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Tibetans Fight to Keep Their Language Alive

The diaspora is preserving Tibetan as Chinese oppression grows at home.

By , a J.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
A Tibetan prayer flag
A Tibetan prayer flag
An undated image of a Tibetan prayer flag at the Pema Osel Ling retreat center in California. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Language rights, an expression of national and ethnic identity, have long been a focus for Tibetan human rights advocates. That focus has sharpened in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ratcheted up its efforts in restricting Tibetans under its control from exercising their language rights. This language restriction is part of a longer trend of ethnic cleansing and minority suppression—seeking to strike at Tibetans’ ability to access their heritage and identity through their language.

In 2018, a Chinese court sentenced a Tibetan man, Tashi Wangchuk, to five years of prison because he advocated for Tibetans’ right to their own language, a right by Chinese law. In 2019, another Tibetan man, Tsering Dorje, was detained for a month in a so-called reeducation facility for discussing the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother over the phone—the Chinese authorities framed this as a political crime.

The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama—himself living in exile—has emphasized the issue. He has implored Tibetans to study their own language, despite conceding it was not a hugely useful one professionally. While there are many learned non-Tibetan scholars studying the language, the Dalai Lama stated, “Since Tibetan is our mother tongue, we are the ones who should preserve it.”

Language rights, an expression of national and ethnic identity, have long been a focus for Tibetan human rights advocates. That focus has sharpened in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ratcheted up its efforts in restricting Tibetans under its control from exercising their language rights. This language restriction is part of a longer trend of ethnic cleansing and minority suppression—seeking to strike at Tibetans’ ability to access their heritage and identity through their language.

In 2018, a Chinese court sentenced a Tibetan man, Tashi Wangchuk, to five years of prison because he advocated for Tibetans’ right to their own language, a right by Chinese law. In 2019, another Tibetan man, Tsering Dorje, was detained for a month in a so-called reeducation facility for discussing the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother over the phone—the Chinese authorities framed this as a political crime.

The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama—himself living in exile—has emphasized the issue. He has implored Tibetans to study their own language, despite conceding it was not a hugely useful one professionally. While there are many learned non-Tibetan scholars studying the language, the Dalai Lama stated, “Since Tibetan is our mother tongue, we are the ones who should preserve it.”

Today in Lhasa, Tibetan teachers are almost wholly prevented from teaching in Tibetan to students; Tibetan students are taught almost all of their subjects (except for their Tibetan language courses) in Chinese. The CCP’s ideology is also forced into curriculums. Instead of education that appreciates and preserves their heritage, Tibetans face psychic attacks against their very existence in an educational curriculum that is imposed upon them.

The diaspora has thus been charged with carrying the flame of the language—but the pressures on minority communities can be intense. The literacy rate of Tibetan refugees is higher than of Tibetans residing in occupied Tibet, and Tibetan schools in India educate thousands of Tibetan youths every year. With the highest population of Tibetan refugees residing in India at approximately 100,000, Tibetan children there have access to Tibetan education that far surpasses the education available to them in other diaspora communities.

Tibetan associations provide a home away from home. Some Tibetan associations boast robust community centers that serve as a nexus for community engagement. In North America, over 30 Tibetan associations exist, and about 24 of them dually function as Tibetan weekend schools. These associations also serve as a common venue for birthday parties, graduations, and charity concerts. Through weekend schools, volunteer educators teach Tibetan youths the Tibetan language, culture, and performing arts. Much of the curriculum taught at language schools is formulated by the Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Education, and the Central Tibetan Administrations holds several annual events to try to enhance Tibetan associations and general Tibetan outreach. A lack of institutional direction is not the main hindrance for language preservation in diaspora Tibetan communities.

However, a lack of permanent spaces severely inhibits the chance to teach in a genuine classroom and students’ ability to learn. About 14 Tibetan associations are dependent on renting classrooms, as those associations do not own a community center, and, in some instances, relatively small and poor communities cannot afford a physical space. This is the case for the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia (TAP), in a city with about 160 Tibetans. TAP used to rent space through the Kalmyk Brotherhood Society’s community center, but that center was sold during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the TAP community can rent spaces, it can now only afford to do so occasionally.

“Without a physical space, the children don’t get to communicate with each other in Tibetan,” said Phuntsok Lhagyal, the secretary of TAP. “It is harder to teach them traditional Tibetan dances, and without a physical space, there is no engagement within the students.”

