How An Encounter With Tibetan Monks Inspired Christine To Learn Three New Languages

What is it that makes me so happy about language learning?

It's not just about showing that the human brain is capable of miraculous feats. It's also about using language as a lmetaphor for understanding other people.

LWhen Fluent reader Christine McKenna contacted me by email with her story, I was drawn to it immediately. She speaks of language changing her perspective, and tells a story of how incredible it is to dive in and let your studies lead you to a new life. Christine is a yoga teacher living in the US, and has been studying languages for more than a decade.

Her language choices are Tibetan, Sanskrit and French. Intrigued? Then read on to find out how she connected to those languages.

If you're curious about diving into the languages mentioned in this post, you can download a little bonus page full of great resources from Christine and me. Click the button to get our recommendations.

It Started With Tibetan Monks

Before my current life as a yoga teacher, I was a software developer for 23 years.

In middle age, I developed an interest in broadening my horizons to something beyond full-time engagement with technology. I encountered Tibetan monks who had come to perform rituals at the Sackler Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC. They explained that they lived in India as refugees.

This was late 2001 and they were doing a healing ritual for Americans after the 9/11 attacks. Impressed by their generosity. These people lived as refugees, yet were concerned for us! 

Exploring further, I met a translator and teacher of Tibetan philosophy who said there were linguistic and cultural nuances that were difficult or impossible to communicate in English. Drawn to find out more about this phenomenon, I began to study Tibetan language.

After a few starting pains (there are many dialects and variants), I found my solid grounding in literary Tibetan. Later I went to India and lived in a Tibetan refugee community. I took courses, helped out with various tasks (teaching technical skills, editing English translations), and developed my spoken Tibetan. After about eight months, I traveled to Nepal, to live in Tibetan communities and study.

My most engaging learning occurred while listening to conversations in public places. In Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, Tibetan conversations would flow freely as I visited teahouses and other public places. I was listening for cultural assumptions and how the language was being used. Listening was easier for me than constructing sentences of my own, so this helped move my skills along.

After I had learned a certain amount, I decided to take my next steps in conversation and scholarship. I returned to the US and a move to the East Coast gave me the opportunity to study Tibetan and Sanskrit at the University of Virginia.

Next Steps: Sanskrit and French

As part of my History of Asian Religions degree, I found myself adding more languages, too. I took up Sanskrit to better understand literary Tibetan.

While exploring history and availability of Tibetan-language manuscripts, I realized considerable research had been published in French! The French have a long history of Oriental studies - you need only visit the Website of Bibliothèque nationale de France and enter tibetain in the search to find out more. So after a while, I became persuaded I should study French to be the best and most responsible researcher for the history of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism.

In the university environment, I was typically more than twice the age of the next-oldest student in my classes. This was not a problem; I never felt out-of-place. I seemed to have fewer social distractions, knew exactly what I wanted from each class and remained very focused. Contrary to stereotype, I was often more comfortable with technology than some of my classmates. I seemed to be the only one in my French class to prefer an electronic dictionary to the traditional printed versions.

Language and Culture

In the Tibetan community, I encountered a philosophy and culture in which compassion is emphasized.

This shows itself in the language in wonderful ways: Verb tense and aspect differ significantly from English, in ways I hadn't imagined. Initially, I would ask a bilingual Tibetan, "How would I say [something or other] in Tibetan?" and they would respond "You wouldn't."

Puzzling, but I finally understood that the world-view is significantly different and the language corresponds to that. Also some distinctions have historically not arisen; Tibetans have black hair, and there are traditionally only two words for hair color, black and what they were calling “blonde”. I was informed that my dark-brown locks are blonde for their purposes.

Tibetan Poems and Proverbs

Tibetan Poems and Proverbs

To immerse oneself in traditional Tibetan writings is to immerse oneself in a culture that values kindness and compassion over material concerns that pervade English language. This is not to say all Tibetans are saints or that I have not encounter Tibetans behaving badly. However, I find the mainstream culture inspiring. The centers of learning have long been monasteries; the head of government until very recently was also a spiritual leader--the Dalai Lama, said to embody compassion. Meditative practices are part of the culture.

To immerse oneself in traditional Tibetan literature, and much of their modern media is, typically, an effective way to pause and creatively re-direct thoughts based on Western cultural biases.

Everyday Language Immersion

There is much more I’d like to learn about these languages and the cultures they express! Right now I type most of my notes in Tibetan and Sanskrit; I would like to spend more time on hand-writing and calligraphy.

I often choose to immerse in language, sometimes simply crossing the border and spending time with French Canadians, or with Tibetan refugees in the U.S. or abroad. I may spend a day at home watching videos and reading books in a particular language, and I find that fluency develops - or resurfaces - and I lose some cultural baggage. Languages make me better at taking a new perspective.

Currently, I need to stay close to home, with little opportunity to travel. However, spending a day totally immersed in French or Tibetan - videos, reading, writing, even thinking in a chosen language - feels like a vacation because I make a mental shift. I also have occasional access to a Tibetan language conversation partner, or can video chat with one of my French Canadian friends.

Start Learning Tibetan and Sanskrit

Have you studied any of these ancient Asian languages? What is your experience with the compassionate world view of Tibetan culture?

If this story has made you curious to try out the languages for yourself, don't forget that you can get Christine's recommendations as a bonus to this post right here.