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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Karma of the tongue

March 1, 2010

By Tenzin Gelek
February 27, 2010

The 21st of February was first proclaimed by
UNESCO's General Conference in November 1999 as
the International Mother Tongue day. But what is
more fascinating is the symbolism associated with
this date in history. In the year 1952, on this
very day, a student group was shot at in the
erstwhile East Bengal or East Pakistan, which
resulted in 9 casualties. These group of
impassioned students were championing the cause
of their mother tongue, Bangla against a govt.
policy that threatened to make Urdu the national
language in both East Pakistan (present day
Bangladesh) as well as in West Pakistan. This
fateful day, also commemorated as Bangla Language
movement day, went on to become the starting
point of Bangladesh’s war for self-determination
and eventually leading to their independence.
Interestingly, the conditions that led to this
inspirational chapter from history bears an
uncanny resemblance to the present day situation
that grips the Tibetan language and culture and
thereby, relates to our struggle for Identity and
Self-determination. So, in due deference to that
indomitable human spirit that seeks the freedom
to carve one’s own destiny, I pay homage to this day.

It is said that there are many levels of Karma
(le) or what is more conveniently translated into
English as the law of causality. I have often
struggled with this philosophy of Buddhism; of
not being able to comprehend a power above us
enforcing (for the lack of a better word) this
law. However, my confusion is confined within
that sphere of the subtlest form of Karma that
lies beyond the spectrum of our mortal
imagination. What I am certain about though, is
the form of Karma that relates to my tangible
destiny, either acquired or obligatory. My
reference here is to the karma of my speaking
tongue. I am a Tibetan refugee born and raised in
India. Like many first generation Tibetan exiles,
I have inherited a cultural legacy that is
uniquely Tibetan. And I consider the language as
being the metaphorical custodian of that cultural heritage.

Before I delve deeper into this, I have to
clarify that I have never seriously pondered on
the significance of Tibetan Language in my own
life until recently. And as is apparent, I am no
expert on this subject by any measure whatsoever.
In fact, I have even once been guilty of
abandoning my mother tongue in the pursuit of a
more romanticized language, namely English.
However, events in the past few years, both
meditated and unplanned, have led me to assess
this often discussed but hardly resolved topic.

In my selected readings on this subject, I
haven’t found a more profound argument than the
one put forward by the world-renowned
socio-linguist Prof. Joshua Fishman. In his essay
appropriately titled “What do you lose when you
lose your language?” he writes “The most
important relationship between language and
culture that gets to the heart of what is lost
when you lose a language is that most of the
culture is in the language and is expressed in
the language. Take it away from the culture, and
you take away its greetings, its curses, its
praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its
riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its
prayers. The culture could not be expressed and
handed on in any other way. What would be left?
When you are talking about the language, most of
what you are talking about is the culture. That
is, you are losing all those things that
essentially are the way of life, the way of
thought, the way of valuing, and the human
reality that you are talking about.” As
insightful as it is, what struck me most about
this extract was how every word of it speaks to
me of the urgency that our culture is facing in
light of the Chinese govt.’s calculated hard-line
policies and the exile communities’ unintentional neglect.

I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Prof.
Fishman along with various other prolific
linguists and three dedicated lecturers from
Tibet at an event on minority languages. Prof.
Fishman spoke on “Reversing language shift” and
throughout his talk, he emphasized on starting
close to home. He referred to home and family as
the biggest strength a community can have towards
sustaining its language. And in many ways, this
holds so very true for us Tibetans in exile.
Creating a favorable home environment for
mother-tongue language should not just be treated
as a fad but an essential ingredient of early childhood.

With the passage of time, Tibetans in exile have
accommodated wonderfully well within their
respective host cultures and that speaks volume
of the adaptive and tolerant nature of our social
ethos. However, not all transformations have been
positive and in grinding through that process of
subconscious acculturation, we have now reached
this intersection where we are faced with a
possibility of an irreversible assimilation. Not
that I am suggesting a xenophobic paranoia but
this is clearly a moment for us as a community to
pause and rethink our journey.

Another and a more irrepressible form of cultural
assimilation could be defined as the purported
integration and absorption of minority groups
into the larger, more dominant ethnic group in a
multi-ethnic geographical situation. No points
for guessing which “situation” I am referring to.
Time and again, the Chinese government’s biggest
challenge has been the stability of the
“motherland”. And in order to maintain that
stability, they have continually pushed forth
these covert state policies that promise to
acculturate the minorities into the majority Han
population. Reducing Tibetan to an economically
disadvantaged language; providing very few or no
infrastructural support for the development of
the language et al are some examples of such a
policy. People there are faced with the daunting
dilemma of whether to learn the more lucrative
Mandarin or to persist with the less-profitable
Tibetan. But admirably, most of the Tibetans at
the receiving end of this stick have displayed an
amazing strength and ingenuity in countervailing such allusive preclusions.

Few months back, I came across this inspirational
story of a quiet revolution going on in Tibet. A
group of individuals committed a day of every
week to living and celebrating various aspects of
Tibetan culture like speaking only in Tibetan,
eating Tsampa, wearing traditional Tibetan garb
and everything else that peacefully but
out-rightly rejected any form of cultural
invasion. They called it the Lhakar revolution
meaning White Wednesday. In addition to that, I
have also heard personal anecdotes of Tibetans
from Tibet, who imposed fines or mild punishments
for any accidental slip of Chinese words in their
conversations. Now, one might argue that this is
a tad too extreme and that the state of the
Tibetan language hasn’t quite reached that stage
of paranoia but according to a professor of
Tibetan literature and culture from Tibet, the
deterioration of a language begins initially with
the casual substitution of random terms, which
then ultimately leads to the permanent
replacement of the term. So, such an enforced
mindfulness could just be our way out of this quicksand.

Another speaker at the same event talked on the
absolute necessity of inter-generational
transmission of a language. And how much ever we
try to shy away from it, the responsibility to do
that in the exile community falls largely on us,
the first generation exile Tibetans. History can
attest to the fact that it takes just one or two
generational gap for a language to disintegrate
into extinction. I doubt if there is anyone out
there who doesn’t share a certain degree of
concern for one’s language and culture.
Nevertheless, I do not repudiate the possibility
of a few skeptics out there, for whom the common
cause of preserving the Tibetan culture and
language isn’t very appealing and provides very
little personal incentives. And I think this is
largely due to the skewed perception that stems
from the notion that Culture and Language are
national treasures and are separate from one’s
individual domain and aspirations. When in
reality, culture defines who we are as
individuals and shapes our personality. And in
addition, our Tibetan-ness is also deeply encoded
in our culture and richly articulated through the
language. Hence, with the loss of the language,
one loses many more at an individual level. Not
to mention the vast wealth of ancient wisdom and
traditional folklore that the Tibetan scriptures and literatures hold.

In today’s globalized society, there is a
plethora of threats to minority languages and
indigenous cultures but the one that we should be
most worried about is our own oversight. So,
while we are sloganeering against the cultural
genocide perpetuated by the Chinese govt. inside
Tibet, let us be very mindful of the cultural
suicide that is gradually sneaking upon us. For
when I say karma, I mean an inescapable destiny;
an inevitable responsibility of each one of us as
a community to appreciate and revive the vitality of our mother tongue.
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