Introducing the Tibetan by Osmosis Experiment

With multimedia in foreign languages ubiquitously available on the internet, I am going to see if I can attain fluent comprehension of a spoken foreign language, learning mostly by osmosis.

In particular, I’m going to work on the colloquial Tibetan language

osmosis |oz-moh-sis| figurative the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.

The plan is to simply listen to an hour a day of audio in Tibetan, and see if my brain eventually learns to understand it perfectly. My main source of audio will be Radio Free Asia’s hour-long daily podcast of the news in the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan.

To help out, I also have the Lonely Planet Tibetan Phrasebook. I’m not planning on memorizing its phrases – its main value to me is its brief English-to-Tibetan dictionary in the back of the book.

So if I keep hearing a certain collection of syllables and I’m pretty sure it means “radio” for example, I can look up “radio” in the dictionary and see if their phonetic spelling of the Tibetan word correlates with what I’m hearing.

Why Tibetan? There are many reasons, but the most important are:

I have a personal interest in the language. I like the Tibetan people, their flavor of Buddhism, and the beauty of their land. Somehow I feel that understanding their spoken language will give me further insight into their way of life.

I don’t know much Tibetan. For this experiment to be of interest to others attempting to acquire languages, it’s best that I start with one that, apart from a handful of words, I don’t know at all.

Tibetan might be easy. Might be? I don’t really know for sure. On one hand I’ve heard that it’s a “farmer’s language” and not very complex. On the other I’ve read that much is communicated through implication, so you have to be able to read between the lines. One big advantage of Tibetan though is that it is not tonal!

Tibetan is quite dissimilar to English. I think it makes it more interesting to go with a language that isn’t from the same family as my native tongue.

So to conclude, the goal of this experiment is just to see if it’s possible to use the internet to attain a high level of listening comprehension in a foreign language not so much by studying the language but just by letting my brain do what neural networks do – recognize patterns that they are repeatedly exposed to.

For the record, I recognize that this way of learning will most likely not give me conversational skills.

2 thoughts on “Introducing the Tibetan by Osmosis Experiment”

  1. Tibetan might be easy. Might be? I don’t really know for sure. On one hand I’ve heard that it’s a “farmer’s language” and not very complex. On the other I’ve read that much is communicated through implication, so you have to be able to read between the lines. One big advantage of Tibetan though is that it is not tonal!

    As you’ve no doubt realized by now, Tibetan is a quite difficult language, extremely challenging for Anglophones. Contrary to whatever racist and ill-informed things you may have heard (“farmer’s language”? come on!) it is very complex. Also, the Lhasa dialect that you are trying to learn is indeed tonal.

    The comment below mine from “T.” is an excellent example of why mentally retarded children should not be allowed on the Internet.

  2. you are completely correct on T’s comment. in fact, i’m going to remove it because 99% of it probably only makes sense to him (and only with wine). should have done so earlier but it’s from the early days when i was happy to have ANYONE actually leave a comment here…

    regarding the farmer’s language comment, i see how one could take that as racist. i assure you that that wasn’t the implication though, as the person who said it considers tibetan a holy language and tibet itself as the holy land.

    he was trying to encourage american buddhists to learn tibetan due to the volumes of buddhist material not yet translated that contained wisdom he was afraid would be lost or forgotten. what he was trying to say was “it’s not as hard as you think – you can do it – i did”. perhaps not the best choice of words.

    thanks much for writing.

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