The humorous subtleties of studying the Tibetan language

As some readers may or may not know, I studied the Tibetan language for 2.5 years, primarily focusing on Colloquial Tibetan (Literary or Classical Tibetan is an almost entirely different animal). At present, I am living with a Western Buddhist monk whose family of origin comes from India, so I am being introduced to new ways of thinking and being every day. However, today I heard a funny story about his trial and error as he now studies Tibetan language.

In Tibet, there are three main language and cultural regions – Central Tibet or the U Tsang region, Amdo in the northeast and Kham in the southeast. Plus there are multiple smaller regions to the west and north (not knowing much about these, I will stick with the “big three”). In each of these regions, there is a central dialect and dozens if not hundreds of tiny sub-regional dialects. This is due to the fact that in these regions, there are many remote areas, valleys and mountain villages which have their own unique accents and different pronunciations.

With that introduction, my friend the monk is in a class whose goal is to teach the central dialect of the Central U Tsang region. This is known as Lhasa Kae or spoken language. Now there just so happens to be a new student from Amdo, who does not know how to speak Lhasa Kae. And guess who my friend was partnered with? Yep! The new student from Amdo of course!

So this is how some of their conversation went, with imagined mental commentary provided:

Monk: How are you?
Tibetan from China: I am good. And blah blah (something about) cheese.
Monk: (what??!! what does cheese have to do with anything?) Well… I like cheese. Yes, I like cheese.
TfC: oh…? that is good…

later… Monk: So what do you do?
TfC: I am a lawyer who studied Chinese law.
Monk: Oh that is so great!
TfC: No, Chinese law is confusing and different from American law.
Monk: Oh. What do you do as a lawyer?
TfC: I put Tibetans in prison.
Monk: (OH MY GOD!!! Are you serious!! Why am I talking to you??!! I hope I’m not getting anyone in trouble!) Oh I see…

later… Monk: Are you married? Do you have a wife?
TfC: (Jesus Christ!! I thought you were a monk!) You have a wife?
Monk: No! No, I am asking if you have a wife. Are you married?
TfC: Then why do you have a wife? Monks do not have wives.
Monk: Right. I am a monk. I am not married.
TfC: Oh, okay…

Luckily, the monk said he started to draw pictures, use body language and finally spell out what he was trying to say, and he got most of these confusions cleared up! It turns out the Tibetan guy was not talking about cheese for five minutes, rather there was a difference in pronunciation that sounded like chu ra – the word for cheese… and instead of imprisoning anyone, he actually works with Tibetan entrepreneurs, trying to help start businesses. The word for prison can sound very similar to the word for business. Ahh… The joys of mis-communication!


Published by Kirby Moore

Kirby Moore is a healing facilitator based in the beautiful rolling hills of Charlottesville, Virginia. He does sessions in-person and long distance via Skype and Zoom, working with Spiritual Astrology, Somatic Experiencing, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy and Birth Process Work. His healing work is informed by fifteen years of meditation and Qigong practice. He works with client's intentions and deepest longings to attain clear, tangible results. Contact him for more info at (email): kirby [at] mkirbymoore [dot] com

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