Learn Tibetan2021-07-22T07:23:53-06:00

 Learn to Read, Write, & Translate Classical Tibetan

Just as hundreds of our TLI students have discovered, you too, can learn classical Tibetan. Learn to read and translate Dharma texts and prayers. Studying Tibetan with Lama David Curtis is fun, efficient, and easy. We bring our experience of the 3-year retreat, decades of language teaching experience, plus a well-organized study system to our students. TLI can help you experience the joy of learning to read your prayers and texts in Tibetan.

Lama David Curtis founded the Tibetan Language Institute in 1996. Since then he has taught Tibetan language and Buddhism courses full-time, specializing in the development of dharma-centered learning materials and instruction for Western students. He is motivated by a desire to help others participate in the dharma in more meaningful waysin puja, in private meditation practice, in meditational retreats, as Tibetan interpreters.

As president and executive director of TLI and Big Sky Mind, David strives to fulfill the TLI mission of helping to preserve the Tibetan language and culture through the teaching of the Tibetan language and instruction in meditation.

Why Study Classical Tibetan?

  • To enhance your Buddhist practice and studies
  • To participate more meaningfully in practice at your center
  • To lay a firm foundation for becoming a translator or interpreter of Tibetan
  • To prepare for extended retreats that rely on Tibetan texts
  • To participate in the preservation of the precious but endangered heritage of Tibet’s spiritual traditions

Frequently Asked Questions

Tibetan language classes are taught in several cycles each year.

How our distance learning courses work:

  • Register for a course of your choice. Courses by Zoom webinar. Registration is separate from study materials purchase.
  • Order your learning materials (manuals, CDs, DVDs, etc.).
  • On the designated time and day, connect with the class by link (Zoom webinar) that will be given to you by email a few days before the course starts.
  • Best practice: Students spend 30 minutes per day on Tibetan studies for the duration of their course.
  • Video recording links will be sent to you after each class for those who want to review or for those who missed the class.
  • Follow weekly class study guides sent after each class.

Tibetan is both a standard written language and a group of modern spoken dialects or languages, not all of which are mutually intelligible. Tibetans share both a culture and the classical literature of Tibetan Buddhism. Classical Tibetan literature lends itself to being read with any dialect pronunciation found in the culturally Tibetan region of the Himalayas. Classical Tibetan also remains a sacred language taught in Mongolian monasteries, a reflection of the historical and spiritual links between Mongolia and Tibet.

Tibetan dialects include the following:

  • Central Tibetan dialects
  • Lhasa dialect
  • North and eastern dialects
    • Amdo dialect
    • Kham dialect
    • Golok dialect
  • Bhutanese dialects including Dzongkha (now the national language of Bhutan)
  • Sikkimese
  • Kagate, the dialect of the Mustang region
  • Sherpa dialects and related dialects of Nepal
  • Lhadaki and other Tibetan dialects of the Kashmir region
  • The Tibetan dialect as spoken by the exile communities in India
Thonmi Sambhota is traditionally thought of as the inventor of the Tibetan script in the 7th century AD. Hailing from the Thonmi clan from central Tibet, Sambhota was by some accounts the minister of the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo (617-698 CE). The king sent him and fifteen other young Tibetans to study Sanskrit in India. He also studied all the major and minor arts and sciences of the Dharma. Since he was an excellent student, his teachers called him Sam-bhota meaning “best Tibetan.” Tradition says that of those sent by the king to India, Sambhota alone returned to Tibet.

The tradition continues that after mastering his studies in India, Thonmi Sambhota returned to his Tibetan homeland, where he developed script for writing the Tibetan language. This new Tibetan script was comprised of thirty consonants and 5 vowels. Sambhota also wrote eight texts on Tibetan grammar, but only two remain today: The Thirty Verses (sum bcu pa) and The Guide to Signs (rtags kyi ‘jug pa).

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the creation of the Tibetan script is attributed to Thonmi Sambhota of the mid-7th century. Tradition holds that Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo (569-649 CE), was sent to India to study the art of writing, and upon his return formulated and introduced the Tibetan script. The form of the letters he developed was based on an Indic alphabet of that period.
  • There were three revisions after the script’s invention. Tibetan spelling has not altered significantly since this last revision, while the spoken language has continued to evolve. As a result, in most modern Tibetan dialects–especially in the Standard Tibetan Dialect of Lhasa–there is a great divergence between how a word is spelled and the actual pronunciation of the word. Simply put, many letters of many words are not pronounced (the exception being dialects such as Golok and Lhadaki wherein more letters of a word are pronounced).
  • As in the Indic script upon which Tibetan is based, each consonant letter includes an inherent /ah/ sound.
  • There are five vowel used in the script (the inherent ah, plus four other vowel signs).
  • Tibetan is written from left to right and is read from top to bottom of the page.
  • Syllables are separated by a dot or tseg. Spaces are not used to divide words as they are in English.
  • Tibetan syllables can contain clustered consonants which are stacked vertically.

