Atshogs Yeshes Vodgsal
Nankai University
Mary S. Linn
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

ICH depends on transmitting knowledge, skills, and the inspiration to share this knowledge with the next generation. Transmission depends on the local language where the knowledge originates. When this language is small, Indigenous, or minoritized, the speakers are almost always pressured to shift to a more dominant or more prestigious language; over time, much of the traditional knowledge and practices are lost along with the language. So, language maintenance and revitalization efforts are structural underpinnings for sustaining ICH.

The linguistic picture of Tibetan areas in China is complicated. In addition to the large Tibetan languages of China—U-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham—there are at least fifty smaller Tibetic languages1 and thirty-eight minority (non-Tibetic) languages2, many of which identify as Tibetan. With perhaps the exception of the largest three, all urgently need measures for maintenance or revitalization.

Student manual for the 2016 Sino-Tibetan Language Research Methodology Workshop, designed by one of the students. © Atsogs Yeshes Vodgsal

Accordingly, Nankai University (NKU), the Ancient Tibetan Texts Research Center of Qinghai Province, Shanghai Normal University (SHNU) Tibetology Research Center and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) joined in 2016 to create the Sino-Tibetan Language and Linguistics Summer Institute. The institute comprises a two-week Sino-Tibetan Language Research Methodology Workshop (hereafter “the Workshop”), and during the weekend in between, the academic Tibetan Language and Linguistics Forum.3

This report addresses the Workshop—held every August since 2016, training nearly 150 students. The Workshop’s primary objective is to provide linguistic training to minority nationality students, primarily those from Tibetan languages and cultures. The training serves as a foundation to document their own languages and cultural practices, to provide linguistic descriptions that feed into pedagogical materials, and to increase awareness of language shift and revitalization approaches. Secondarily, but also vital for continuation of low-prestige languages, is to instill value and legitimacy for their languages.

How’s and why’s of Nankai University and the Smithsonian Institution

In late 2014, CFCH received funding to provide cultural sustainability training in Tibetan areas of China. Although primarily for artisan-to-market training, some funding was earmarked for ‘language promotion.’ Mary Linn had just been hired at CFCH as the Curator of Cultural and Linguistic Revitalization. Having no specialty in Tibetan or Chinese, she hired a predoctoral fellow, Zoe Tribur, who did. For an institution like the Smithsonian to work in China, CFCH needed a Chinese institutional partner. By late 2015, Zoe announced that a well-known Tibetan linguist, Professor Yeshes Vodgsal Atshogs from Nankai University in Tianjin, China, was visiting at the University of Maryland, and she wanted to meet him. She returned with the news that Atshogs was interested in finding a partner to develop linguistic workshops for Tibetan students. NKU is a top-tier research university with international collaborations and a long tradition of research in ethnic minority languages, including graduating the first Tibetan PhD student in linguistics. Considering Mary had almost thirty years of experience in community-based training institutes, it was a perfect match in shared goals and complementary expertise. After months of hard work, in June 2016, and just two months before the first Workshop was to begin, CFCH and NKU signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Until this point there had never been an academic institute devoted exclusively to Tibetan linguistic training in China. Our partners and other colleagues in Tibetan areas of China had repeatedly managed to scrape together funding to hold this kind of training only to be denied permission. So, we understand the honor and responsibility we have in holding these Workshops. 4

The Students

All students must apply through a short application process. The main criterion is enthusiasm for applying what they learn to their own languages and communities. The ability to speak their languages is not essential. Some students come with little knowledge due to lack of intergenerational transmission of highly endangered languages and from urbanization. Students have some background in language teaching or more traditional text-based historical linguistics. We make sure that there is equity in gender, language diversity, and community language practitioners as well as college students. Finally, students need to be highly proficiency in Chinese. Because of the diversity of languages represented, Chinese is the common language although we strive to have materials in Tibetan and English as well. Over the four years, students have come from all administrative units in the Tibetan areas of China. Because NKU is far from Tibetan areas, more than half spend two to three days traveling to Tianjin. For some students, this means four to five days hitchhiking from mountain villages before travelling on buses and trains to get to NKU, where the heat is often new and unbearable. Yet, the students’ enthusiasm for this opportunity outweighs the discomforts.

