The Gregory Jay Blog

Why I'm studying Tibetan

I have been study Tibetan for six years now. In 2015 I took a trip to Nepal and climbed to Everest Base Camp. Around that time I had wanted to start learning a new foreign language. I had long since stopped learning Chinese and out of pure curiosity I short-listed Tibetan and Farsi as potential languages to learn. Long story short I chose Tibetan and started learning before my trip as I knew there was a large Tibetan community in Nepal.

Armed with the alphabet and some basics I went to Nepal hoping to make use of them as much as I could. Nepal exceeded my expectations in every way. From the moment I touched down in Kathmandu I had the feeling I was privy to some small secluded kingdom on the top of the world - this is the way Tibet has often been described in the past.

After coming back from the Everest Region I stayed in Kathmandu for a fortnite and took the opportunity to visit the great stupa at Boudhanath. This was just after the Earthquake and the stupa was still damaged but repairs had already begun. The earthquake and a recent conflict with India meant that there was a severe oil shortage in the country and so the amount I could travel was limited. Rather than travelling out of the city to stay at the Kopan Monestery I stayed in Kathmandu and soaked up the atmosphere (and enjoyed the time off!)

When I arrived back in China my motivation was high and I found a teacher online and began having Tibetan lessons. Over the next few years I learned a lot and became conversational, sometimes studying hard and making good progress and at others not touching my Tibetan books for a few months. By 2019 I started thinking about giving it up. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to continue and I couldn't answer the question "why was I learning Tibetan in the first place?" I was discouraged because I had stopped making progress, I knew that to make more progress was going to require a much larger commitment and time spent.

I went back and forth between giving it up completely and diving in and having daily classes to really improve, all the time desperate to know why I should, and why I had been, learning it at all.

I finally came up with a solution! I planned a trip to India, Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama. This was where my language school was located and so I decided to go there and study full-time for a month in the Himalayas. By the end of this trip, I thought, I would at the very least know if I wanted to continue learning and hopefully it would be able to give a good reason why.

Being in Dharamshala reminded me of my first few weeks in China, I was learning so much new vocabulary just from being in a Tibetan enviroment and the progress was really motivating. At Esukhia (The language School) I met a few other students and asked each of them their reason for learning Tibetan.

There were a pair of old Taiwanese ladies who came every year, it was nice being able to talk to them in a mix of Chinese and Tibetan. They were there to learn Tibetan so that they could be better Buddhists. Though I feel it was also a nice holiday they take together each year.

A young man, Danny often had class around the same time as me, he always seemed full of positive energy. He was learning Tibetan to spread the gospel to Tibetans there in India. He had a bag full of Tibetan Bibles he had managed to get into the country.

A young girl from Germany was there for a short stay, she was an undergraduate studying Mongolian back home. She told me she had spent some time in Mongolia and was learning Tibetan to diversity her studies. Mongolian and Tibetan cultures are obviously closly related and so this seemed like a good idea.

There was also a Canadian couple that I saw everyday. They had recently arrived but intended to stay at the language school for six months to learn as much Tibetan as possible before moving into a Tibetan Monestery to study the Dharma.

I also met Jed, he had what sounded to me like perfect Tibetan. I never saw him in the language school having class but he was often hanging around. We went for lunch one day and so I got to quiz him a little. He was a PHD candidate studying Religious Studies specialising in Tibetan Buddhism.

And then there was me. Hearing their reasons for learning Tibetan didn't deter me, I was enjoying learning and that was good enough for me. Maybe that was my reason, because I enjoyed it.

When I came back home to China though my motivation took a huge hit. Obviously I couldn't continue to learn at the same rate as when I was in Dharamshala and actually I noticed I started to loose some of what I had learned there. It was demoralising and I stopped having classes or studying for about a year. (This coincided with the pandemic which was a good excuse I used to justify it to myself.)

Early 2021 I picked it back up and decided to have another go. And once I rededicated myself and started studying regularly I saw some progress and the motivation came back. This is when I realised that my reason for learning Tibetan is that I enjoy the progress - it gives me a sense of satisfaction. I only make the progress when I dedicate myself and that fuels the motivation, it's a process that spirals me up. I just need to keep on top of the habit of learning daily and the 'why' will take care of itself.

Greg is a true Sinophile, fluent in Chinese and proficient in Tibetan he is a homeschooling Dad that also consults on the side. You'll often find him cigar in mouth, book in hand, waiting for someone to finish their work or for the coffee to brew.