Design Principles

We cannot know your prior experience of learning languages, so we thought we would take a page or two to explain how and why we decided to design this book the way we did. There are many different approaches to language teaching; this necessitates deciding for some features and against others. 

While the practical implications of our decisions are dealt with in the section on How to Use this Book, here, we will discuss some of the theoretical underpinnings of our design principles. We may roughly divide these principles into: 1) Pedagogical; and 2) Linguistic (Tibetan-specific) principles. 

1) Pedagogical Principles

1.a) Direct Method 

This textbook is designed as a Tibetan-only textbook. Beyond these instructional pages, you’ll find no English, nor any other language—this is a purely Tibetan textbook by design. Within, we attempt to link Tibetan language directly to meaning, without an English language intermediary. 

Studies have shown this method to be effective. The research indicates that immersion education can even wire your brain to think like native speakers think;1 classroom grammar instruction, on the other hand, cannot.2 While it sounds surprising, 100 years worth of studies have conclusively shown that grammar instruction is ineffective when it comes to giving students real-world language skills!3 

That's why to maximize your language learning, we encourage you to stick to a “Tibetan-only” policy anytime you’re working on your Tibetan. If Tibetan is your second language, you may find this strange, difficult, or even intimidating. Don’t worry! The book is also designed to be easy and clear. 

We'd encourage you to think of the textbooks and programs that exist for other languages: An ESL textbook is English only, and native-speaking English teachers are valued across the world, regardless of whether they can speak the students’ native tongue. That's because immersion education—target-language only—is effective. Direct method students out-test grammar school students in every measurable category!4 

One reason for this is that languages are self-contained worlds—when an English speaker hears or reads English, they understand the meaning directly in English. Tibetan is the same! It is a self-contained world where Tibetan relates directly to meaning. And, we can develop this skill—the skill of understanding Tibetan in Tibetan—by studying in a Tibetan-only environment with native-speaking Tibetan teachers

This design principle is reflected in our first rule for language learners: 100% TibetanIn other words, our not-so-radical idea is that the way to learn or improve your Tibetan is by actually reading, writing, listening, and speaking... in Tibetan!

1.a.i) Communicative Technique

If I were to ask you, “What is language?”, chances are you’d reply, “Language is communication” rather than “Language is vocabulary and grammar rules”. While everyone intuitively knows what language is—it's a way to communicate—it is very rare to find learners studying Tibetan communicatively

This textbook aims to change that. 

That’s why you won’t find lists of vocabulary or grammar to memorize or an English glossary in this book. What you will find is direct links to meaning in the form of pictures and communicative contexts. We'd encourage you to use this content to communicate, in Tibetan, with your language partners. 

You'll also find pair work exercises designed especially for the purpose of eliciting communication between yourself and your language partner. Techniques like this are built into our book to help provide contexts for natural language use. By focusing on the task at hand (rather than the language itself), learners end up using language as a tool, for a goal

Techniques like these are one way this book puts the direct method into practice. Research shows that these kinds of language-learning techniques do a much better job of replicating "what language really is", thus providing learners with more real opportunities to build better language skills.5 

1.b) Integrative Approach

Beyond attempting to provide communicative contexts for directly using the Tibetan language, this book also aims at bridging the gap between "how to speak to Tibetan" and "how to read and write Tibetan". We believe this gap has been artificially widened by programs that divide "classical" studies from "colloquial" contexts. 

This division is a wholly western invention modeled on the study of the dead classical languages of antiquity (like Latin and Sanskrit). Instead, we find it much more fitting to follow in the footsteps of Tibetan's living-language peers. Serious programs for other medieval classical languages—like Arabic and Japanese—integrate reading, writing, listening, and speaking.6 Speaking especially is used as the foundation for further literary studies. 

This book follows that approach. Language skills are cooperative and interdependent. Letters stand for sounds, and reading is a form of listening to what an author has to say. Research has clearly demonstrated this link between oral skills and reading fluency time and again.7 To summarize this research: Skills in speech are foundational for skills in reading. In addition, a sense of a how a language frames mundane, everyday concepts is foundational for understanding how it forms abstract conceptual frameworks. 

That’s why this book focuses on building all Tibetan language skills together: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. While beginning levels are skewed towards attaining everyday speaking skills first and foremost, you can expect later levels to contain cumulatively more “classical” language.

