Learning Tibetan and French–in Tibet

As if studying Tibetan weren’t already difficult enough, I decided to sign up for French lessons as well.  I think that this would be less strange if I were not an American woman living in Lhasa, Tibet.

I showed up to the first class a half an hour late—having misunderstood when it started—and had a seat behind the twenty other students, all of them Tibetan.  Although I had studied French in middle school, for a year in high school, and through a Rosetta Stone program in college, it never seemed to stick with me—which made me want to learn it even more.  Still, I had an easy enough time following along with the vocabulary list, and as we went through the tourism-related words—for the benefit of the local tour guides—I attempted to translate them from French into Tibetan.

A young Tibetan girl arrived a few minutes later than I, and took a seat next to me in the back of the class.  I shared my vocabulary list with her, and attempted to translate any words that she didn’t understand.  Our conversation quickly morphed into a medley of English, French, and Tibetan.

The swift walk home after class brought a deep chill to my exposed skin, but my mind was too preoccupied with language to feel.  I began talking to myself in French and Tibetan, as if I were introducing myself to some invisible person, and I began to sound quite schizophrenic as I spoke.  As my pronunciation and vocabulary began to slip and slide into a strange blend of French-Tibetan, I wondered if it was a bad idea to study two foreign languages simultaneously, while residing in a foreign country.  My Tibetan lessons were five days each week, and the French lessons were three nights a week.  I quickly did the math in my head, and determined that there was probably no better way to study a language—or two—than to just dive head-first into it, with nothing but drive and motivation to keep me afloat.  Also, I could not think of a better way to make Tibetan friends.

After the class had ended, an acquaintance of mine had walked up to say hello, and—in Tibetan—asked if I was leaving and where I was off to.  We were each on our way to our respective homes, so we walked out of the building together, speaking in Tibetan as we went.  As we spoke, something in my brain became quite confused, and I was swept into an existential crisis of sorts.  Who am I, what language am I speaking, and how ever did I learn it? After an hour of French vocabulary and pronunciation drills, my mind could not comprehend how easily it could slip into speaking Tibetan again.  Most days, all I could feel was utter frustration and humiliation as I attempted to navigate the twists and turns of the Tibetan language—trying to master colloquial as well as literary vocabulary, along with complex grammar structures, and perplexing, tongue-twisting pronunciations.  Yet suddenly, in that moment, my mind felt so at ease within the language, and words flowed from my lips as swiftly and clearly as water rushes from one of Tibet’s innumerable melting glaciers.

It is moments such as this that make me yearn for languages—moments where you are easily able to express yourself to a native-speaker, moments where you cannot fathom the day when you did not know the language.  I live for those moments.  As rare, scarce, and unexpected as they are, I live for them.


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