Tibet may be best known for its bounty of ancient Buddhist monasteries and stark natural beauty—but it’s also blessed with a vast diversity of languages. The Tibetan Plateau is home to more than a dozen distinct local tongues, many of which come with their own elaborate character systems. Unfortunately, thanks to the growth of internet infrastructure and state-sponsored education, many of these lesser-spoken languages are now on the brink of extinction, says University of Melbourne anthropologist Gerald Roche.
As part of ongoing research conducted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on issues of language diversity and cultural sustainability, Roche delivered a presentation last Monday on Tibetan language and his research on its decline. In a 2014 paper titled “The Vitality of Tibet’s Minority Languages in the 21st Century,” Roche notes that dozens of languages are spoken on the Plateau but that only “230,000 of the 6.2 million Tibetans in China do not speak Tibetan.” He finds that the minority languages in Tibet are generally spoken by very few people, while Tibetan is known to nearly everyone.
From a language preservationist’s perspective, this is a precarious situation. The findings Roche laid out, which synthesized the work of several linguists with expertise in disparate areas of the Plateau, reveal the vibrant tapestry of language in Tibet while also highlighting its fragility.
Read more: Smithsonian