Preserving language with an app

Tibetan language is challenged – they are doing something about it in Dharamsala 
By: Johnny Baltzersen, CICED

‘The overarching purpose of our work is to preserve and promote Tibetan language and culture. We aim that in five years, the majority of Tibetans in exile will be using the standardized terminology,’ says Urgyen Tenzin, head of the Terminology Section of the Tibetan Ministry of Education in Dharamsala.

We meet over a cup of po cha, (Tibetan butter tea, ed.) to talk about the work of the section, which is funded under the project CICED support to education for Tibetans-in-Exile.

The section’s efforts can be somewhat similar to the functions known from the Danish Language Board. The section will monitor the development of the Tibetan language as spoken in the Tibetan exile community and make recommendations on the proper use of certain terms.

But in addition, the four employees will also identify new words and concepts so that Tibetan can also be used when talking about modern science or law, for example.

The section has developed and standardized more than 13,000 words and concepts. Why is it necessary?

‘Although there are English-Tibetan lexicons for exiled Tibetans, there has been no standardization of terminology,’ says Urgyen Tenzin and continues:

‘It has created confusion. The purpose of the section is therefore twofold. On the one hand, we want to revitalize indigenous Tibetan terms, and on the other hand, we want to standardize new terminologies in modern fields of study, such as science, mathematics and medicine’

Could you describe how the work is done in concrete terms?

‘When we need to develop and standardize new terms, we bring in expertise from different areas. For example, the Tibetan Medical & Astro Institute contributes to the development of terms in Tibetan medicine, astrology and botany. It also brings in expertise in areas such as law, administration, politics, finance and the environment.

We consult various dictionaries and encyclopedias inside and outside Tibet and after very thorough research, we make recommendations to the High Level Terminology Commission.

The commission meets three times a year. Meetings last a week and by the end of the week, typically 700 new terms have been approved’

The section has also recently developed an app, as it is called in both modern Danish and Tibetan: TibTerm, which can be used on both iPhone and Android phones.

TibTerm was not scheduled to be fully developed until 2020, but there is a huge push to maintain and develop the Tibetan language.

TibTerm aims to make it easier for people to stay informed about new terms and find the right concepts. Almost everyone has a smartphone, so TibTerm is used by students, administrative staff, monks and nuns, and people in every Tibetan settlement in exile. TibTerm is also intended to be a tool for exiled Tibetans outside of India and Nepal to preserve the Tibetan language.

The stakes are high. The exiled Tibetan leadership emphasized at the ‘Five-Fifty Forum’ in September 2018 that Tibetan language and culture are under threat in exile. English and Hindu dominate social relations outside of Tibetan society. Even teachers who are not language teachers need to consult with language teachers on the proper use of the Tibetan language during training and on a daily basis.

In two months, the High Level Terminology Commission will meet again to determine the correct usage of another 700 new words.

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