1.c) Text Readability 

Besides the language-learning methods, there are some nuts-and-bolts pedagogical work this book does in the name of readability. In principle, what this means is that the more work the text itself does, the less the learner has to do. When reading or using a text is easy and enjoyable, learners read faster and read more. The more they read, the better they get at reading.8 

This book was designed with these principles in mind in order to make “learning to read Tibetan” as easy as possible. It is our hope that it "demystifies" Tibetan, making it easy, accessible, and intuitive. 

Work this book does to support you, the learner, includes: 

  • Main-letter recognition: The main letter of each syllable is given a bold color. 
  • Word recognition: Words are separated by the “double-tsheg”; while this form of word-separation existed in Old Tibetan, and is thus traditional, it has fallen into disuse.9 We revive it here, in a modern "big-tsheg" form, for the benefit of beginning readers. 
  • Text Highlighting: In read-along exercises, the audio reads out loud while synced to word-by-word highlighting of the text. 
  • Pronunciation guidance: Syllables are color-coded by pronunciation principles of aspiration and tone; read-along & listening exercises include audio for guidance.

1.d) Frequency Research

Finally, this book was designed with the principle of frequency—that frequent language forms are both useful and easy, and thus naturally come first in a language curriculum. 

Though the history of applying frequency to texts to make them popular and readable is fairly young, it has been so wildly successful that we take it for granted that a children can read stories, then chapter books, then newspapers, then literature. It's important to realize that, historically speaking, this is not normal! Widespread literacy, and writing in vernacular, are new literary trends unique to modernity. 

The publishing industry has, since the 1950s, systematically analyzed the effect of text level and reading habits to increase reading.10 Frequency has been one its most important tools, alongside readability formulas. Even more recently, these principles have been applied to second language learning.Cambridge English, for example, has been one of the leaders in applying frequency research to ESL teaching. 

While we don't have the huge resources majority languages do, we have done our best to incorporate these concepts into the design of our curriculum. We have analyzed Esukhia's 1.2 million wordNanhai corpusfor frequent words, phrases, and grammar structures. When we had a question of what to include, and what to leave for a later level, we checked its frequency. 

That means that the language you will learn in this book is frequent; because it's frequent, it's useful. Our goal is for our learners to begin using language as quickly as possible. When you begin using your Tibetan, you'll get more and more opportunities to practice. More practice leads to more improvement, which leads (again) to more opportunities! 


2) Linguistic Principles

2.a) Verbs in Tibetan 

Now that we've discussed the general principles that enhance language learning, let's get into some specifics of Tibetan. While there are many ways Tibetan is different from Western languages, one big difference you'll notice is the verbs. The use of verb forms in Tibetan is so important, we felt it appropriate to discuss them in a bit more detail. (For the sake of simplicity, we're using 'verbs' here in the broadest possible sense, and including verbs, helping verbs, and multi-verb constructions). 

If you speak or study a language like English, Spanish, or German (Indo-European languages), you are probably used to ‘conjugating’ verbs based on person and tense: I play, but she plays, and yesterday, I played. The verb changes according to information about who did what, and when. (You may have even memorized tables of first, second, and third person verb forms in past, present, and future tenses!).

Because we are familiar with explanations like these based on person and tense, many books teach Tibetan as if its verbs are also formed based on who is doing them, and when. However, our experience teaches us that this is yet another instance of valuing a short-term gain (understanding Tibetan in familiar terms) that sacrifices the larger aim (the ability to use and understand Tibetan fluently). 

While many details about what linguists call 'evidentiality'—a term that describes the information Tibetan verb constructions encode instead of strict person and tense—are beyond the scope of this beginner's book, we have introduced a few icons in its pages that we hope will highlight some essential differences for you. Rather than forcing verbs (and verbal constructions) into the categories of 'person' and 'tense', these icons lie along two spectrums we've developed specially for this book: the Spectrum of Space and the Spectrum of Time.11 

2.a.i) Spectrum of Space 

Again, most second language learners are used to strict grammars where verb use is fixed based on the relationship between items within the information itself. In contrast, Tibetan verbs are flexible, and depend upon the the relationship between the speaker and the information. 

Tibetan verbs can tell us many useful things about how the information in a sentence is related to the speaker who's saying it (and the listener they are relating that information to). One of the things they tell us is how near or far that information is; or, in other words, how personal or impersonal the information is. Is it personal, subjective, experiential, 'near', and 'close' to the speaker? Or is it impersonal, factual, objective, and 'far'? 

