How Learning Tibetan Changed the Way I Think

Translator Estefania Duque shares her journey studying Tibetan, revealing how language shapes the mind, influences perspective, and offers spiritual inspiration.

Estefania Duque
17 October 2023
A dorje sits on a page of tibetan writing
Photo by Steve Evans

When I was nine years old, my parents discovered Buddhism and became students of Lama Tony Karam at Casa Tibet Mexico. That same year, I watched Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Inspired by the Atlantis character Milo Thatch, a young linguist and cartographer who embarks on an expedition to discover the lost city of Atlantis, I became determined to learn multiple languages. My parents’ newfound embrace of Buddhism simultaneously paved the way for my deepening connection with the dharma. Little did I know, these two seemingly separate paths would eventually merge.

If you enjoy learning languages as much as I do, you’ve probably heard the theory that we develop different “personalities” with each language that we learn. While I do feel that each language I learn brings up a different aspect of my personality, a more accurate way for me to describe what happens when I learn a new language is that it opens me up to new perspectives and worldviews.

The practice of translation and learning a new language has become my own form of shamatha practice.

This past year, I’ve been studying to become a Tibetan translator through the Khyentse Foundation’s Dharma Sagar project. During my studies and language training, my mind has been transformed by the Tibetan language much more than with any other language I’ve studied or spoken over the years. In a way, Tibetan itself, down to its grammar, not only holds the dharma — it is the dharma.

Tibetan language has shaped the way I think and look at life. Even simple, everyday words such as “hello” and “thank you” have taken on a new, more profound meaning. The Tibetan greeting of “tashi delek” means “may everything be auspicious.” An expression of thanks, “tug je che,” means “great compassion.”

When talking about someone or something external to you, Tibetan grammar forces you to express whether what you’re talking about is something you’ve experienced or seen with your own eyes, whether it’s an assumption you’re making, or if it’s something that is generally true to everyone else. This structure has kept my mind from solidifying my own opinions, perspectives, and experiences as something inherent and that everybody should agree with. When the type of information I’m expressing is personal, disagreements can be embraced much more easily, and communication more open.

“The sun is hot” is a truth that all can agree on, but when talking about the weather and how it’s perceived, hot or not, then we would talk in a way that would indicate personal experience. It’s us who are feeling it — other people might disagree and feel comfortable or cold in the same weather.

In learning Tibetan, the way I relate to my “stuff” has changed, too. When speaking Tibetan, instead of saying, “I have a phone,” we would say something closer to “a phone abides by me.” My concept of the things I “own” has changed from “this is mine” to “this happens to be near me, and I happen to be able to use it,” with no inherent possession. This can be a wonderful and helpful tool to work with attachment.

In Tibetan, there is an honorific language that goes beyond the French vous or the Spanish usted. Rather than conjugating the verbs differently to indicate politeness, many words are modified, or can even be entirely different, to indicate honor itself. For instance, you can have a regular picture (par) or an honorific picture (kupar) of, say, your lama. There’s even a way to talk about an honorific dog. However, you never use honorific language when talking about yourself. Instead, you can use humble language to help you decrease your sense of ego importance.

When it comes to verb conjugation, it changes depending on if there was volition behind the past action. This conjugation can only happen in the first person in Tibetan — only we can know for certain if our own actions are intentional or not — which makes me consider whether the action I’m speaking of was intentional. Thinking about how I will conjugate a verb based on whether I had intention behind my actions, and then reflecting on those intentions, has helped me hold myself accountable for my actions in both past recounts and as I take action in my present life. I used to think things such as, “This person did that on purpose.” Now, I ask myself: “How can I know or judge their intentions if I can only experience my own mind?”

The practice of translation and learning a new language has become my own form of shamatha practice. It is a practice of mindfulness with many valuable results, including new translations of dharma materials and hope for the preservation of both the dharma and the Tibetan culture. My translation work allows me to help make dharma teachings available to more people. In all my lifetimes, I aspire to translate the dharma until samsara is empty. And I hope that you, too, open your heart to learning and appreciating this beautiful language and its powerful teachings.

Estefania Duque

Estefania Duque has a degree in Modern Languages and Interculturality from De La Salle Bajío University. She grew up in the warmth of the Buddhist community of Casa Tibet México and is currently completing the Dharma Sagar Translator Training Program with the aspiration of translating the Dharma directly from Tibetan into Spanish.