One of the rare advantages of being born a refugee is that you become bilingual by default.
As a Tibetan educated in India and the United States, I’m often asked to interpret for Tibetan speakers at meetings, rallies and press conferences. Recently, I facilitated a brainstorming session between Nathan Freitas, technology director at the Tibet Action Institute, and Kusho Monlam, a Tibetan monk and a pioneer in the computerization of Tibetan language.
As the discussion turned to the technical methods and challenges of creating Tibetan keyboards on Android phones, my usefulness as an interpreter quickly disappeared. Nathan doesn’t speak Tibetan, and Kusho Monlam doesn’t speak English. But somehow, in the universal yet mysterious language of computer programming, they understood each other perfectly. I tried to follow their conversation, not unlike a child listening to grownups talk about subprime mortgages and toxic assets.
Kusho Monlam was in New York City to speak at a landmark conference on Tibetan language at Columbia University. This conference was attended by some of the greatest teachers, scholars, educators, and innovators working to protect and promote the Tibetan language. Topics ran the gamut from “standardization of terminology” to “teaching Tibetan as a first and second language” to “the rise of Tibetan digital technologies.”
It is said that language is a cornerstone of nationhood. The Tibetan people’s collective ability to communicate ideas, share stories, conduct business, and express opinions in a unique language all our own is one of the strongest arguments for Tibetan sovereignty. After attending the conference and seeing how the Tibetan language has grown in stature, size, usage, and relevance in the last five years, I was overwhelmed with hope for the future.
The linguistic bond that connects all Tibetans has never been stronger. In spite of the Chinese government’s efforts to cut Tibet off from the rest of the world, it has failed to stop a tidal wave of communication emerging from Tibet and breaking through China’s not-so-great firewall. Almost daily I am reading news and updates from inside Tibet. Just five years ago, this was unthinkable.
Technology has been instrumental in allowing this cross-border conversation to blossom. In addition to the academic and technological initiatives to modernize the Tibetan language, we are witnessing a literary revolution led by writers, poets and artists in Tibet including Shogdung, Tashi Rabten, Kalsang Tsultrim, Dolma Kyab, Kunga Tseyang, Shokjang, Jamyang Kyi and others, many of whom have been arrested for their writings.
At the grassroots level, Tibetans are embracing new social practices such as texting and tweeting in Tibetan, printing Tibetan menus and road signs wherever possible, and refusing to use Chinese words while speaking among Tibetans. In spite of Beijing’s systematic attempt to undermine the Tibetan language for the last half century, it is being revived and advanced thanks to the diversity and creativity of the literary, academic, technological, and most importantly, grassroots efforts being made by ordinary Tibetans both in and outside our homeland.
To a multitasking activist like myself, the built-in Tibetan keyboard on the iPhone is perhaps the greatest evidence that Tibetan has become a contemporary language with social and secular usage. Tibetan is not only a religious language reserved for communicating spiritual concepts, but it is also a robust and dynamic modern language that is helping to carry the Tibetan people’s aspirations forward in real-time.