According to Lhagyal, Tibetans in Philadelphia are largely working-class people in the construction, housekeeping, and nursing sectors, and only about 10 percent of the adult population has a U.S. college degree. In the past few years, TAP set itself the daunting task of raising money for a permanent community center. Without a physical space, TAP has relied on Zoom video calls for weekend schools, which pales in comparison to physical education, to the detriment of the Tibetan children who rely on these schools to receive a cultural education.

When asked about the other challenges of Tibetan language preservation among the diaspora, Lhagyal said: “[A]ll the younger generation grow up and go to school with all American student so they naturally neglect Tibetan culture and traditions. Another thing is most of the parents are working full time, so they don’t have enough time to spend with their children and teach them Tibetan language.”

Tibetans face the same problems other immigrant communities have in terms of affordable and accessible education. Tibetans today are growing up in the United States at a time when Tibetan-children’s books are still nascent and without standardized Tibetan American textbooks. And the Tibetan association fees can present a prohibitive barrier for some Tibetan Americans while simultaneously not being enough to cover the associations’ costs.

Tibetan American youth, in addition, face a unique struggle between practicality, feasibility, and intense duty—an intense duty cemented by the ongoing erosion of the Tibetan language by the CCP. Although that duty rests on many Tibetan youths’ consciences, Tibetan youths realistically still can’t master the Tibetan language without strenuous effort.

In a small survey of Tibetans in their teens and in early 20s, all the participants said that they first began attending Tibetan schools out of familial obligation—not pure choice. This is a sentiment that is widely but quietly held among the Tibetan community. Many diaspora Tibetans, including elders and youth, strongly desire language preservation, but this desire is stiffly met with the realities of living in a country far from Tibet.

All the survey participants said that learning Tibetan is difficult in the United States. “Growing up, there was certainly a lack of urgency in Tibetan cultural preservation among Tibetan American youth,” said Kunsang Dorjee, a 21-year-old Tibetan. “Looking at learning Tibetan as more of a chore than a cultural necessity made it difficult for teachers to motivate the students to learn and practice beyond the classroom.”

Tibetan American youth split their time between English-based school and their once-a-week Tibetan school. Because of the scarcity of time, these youth must weigh the opportunity cost of studying one language over another: One language is the language of mainstream culture, politics, and business in the United States, while the other language is scarcely heard outside of the home. All of the survey participants primarily use their Tibetan language skills to speak to family members, especially to older Tibetan relatives who may not have a strong grasp of conversational English.

But for the vast majority of jobs in the United States, Tibetan proficiency is not applicable, and Tibetan youth feel more incentivized to prioritize English. In the survey, many participants expressed dissatisfaction with their weekend school education—which is often taught by old-school volunteers who have no prior teaching experience. While English speakers have the luxury of regimented public schooling and a society that demands English proficiency, Tibetan learners must seek out a Tibetan education and adjust to often not ideal conditions.

Language politics plays a tangible pressure in motivating and demotivating Tibetan students. Many of the survey participants poignantly noted that they felt an acute pressure to study the Tibetan language because of the language rights repression in Tibet, as expressed by 23-year-old Tibetan American Tenzin Rabga Chomphel: “Some Tibetans among the diaspora may feel extra pressure/guilt to learn the mother tongue due to being aware of how repressed our language is in the mainland.” Many Tibetan youths have grown up in households where elders mourn the loss of Tibet and Tibetan rights. Although Tibetan proficiency among Tibetan American youth is left to be desired, vibrant Tibetan communities exist in U.S. cities, such as New York and Minneapolis. Though Tibetan youth may struggle with speaking perfect Tibetan, Tibetan communities regularly interact with one another and engage in annual cultural and political actions.

Despite the preservation struggles of diaspora Tibetans, this is a story of community strength and gumption. Almost all of the survey participants said that they learned later in their lives to truly appreciate learning the Tibetan language. The Tibetan cultural preservation efforts are not perfect, but the Tibetan movement inspires other similarly situated groups; as noted by Hong Kong activist Jeffrey Ngo, “It’s far more cultural than political if our goal is to preserve a Hong Kong identity.”

The volunteer teachers and Tibetan association leadership work for meager or no pay. For many of them, the effort is a labor of love: a love for their people and for Tibet. Many of the Tibetan youth who attend weekend Tibetan schools may never set foot in Tibet. These students will experience Tibet through stories and YouTube videos. Tibetan language schools allow these Tibetan youth the ability to learn Tibetan, and, in those moments, they enter a realm untouchable and precious.

Kelsang Dolma is a J.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She previously worked at the Office of Tibet-DC and graduated with a B.A. from Yale. Twitter: @Kelsang_Dolma_

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