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How to Learn Tibetan January 3, 2008

Posted by Rinchen in Studies, Tibetan.

Dear Friends,
“How do I learn Tibetan?” is one of the most common questions that I hear. So let me do my best to address it. I’m sure others will have useful points to add.

tibetan consonantsNevertheless, a few tips I can attest to:
1) Make an unshakable resolve to learn Tibetan. Don’t think about how long it will take or how fast you are progressing.
2) Start out in a structured program: a formal class is best. At the very least form a study group. I’ve only met one person (Tyler Dewar) who ever made much progress without structure -at least initially. The more peer pressure you get the better you’ll do. Immerse yourself (e.g. in India, Nepal or Tibet) if you can.
3) Spend at least six hours a week studying. I’ve never seen someone progress with less. More generally, the good news is that the more effort you put in, the better you get. The bad news is that you don’t get much better without effort. (Manjushri mantras do help though.)
4) Do your practices in Tibetan.
5) Learn spoken and written simultaneously. I didn’t follow this advice. Now, 30 years after I started Tibetan, I’m finally learning to speak a little.
6) Find something you absolutely HAVE to read that’s not translated, and consecrate your life to reading it.
7) If you find a Geshe/Khenpo/Lama who is willing to sit with you and read texts then serve them and utilize every opportunity to read with them; they are a scarce and invaluable resource.
8) If you can’t find such a Geshe/Khenpo/Lama then take texts (e.g. Buddhahood Without Meditation) that have the Tibetan and English side by side and go through them carefully until you understand how they were translated.

Of course to be really good at translation, you need to make this more than a hobby. It’s a lifetime of effort.
However, to read competently is something we can all achieve.

As for books for spoken Tibetan:
As for written Tibetan:
Here is some other useful stuff:

1) The “center Geshe” is one of America’s great untapped resources. So if you’ve got one in your area they almost certainly have time on their hands and will enjoy working with you. Tenzin Wangyal nearly always has a Geshe staying at Ligmincha now and I’m sure you can find some time with them.
2) As for material: Choose a text that you’re excited about, that you can likely comprehend, and IS appropriate to the teacher (e.g. NOT an enumeration of characteristics of a suitable consort).
3) Show respect for their time and their situation by offering money early and often. You may not have a lot of money but they are likely to have less. To offer something (rather than nothing) shows consideration.
4) I have never had success studying Tibetan grammar with Tibetans themselves. They learn grammar by memorizing legs shad ljon dbang or something similar and even if they learn English are reticent to use western grammatical terms.
5) One more thought – choose something that is natively written in Tibetan and not in verse. The grammar will be clearer then.

Good luck!

Kurt Keutzer



1. pam - March 24, 2008

thanx for the good advise

2. Anonymous - April 15, 2008

Thank you

3. Anonymous - May 24, 2008


4. penpa lhamo - July 31, 2008

hi my name is penpa lhamo i speack tibetan very well but i dont know how to write in tibetan and how to read tibetan so i need help

5. tashi james - August 29, 2008

wonderful, i am going to apply this advice to my sanskrit study as well. Much kindness. Tashi

6. luis - February 6, 2009

If everything else fails, get a Tibetan Girlfriend or Boyfriend ! …you might not progress either, but you’ll expand your scope 😛

7. hi, my name is tenzin khenchey ,i knw how to read n write properly wid my 10 yrs of study but i cant talk or understand tibetan,please help. . . . . . . . . - November 15, 2009


8. Michael L. Lewis - December 17, 2009

After a long retreat in which, in addition to practice, I studied texts, I began to speak Tibetan by drinking chang with blacksmiths and Khampa warriors and so forth. I practiced speaking to children and grandmothers, who didn’t mind if I made mistakes. After a while, I realized that if I could speak Tibetan when drunk, I probably could when sober as well.

Laura Emily - November 7, 2010

I loved this.

9. ethan - February 15, 2011

thanks for all your help

10. Raphael Krantz - February 18, 2011

Thanks for the advice. I am just beginning my journey into learning Tibetan and your comments ring true to my ears. One adendum: In his book “outliers” Malcolm Gladwell says that to excel at anything, whether playing hokey, guitar, learning programing or Tibetan, requires b about 10,000 hours of work. If we use your suggestion of 6 hours per week, that works out to be about 32 years!!

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