While personal information tends to correlate with the grammatical first person (and impersonal with the third), it is very important to emphasize that the verb form is not caused by it being first person. Take the following sentences as an example. We may equally say: 



 ngay bu em-chi yin  

 ngay bu em-chi ray  

Both of these equally valid and perfectly grammatical sentences translate as: "My son is a doctor". The difference lies not in what they say, but how they say it. One emphasizes the closeness and personal nature of the information to the speaker ("My son is a doctor", yin), while the other is more matter-of-fact (ray). (It's important to note, too, that uses like this are still contextual: there are times where these sorts of differences in personal or impersonal verb form don't alter the meaning, and, for all intents and purposes, the two different verbs say "the same thing"). 

Another important aspect of this spectrum is experience: we know 'personal' things because we are them, we are doing them, or we are witnessing them happening or being done. This distinguishes personal and perceptual verbs from impersonal verbs—which talk about things that are common knowledge or that we heard about from other people. 'Close' information is personal to us experientially in a way that 'far' information—impersonal information—is not. 

Again, while we can give you some basic clues to help you get started, understanding when to use which verb is really something that can only come from practice. Feel free to refer to this table and explanation from time to time, but know that you will not gain any real language skills from studying it. Language skills come from speaking, listening, and speaking some more; making lots of mistakes; and finally 'honing in' on a natural sense of which verbs to use, and when: 

Personal: 'Personal' verbs are personal in nature; they have a subjective quality about them, and communicate the speaker's 'nearness' to the information or event, or the subjective control of an action. 

We've adopted the 'you are here' pin-drop with a bold person to indicate the 'personal'. 

Perceived: 'Perceived' verbs are a special sub-category of the 'personal'; they mark information that the speaker has subjective experience of (things the speaker is direcly experiencing happen through one of the five senses). 

We add an eye to our pin-drop to show the direct, perceptual nature of these verbs. 

Impersonal: 'Impersonal' verbs are general facts, common knowledge, or other information received from a third party. 

The icon for the 'impersonal' is the shared network icon. This information is available across one's social network (it is not unique to the 'personal' perspective), or it's related to someone else's experience. 

2.a.ii) Spectrum of Time 

The second spectrum we use to clarify verbs in this book is one from immediate, impermanent, variable, or singular events—ones that happen one time in one place—to those which are continuous, stable, permanent, and invariable or fixed—ones that exist or re-occur over periods of time. 

In the example below, we contrast "This tea is hot"—an 'immediate' event, duug—with the general statement "Fire is hot", rayIn English, both of these sentences take the same verb: is. In Tibetan, a different verb is used: The tea being hot is a local event, while fire being hot is simply a matter of fact. My tea will go cold over time; some tea is iced tea; but this tea, here and now, is hot. A non-specific fire, however, is simply hot. It is invariably hot across time and place:  



 ja dee tsa-po duug  

 may tsa-po ray  

We envision events and actions within this book as a 'drop' dropping into our experience of the world that ripples outwards; as similar events re-occur again and again, they become more and more 'fixed'... 'Facts of the matter' are so frequently re-occurent that they are imagined as permanent aspects of our world. 

Just like the personal / impersonal spectrum, we don't recommend that you study this table in order to memorize it. So long as you get the gist of it, you'll understand some of the clues we've left for you inside the book. And, we'd also like to emphasize that these are spectrums, not categories—there are overlaps and ambiguities, as verbs in Tibetan are context and speaker-dependent constructions! The best way to get a grasp of them is to spend your time speaking, again and again, attempting to say many different things in many different contexts... 

Immediate: 'Immediate' events or actions occur, or are occuring, in the speaker's immediate vicinity (in time and space). They are local, direct, singular or unique, and current or recent (within the speaker's contextual frame). 

A drop of water initiating ripples indicates the 'immediate'.

Realized: 'Realized' events are new events that just happened, or that the speaker has just realized have happened. They may indicate localized events, or the ripples of non-local events that are just now reaching the speaker. 

The splash of water with ripples stands for the newly 'realized'. (These verbs do not occur in this introductory book; they will come in the following levels). 

Continuous: 'Continuous' events and actions are ones that re-occur over and over again. They are a stable, yet also changeable and/or circumstantial, set of actions or facts that define the speaker's reality. 

The ripples spreading across the globe indicate 'continuous'-type verbs. 