The Workshops

The Workshop provides two weeks of intense training through ten to twelve courses. The three categories are: core courses (1:45 hours for 3-4 days), documentation and technology workshops (1:45, 1-2 days), and field methods (every day).

Core courses always include an introduction to linguistics and phonetic transcription. These are taught by local faculty, and students with previous linguistics training help those with no background. In addition to the core courses, internationally known professors teach Topics in Tibeto-Burman Linguistics. The content of these vary according to the instructor’s specialty, but they always provide advanced concepts through languages that students are familiar with. These workshops also introduce students to the diversity and plight of languages in Tibet, which for most is truly eye-opening.

Documentation of horse saddle making in Shkuz Village, Sichuan Province, China, by Gyalthar, a student and Khrochu language consultant in the first Sino-Tibetan Language Research Methodology Workshop © rGyalthar

The workshops give students practical and technical skills in linguistic software and video recording cultural practices. PhD students from the USA and China usually instruct these workshops. While having graduate teaching assistants is not common in China, the Workshop students see peers who are interested in studying their languages and gain role models for continuing their higher education. It also trains the graduate students to teach in semi-formal settings.

Linguistics field methods courses partner an instructor with a consultant who is a native speaker of a language that the students do not know (we have worked with Khrochu and Ersu speakers) for them to learn how the language works. They also learn ethical protocols of working with speakers. Our field methods workshop is extremely condensed in time. Still, students are able to produce a description of the sound system and some other part of the language (of their choice). The student projects contribute to real-world documentation of their own highly endangered languages.

The evenings are equally full—with guest lectures, study hall, and salons, where students share their own research or community language projects. In short, the students eat and sleep language for two weeks. And still they want more.


During and after the Workshop, students connect to each other and instructors through a group WeChat. We disseminate course materials to overcome existing language barriers. Importantly, the WeChat groups encourage students to support each other, and our partners to funnel news and opportunities their way.

We also use the WeChat groups to conduct follow-up surveys six months later. By this time, students understand better what information they use the most and what they need. We ask how they have used the information (e.g. teaching products, data collection, furthering their education). We gauge broader impact by asking if they have shared the information with others, and if so, how (e.g. local workshop, teaching, discussions, WeChat). To this end, the Workshop is successful, as students each year report documentation projects in their own communities, sharing information, and encouraging language use.

In soliciting feedback, we can argue for workshops in other areas of the world by showing the positive effect they have on individual and community engagement with their languages and cultures. What was once an experiment to see if such a Workshop was feasible is now an experiment in keeping up with the demand for more and responding to changing times.


The authors wish to thank Xiang Xun, Zoe Tribur, Jim Deutsch, and Anne Pedersen for their contributions to this report.


1. ‘Tibetic’ refers to languages derived from Old Tibetan, following Tournadre, Nicolas (2013), “The Tibetic Languages and Their Classification”, in Thomas Owen-Smith and Nathan Hill, eds., Trans-Himalayan Linguistics: Historical and Descriptive Linguistics of the Himalayan Area. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
2. For an accessible introduction to the diversity and status of Tibet’s minority language diversity, see Roche, Gerald (2014). The Vitality of Tibet’s Minority Languages in the Twenty-First Century: Preliminary Remarks. Multiethnica 2014: 18–24
3. The 2016 Tibetan Language and Linguistics Forum was the first major academic gathering held in Tibetan. For information about the forum and its symbolic and motivational power, see Yeshes Vodgsal, Atshogs, Sun Kai, Gnamsras Lhanrgayal, and Chang Min, (2017), review: The First Tibetan Language and Linguistics Forum. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 45: 466-487.
4. For more information about the NKU’s extraordinary efforts, the Workshop courses, and the role of graduate students, listen to the presentation “Many Firsts: The First Sino-Tibetan Summer Linguistics Institute,” with Xiang Xun, Mary S. Linn, Zoe Tribur, Nathaniel Simms, and Xuan Guan, given at the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation, University of Hawai‘i, Manoa, 4 March, 2017, at