As of October, I’ve been studying Tibetan in Chicago with a friend of mine, Norbu. Norbu used to assist some of the faculty at the University of Chicago in teaching Tibetan.
On Thursday evenings I head to Norbu’s house after I’m finished seeing patients at Heartwood Center in Evanston. After driving a few minutes from Evanston, I’m sitting at his kitchen table parsing over what I was supposed to have learned the week before.
While I was in Nepal, I collected many books on Tibetan language (I really think this is what people do when they’re too lazy to actually do something.. they buy a bunch of books on the subject and then let them sit on the shelves thinking somehow that the information will jump off the page without having to do any work!) and brought these books over to the Tibetan Alliance of Chicago where I was to meet Norbu for the first time.
There he had me sit in on a class he was teaching to young Tibetan kids who were learning Tibetan reading and writing. The oldest kid was probably 10 and the youngest was about 6. I was seated in the back next to the six year old. Apparently our skills are at about the same level. Norbu had me write the Tibetan alphabet over a few times and the 6 year-old girl was to do the same. I did my best to remember what I had learned in Nepal and the little girl scribbled with crayon on her paper and put Barbie stickers on her paper. I really felt like Billy Madison sitting in the back of a class in an all too small kid’s school chair, learning how to read and write for the first time with my pint-sized comrades.
Since this first meeting, I’ve gone to Norbu’s house, like I mentioned, on a weekly basis. From October to December, I’ve worked out of the Grade 1 Tibetan workbook given to children when they’re first learning to read and write. This allowed me to really focus on the sounds, grammar, and reading so that I need not struggle with that once working on the language itself.
At first I learned the typed script that one would find in manuscript or text or a printed mantra, but soon found that this was not enough as it is not how people write in Tibetan from day to day. After learning this, Norbu taught me the equivalent of writing in cursive so that I could read people’s handwritten words in addition to textbooks.
After getting far enough in this book, Norbu started me on “The Manual of Standard Tibetan.” This is what they use at the University of Chicago and what they use at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s school in Bodhanath, Kathmandu.
Starting out with the children’s book saved me a lot of frustrating work that is in the beginning of the textbook. I learned the alphabet and how to read and write like any other Tibetan child (about 25 years later) and could then jump into lessons such as this:
My continued interest in learning Tibetan is two-fold. First it is because of the work I wish to do in the Dho-Tarap Valley which I will be writing more about in following posts. Second, because it is the most fascinating language I’ve ever studied. Learning languages nowadays gives me the same satisfaction I felt while dissecting a piece of classical music when I was younger. Not sure what that is, but my guess is that the same parts of the brain are involved. Like solving a case, diagnosing a patient correctly, figuring out a puzzle… learning a new language is a challenge that when met, allows one access to a previously inaccessible world.. and that feeling for me is completely intoxicating.