Permanent: 'Permanent' events or actions are fixed facts (as far as the speaker is concerned). They are a super-continuous state of affairs, or general or common knowledge, or indirect knowledge of others. 

A solid globe indicates these fixed facts of the matter for 'permanent' verbs.  

2.b) Language Varieties ("Dialect") 

In regard to dialect, we have tried to strike a careful balance between authentic language and simple teaching. There are so many topics where a decision had to be made to teach one form, and one form only, despite knowing that this is only spoken in one of the many regional varieties of Tibetan. It is simply impossible to teach every possible dialectical variation for every phrase and situation!

We suggest you learn the forms offered in this book, and use them to go out and speak. (We do believe these forms give you the best possible chance to be understood in the most potential circumstances by the highest number of speakers!). However, be aware that the speakers you encounter may use different language than you learn here. With practice, your brain will get used to these variations, and begin recognizing patterns based on local dialects. 

To explain a bit more about this issue, there is not simply "the Tibetan language". Instead, there are are 250+ Tibetic dialects that may be classed into 50-some languages (that evolved from Old Tibetan).12 These 50 (mutually incomprehensible) languages span 5 countries. Even narrowing our scope to the 3 major regions often thought of as "Tibet"—Amdo, Kham, and Ü-Tsang—presents us with a huge variety of language forms. Further complicating matters are the new dialects evolving in the diaspora settlements of India and Nepal! 

Within this book, we have tried our best to follow the trend of orienting our language to the so-called "standard Tibetan" emerging in the diaspora that seems to be based mostly on Lhasa dialect. While this has its advantages, it also has its drawbacks. For example, the need to provide a coherent, standardized guide for pronunciation leaves us presenting 'tones'—a feature not shared across varieties of Tibetan! Some learners might even be better served to learn a dialect that has preserved consonant stacks in pronunciation (rather than tones) and a more archaic vocabulary in their everyday speech. 

If and when we receive the funding, research, and time to create books based on other dialects, we will be more than happy to do so! For now, just be aware that there are many Tibetan languages, which means that there are many accents, vocabularies, and sentence structures you might use to communicate successfully in a variety of different contexts. 

2.c) Honorific Language 

After long and careful deliberation, we decided we would not specifically teach the honorific forms for the language we introduce in this book. We would like our readers to know that this is a decision we did not make lightly. 

Our main intention in this book is to enable you to communicate, with confidence and clarity, as quickly as possible. Learning one way to say something enables you to go out and speak. Trying to learn two or more ways to say the "same thing", as well as to understand the difference in different situations that call for different language, can confuse more than it helps. 

We appreciate this is a controversial decision; however, we don't believe it will cause you any problems. As with dialect-specific language, there is wide variation in the use and non-use of honorific language across native speakers. In situations where you are speaking Tibetan to respected members of society or your elders, please try and show respect through a polite attitude and posture. Body language communicates far more than language alone! 

In our experience, people of any language are generally appreciative of whatever effort you make to learn their native tongue. Beginning speakers who fail to use highly formal language, like honorifics, are not judged harshly for it. If anything, they are praised for their efforts to speak any Tibetan at all! 

If you wish, you may apologize with a phrase like this: 

“Apologies, but I don’t know the honorific language well!” 

དགོངས་དག  ཞེ་ས་ཡག་པོ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་མེད། 

 gong-dag, shay-sa yag-po shingi may 

2.d) Writing Speech

We have made much of the connection between speech and reading in the preceding pages. This comes from an awareness of the research in language acquisition, along with the history of vernacular literature, readability, and plain language.13 But it also comes from our personal experience as teachers and students of languages, especially of English and Tibetan. 

This has taught us that all languages naturally span a range from 'informal' to 'formal'. And that spoken, informal forms tend to go unwritten, while 'correct' written forms reflect formal language. It is only recently that we have seen long-spoken informal speech contractions, like "gonna", penned (and accepted as) 'correct' English. For many years, indeed for most of language history, writing language as-spoken was taboo. Even simple contractions such as I’ll were considered ‘wrong’ in comparison to the ‘correct’ I will

However, as language learners, it is very important to be exposed to real language as it's actually used. Informal language is incredibly frequent; it is incredibly useful; and this makes it incredibly important. If we want to teach these forms in a book, we're gonna hafta write 'em down. We have attempted to follow this philosophy as much as possible within this book... 