Beginning in the 8th century C.E., Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit were carried over the Himalayas into Tibet and were translated into Tibetan by teams of meditator-scholars, many of whom had studied with Indian masters. The flow of texts and teachings to Tibet ended during the 11th century, when the Indian originals were mostly lost or destroyed in the suppression of Buddhism in India. Fortunately, by that time the transmission of Buddhist meditative and philosophical traditions into Tibet had been largely completed. Over the years Tibetan scholars have added commentaries and further teachings to this ever-growing body of literature. The language in which these texts are written is known as classical Tibetan. Classical Tibetan is therefore mainly a textual language, conforming to standards and formats set long ago to convey Buddhist ideas and rituals.

The Tibetan literary corpus features:

  • Tibetan meditation practice texts and commentaries
  • Tibetan spiritual biographies (namthar, in Tibetan)
  • Tibetan songs of spiritual realization (gyur in Tibetan)
  • Tibetan philosophical treatises by great masters such as Gampopa, Longchenpa, and Tsongkapa
  • copious works of Tibetan history, medicine, astrology, grammar, and poetics The Tibetan literary corpus contains one of the largest literatures in the world and only a small portion has been translated into Western languages.

Classical Tibetan language study is foundational

  • for the dharma practitioner wishing to engage in prayers, rituals and meditations in the original Tibetan,
  • for the student and scholar preparing for university work or research
  • for those interested in becoming Tibetan translators and Tibetan interpreters
  • and lastly, for those with an interest in
  • and for those with an interest in studying Tibetan philosophy, Tibetan medicine, Tibetan literature, Tibetan history, Tibetan law, or Tibetan culture.

The language as it is actually spoken today in Tibet and in Tibetan exile communities is called Colloquial Tibetan and differs in vocabulary and syntax from Classical Tibetan. TLI materials and courses focus mostly on Classical Tibetan, but students can also find colloquial materials in the Bookstore. We have found, however, that colloquial studies are greatly accelerated and enriched by studying the topics found in the Level I and Level II manuals.

David strongly urges anyone interested in learning classical or colloquial Tibetan to begin with the Beginners’ Package and the Level I Course. This will lay a firm foundation for later studies in either area.

Thank you for the amazing teaching of the Tibetan language classes that I have thus far taken. I feel very fortunate to have found David Curtis as a teacher. His past experience in classical languages made my understanding of a second language so much easier. He never made me feel badly about asking a question, no matter how elementary that question might seem. I feel that I can learn in a setting where I don’t have to apologize for being an average student. David’s humility and gentle style is also appreciated, and I thrive best in such circumstances. … I do appreciate when David brings in bits of Dharma through book recommendations and explaining about past Tibetan masters.

Nancy, WI

Please let me know WHEN, WHERE David is teaching in Boston! How wonderful. I will be up visiting from Chagdud Gonpa Khadro Ling in Southern Brazil…perhaps I can go! Even way down near the South Pole, people say that peals of laughter can be heard in his classes. He has quite a reputation here. Thank you for all your dedication!

Liz, Brazil

For decades, my main activities were music and business. I came late to the dharma and felt like an outsider, a beginner who could not get a toehold. But when I studied Tibetan privately with David Curtis, my spiritual practice deepened and enlivened. I can chant now with ease and comprehension. I can grasp Buddhist concepts that lack English equivalents. I can greet my teachers in their native language. If you don’t have time for a lot, a little Tibetan goes a long way. David is a masterful teacher, a good friend, and a steady dharma guide. For the last seven years I have been glad to contribute to The Tibetan Language Institute: it provides a unique opportunity for Western practitioners.

John C, CA


Help Bring the Profound and Beautiful Tibetan Language to Modern Dharma Students All Over the World

We are committed to supporting practitioners from all Tibetan spiritual lineages by empowering students to read and translate the transcendent language of Classical Tibetan.

TLI is a 501( c)(3) educational nonprofit organization. We often operate with very limited funds. Please help us continue this work.

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