Learning Tibetan, One Weekend at a Time

Janna Weiss was waiting for her Tibetan calligraphy coach in Dunkin’ Donuts opposite 74th Roosevelt Jackson Heights subway on Valentine’s day this year. She had her “Ume,” Tibetan cursive script, practice book opened on the table. It was an old copy of a calligraphy book passed on to her by a kind resident of Lhasa, Tibet after a friend failed to find a copy of the book in the capital.

“My friend searched everywhere, but just couldn’t find it. So this Tibetan man gave his copy.” She added, “I should make more copies of it.”

Jackson Heights is home to 167 languages, but not many of those are in dire need of preservation, such as Tibetan. The language is in danger of slowly disappearing. Tibetans in exile assimilate to survive economically and in Tibet, activists that want to preserve the language are often repressed and imprisoned.

Tibetan communities strewn across the world, including the burgeoning Tibetan community of 10,000 plus in the New York area are worried. In addition, their children grow up with limited or no exposure to their mother tongue. Most of the Tibetans in the area grow up, speaking Hindi, Nepali, English and other languages along with Tibetan.

In an attempt to preserve and pass the Tibetan language and culture to their offspring, the Tibetan community in New York and New Jersey founded a Sunday Tibetan language school in 1996. Until three years ago, the school didn’t have a permanent address and moved around like nomads holding classes wherever they could find a school facility across the boroughs of Queens or Manhattan. But in 2014, the school found a permanent address in P.S. 199 Maurice A. Fitzgerald at 39-20 48 Avenue, Long Island City, a seven-minute walk from 40th St. Lowery station on the no. 7 train. The school now has close to 300 students, ages 5 to 17, and almost 30 teachers. Its mere existence is a source of comfort for many Tibetans in the community.

“I hope that by attending the school during their formative years, the kids will absorb some habits of speaking Tibetan and other Tibetan ways of life that will make a big difference later in their lives,” said Sonam Gyaphel, the president of the school’s parent-teacher association.

Not that the task is easy, as Weiss’ experience with the rare calligraphy textbook shows. Tibetans have been at loggerheads with Chinese authorities for years, as the medium of instruction is being converted to Mandarin Chinese, at all levels of education.

What’s more, the Chinese authorities have imprisoned Tibetan leaders who actively promote the preservation of the Tibetan language. In January 2016, for example, Tashi Wangchuk, a young entrepreneur, and advocate of bilingual education, was detained after he was featured in New York Time video and articles. He is currently in detention and is at risk of facing up to 15 years in prison. In this climate, it is not hard to imagine that copies of calligraphy books like the one Weiss used are slowly disappearing.

Despite the difficulties, the Tibetan community in New York and New Jersey is determined to make the weekend language school thrive.

PTA president Gyaphel, who has been active at the school since 2003 when his two older children attended  the school, now sends   his 5-year-old daughter to school here here. The PTA of the school has 11 executive members, he says, and they are all working parents who volunteer to come to the school every Sunday between 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. They clean up after school and make sure the food served is top quality, among other things. His daughter interrupted him as he spoke asking to use his phone after school.

“She only speaks in English,” he said, and immediately told her to speak to him in Tibetan. She switched to Tibetan with fluency.

Tibetan Language Class

A student learning Tibetan Alphabet.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with all the students. A few hours at the school once a week becomes effective or ineffective. depending on what is done with the lessons for the rest of the week, he says. That in turn, depends on how well the parent speaks, what they do, how much time they spend with their children working on the language and a host of other things.

“Most parents say ‘Do you want pizza?’ ‘Do you want a cookie?’” instead. They do not go through the lesson and do not talk to their children in Tibetan all the time,” said Pema Dorje, better known as Pedor La, who serves as the principal of the school. “Most parents are too tired by the end of the day and tell their children to go play a video game so they could get the much-needed rest before pushing off to work the next day.”

Pador La is a monk from a monastic seat in India, who helped found this school in 1996. He wears layman’s clothes to school, adhering to the “religion free zone” requirement of public schools.

“We started with seven students, as children were not willing to come here. Today, it is the children who bring their parents here,” he says with pride while sitting at the desk at the school’s entrance, a bit more like a guard than the principal. He is usually the last one to leave.

Teaching the language to English speakers is a difficult task. TenYang, who teaches Tibetan script and musical instrument, says it is hard to relay the right sounds of the Tibetan alphabet to kids who grew up learning English first. Some Tibetan letters, for example, have English equivalents only in diphthongs, a sound that combines two vowels in a single syllable. The school has translated a prayer book using English phonetics for students to be able to pray.


Sunday Tibetan School's Principle

Pedor La, the founder and principle of the Sunday Tibetan Language School

The content and difficulty level of textbooks presents another problem.  The books are equivalent to the Tibetan language textbooks used in the Tibetan Children Village school in India, the biggest school system in the exile community. For Tibetan children in the United States, there’s a disconnect: the ones that are easy to read are not always age-appropriate. The Department of Education of the Central Tibetan Administration has created separate textbooks for Tibetan children in the United States and is in the process of making a new edition.

The Tibetan school here does not only teach children the language. They also learn traditional dance and musical instruments and they are given lessons in the fundamentals of Buddhism as they get older. The school’s dance group performances have become a staple at cultural events of the community year-round.

The school’s mission is working.  Take 16-year-olds Tenzin Choeyang and Tenzin Tsugmai, who are in the final year of the school. They speak Tibetan and say they feel connected to their culture. Choeyang, who attends High School for Health Professions and Human Services at Union Square, is also a good singer and one of the Tibetan school’s star performer. Tsugmai attends William Cullen Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens. They both are confident that they will not forget the Tibetan they have learned. They also have joined Tibetan club at their schools.


Tibetan class

Tsering Kalsang with his students


Tsering Kalsang, the vice president of the Tibetan Community of NJ/NY, who has taught the two girls, is proud of them and his other students. “It is a great feeling when you see these kids learning to speak their mother tongue,” he said.

After 20 years, the school will move to the soon to be completed Tibetan community hall at 32-01 57th St. Woodside. The community hall has been the talk of the town for almost a decade now.

“The preservation of language is dependent on the prestige associated with it in the community that children grow up,” argues Tsering Shakya, a leading Tibetologist based in Canada.

Given the small number of people that speak Tibetan in New York City, prestige may not seem to be a factor here. But the mere existence of the Sunday Tibetan Language School is a beacon of hope for the community, bridging the gap between Tibetan children in the United States with other Tibetans across the world.