And yet, traditional rules for spelling and grammar also require us to be sensitive to native speaker norms. We have decided to do is take advantage of the digital medium to bridge diglossic language (to integrate spoken and written forms) with a "two in one" technique. When common speech forms are superceded by "correct" literary forms, we render them as black text (in contrast to the color-coded text); meanwhile, hovering or clicking on this text reveals the spoken form! 

"If we teach informal forms, we're have to write down!" 

We hope this technique is a successful “middle way” that both pushes the envelope in terms of what is acceptable to write down in Tibetan, while also hewing closely to widely accepted standards in spelling and grammar. Our intention is to ensure the book is both comfortable for native-speaker use, while also being maximally useful for non-native learners! 

1.Explicit and Implicit Second Language Training Differentially Affect the Achievement of Native-like Brain Activation Patterns| Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience | MIT Press. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2021,\.
2. ibid.
3. For example, George Hillocks (U. of Chicago) did a comprehensive review of experimental studies conducted from 1963 to 1982 and concluded that "effective instruction is quite different from what is commonly taught in schools". (Hillocks, G. (1984). "What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies". American Journal of Education, 93(1), 133-170.) Graham, S., & Perin, D. also did a meta-analysis of interventions for literature instruction, and calculate the weighted effect of each intervention. Of all the intervention strategies, grammar instruction was the worst. Its effect was found to be negative. (Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). "A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students". Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 445–476.) Finally, Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012) did a meta-analysis of 115 studies; grammar instruction is the only method that doesn't even have statistically significant results. (Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–896.)
4. P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Richards, Jack C.; Rodgers, Theodore S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
6. Beginners must first take intro to Japanese and intermediate Japanese (2 years/16 credits); they must then complete 18 credits in advanced Japanese (3 years worth @ 3 credits per) plus classical and capstone requirements (6 credits).See, for example, UVA’s worksheet for a Japanese major.
7. Lynn, Jennifer (2008)."Need for Speed: The Relationship Between Oral Reading Fluency and Comprehension".Capella University, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Proquest.
8. ibid. Also see: Lyon, G. Reid (1997),“How Do Children Learn to Read?”Adapted from her report on Learning Disabilities Research. Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.
9. བོད་ཀྱི་གནའ་བོའི་ཡིག་རྙིང་ཏུན་ཧོང་གི་དཔེ་ལས་བྱུང་བ་མང་པོ་ཞིག་ཏུ་ཡིག་འབྲུ་ཕན་ཚུན་བར་གཅོད་པའི་ཚེག་ལ་རྟགས༼:༽ འདི་བཞིན་ནག་ཐིག་ཉིས་རྩེགས་སུ་བྲིས་པ་དང་སྐབས་འགར་འབྲུ་ཕན་ཚུན་བར་གཅོད་པ་ལ་bཚིག་དོན་གྱི་མཚམས་འབྱེད་པའི་ཆེད་དུ་ནག་ཐིག་ཉིས་རྩེགས་སུ་འབྲི་སྲོལ་བྱུང་ཡོད་པ་དཔེར་ན་ཏུན་ཧོང་བོད་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་ཡིག་རྙིང་གི〔p1 580ཕ51〕ལས་བཙན་པོ:དབྱརད:ལྟམ:གྱྀ་ར་སྔོན་ན་བཞུག་སྟེ། དགུན་ཉ་མངས་ཚལ:དུ་གཤེགས་ཞེས་པས་ཤེས་ཐུབ་པ་ཡིན།
10. Eg, Murphy, D. 1947. "How plain talk increases readership 45% to 60%." Printer's ink. 220:35–37. Also: Swanson, C. E. 1948. "Readability and readership: A controlled experiment." Journalism quarterly 25:339–343.
11. For a discussion on how scholarship has viewed Tibetan evidentials, see: Hill, N. W., & Gawne, L. (2017). 1 The contribution of Tibetan languages to the study of evidentiality. In L. Gawne & N. W. Hill (Eds.), Evidential Systems of Tibetan Languages (pp. 1–38). De Gruyter.
12. This is updated from Tournadre's previous estimate of only 25. In: Tournadre (2014). "The Tibetic languages and their classification." In Trans-Himalayan linguistics, historical and descriptive linguistics of the Himalayan area. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
13. Kellner, B. (2018). “Vernacular Literacy in Tibet: Present Debates and Historical Beginnings”. In: Anfangsgeschichten / Origin Stories. Brill.