Published: Oct. 10, 2023

An online beginning Tibetan language course offered at CU Boulder allows learners worldwide to access contemporary resources for a less-frequently taught language

A new University of Colorado Boulder online language class is aiming to preserve an endangered language and create access to an important aspect of culture and identity.

Beginning Tibetan is the result of a collaboration between the Anderson Language and Technology Center (ALTEC) and the Center for Asian Studies (CAS), and the work of Tenzin Tsepak, a teaching professor of Tibetan in the CAS, and Maggie Rosenau, an ALTEC lecturer of German and learning design expert.

Drawing on Rosenau’s experience creating open educational resources and Tsepak’s expertise in Tibetan and Himalayan studies, the collaborators began designing the free online course in 2021. A significant goal was to create a Tibetan language course highlighting the language’s rich history and cultural significance, as well as addressing issues of accessibility and quality educational resources.

“Most of the resources out there and pedagogical tools for Tibetan that we have now are very traditional, like old-school textbooks and audio recordings that have not been updated for decades,” Tsepak says. “There is certainly nothing really digitally interactive out there for Tibetan language learners.

Tenzin Tsepak

Tenzin Tsepak contributed expertise in Tibetan and Himalayan studies to developing the online Beginning Tibetan language class.

“And these traditional materials focus mostly on reading and producing one-to-one written translation, not other skills like conversational listening and personal, verbal expression. So now, with this course, we have really interactive materials for students. Learners now have an online tool to better engage with the language. This is very new for Tibetan.” 

Contemporary resources for language learning

Studying endangered and less-commonly taught languages is important for both understanding how languages grow and develop and for preserving the native languages of those who speak them. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, enabling access to the Tibetan language has been an important way to protect and preserve Tibetan culture and identity. 

“There are wonderful organizations, institutions and individual educators out there offering important cultural history and language resources,” Rosenau says. “We have included and credited some of these in the course build—like the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, which is a collection hosted by the University of Virginia Library; the Tibet Film Festival in Switzerland; and the Tibetan Equality Project out of the New York/New Jersey area.

“But during my initial research to understand what is available for learners, what really stood out was a gap in contemporary multi-modality we could fill. So, this became a priority within the scaffolding, and I asked a lot of Tsepak for this project. His family even generously contributed to many of our listening dialogue activities. And I have to give a big shout-out and thank you to Tsepak’s spring 2023 first- and second-year students, who contributed blog posts to the unit dedicated to traditional holidays and festivals.”

Creating the Beginning Tibetan course was one of the goals supported by a 2020-2023 Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant was awarded to Tim Oakes, a professor in the Department of Geography, and Danielle Rocheleau Salaz, executive director of CAS, in partnership with ALTEC and Director Susanna Pàmies, as well as the departments of anthropology, geography and religious studies.

The grant provides funds to plan, develop and carry out programs to strengthen and improve undergraduate instruction in international studies and foreign languages. It also supports the Tibet Himalaya Initiative, an interdisciplinary hub for research, teaching and public engagement on Tibet and the Himalayas. The center also offers scholarship opportunities for Tibetan and Nepali summer language study and supports Directed Independent Language Study in Tibetan and Nepali through ALTEC.

A worldwide resource

The Beginning Tibetan course is self-paced and includes modules on Tibetan sounds and basic grammar, greetings and introductions, communities, weather, clothing, foods, hospitality, travel, directions, festivals, holidays and customs. It also includes a broad collection of resources including dictionaries, archives, maps, short films, a podcast, social justice organizations and music.

Maggie Rosenau

Maggie Rosenau is a learning design expert who will give an online faculty workshop Nov. 7 about the H5P learning platform.

“Traditional textbooks focus just on grammar and maybe a few cultural elements that logically connect to vocabulary,” Tsepak says. “But now, I feel like this new course is like a mandala, you know? We have basically everything circling around this package—interactive learning that is really modern and engaging. And there are amazing, authentic images, contemporary culture, representations of the Tibetan diaspora, music, local Tibetan restaurants in Boulder, trans and queer representation and non-binary language elements. Our goal is to better engage our students and make the process of language learning much more fun and inclusive.”

One of the course’s innovative technological features is H5P, integrated on the Canvas learning platform, which helps make the content interactive by providing instant and automatic feedback to users, an essential aspect of effective language learning. Also, as an open-source tool, the H5P content can easily be shared, reused and adapted by others, making it a cost-free resource for interactive online learning.

“Building in Canvas and (open educational resources) for language learning is my love language,” Rosenau says. “I’m especially excited about all the H5P elements built into this resource. My hope is that instructors of Tibetan around the globe will use these materials by integrating the vocab cards, audio recordings and interactive grammar activities into their own educational platforms.”

ALTEC will host an online faculty workshop with Rosenau on H5P at 1 p.m. Nov. 7, as well as a roundtable discussion focusing on less commonly taught languages and language acquisition next spring.

Rosenau and Tsepak’s collaborative project offers learners worldwide the opportunity to delve into the Tibetan language and culture and underscores the importance of making less commonly taught languages accessible and available. The Beginning Tibetan course is free and can serve as a supplement to other Tibetan courses or as a stand-alone course.  

While the course is not comprehensive, it is a valuable first step in providing more contemporary resources for Tibetan language learning. “It is just a start,” says Tsepak, “and if we have the opportunity to expand the project, then we would love that.”

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