of its language.

I had only limited exposure to the Tibetan language before taking the class, mainly through my colleagues at Trace Foundation. In four years of working at Trace Foundation, I have been able to pick up some basic phrases here and there, but was not able to follow the spirited and vibrant conversations of my coworkers. When I heard that the library would be offering a language class to the public, I was one of the first people to sign up.

The class was mainly conducted in Tibetan in order to immerse students in the language and allow us to become attuned to the sounds of the spoken language. I found the first classes overwhelming given my unfamiliarity with Tibetan. Many words sound similar and mispronouncing words can easily lead to misunderstanding and embarrassment.

The written language provided further difficulty for me. The script is written from left to right like Latin-based languages, however the vowels are written above or below the consonant, similar to other Sanskrit-based languages. There is also no spacing between words, so it took me some time to be able to identify individual words.

By the end of the class, I was able to read and understand the Tibetan alphabet and some basic vocabulary, and was also able to speak a limited amount of conversational Tibetan. Having this foundation, I then enrolled in the intermediate-level class taught by the Director of Latse Library, Pema Bhum, which commenced in late spring.

The intermediate class was designed around an old Tibetan folktale “The Farmer and the Nomad,” and each week we would read the story and use it as the basis for learning grammar rules, sentence construction, and new vocabulary. The class also included lessons in Tibetan calligraphy by Phuntsok Dhumkhang, a highly-regarded calligrapher and musician who has taught both subjects for many years.

If you are interested in learning more or enhancing your Tibetan language skills, the library plans to offer additional classes in the fall. As one of my classmates, Seunghun Lee, an Assistant Professor of Linguistics and TESOL at Central Connecticut State University says, “Attending the Pakéling classes at Trace Foundation is a great way to get an introduction to the Tibetan language. Teachers make sure that everyone in the class understands the materials and allow students to build their Tibetan competency.”

Jeremy Burke has been the controller at Trace Foundation since 2006. He previously worked with the Institute for International Education.