How much language instruction does a PhD guarantee?

Are you planning on becoming a Tibetan language translator? It might surprise you to learn that there are no translation studies programs for Tibetan (Raine, 2011).

Universities that do work in Tibetan language do not offer degrees in translator training. Creating translators is not the stated aim of these programs; neither are their language requirements, teaching methods, nor coursework geared toward translation or translator training.

Instead, what is offered in formal institutions are degrees in History of Religion, Tibetology, and Buddhist Studies or Philosophy. Let's first take a closer look at these programs and ask some simple questions:

  1. How much language instruction do they provide? And how much do they require?
  2. How do these language classes stack up to other language programs? How do they stack up to modern translator training programs?

After all, if academia is to be the benchmark by which we measure Tibetan language expertise, what exactly is that mark? 

1. How much language instruction is there? 

  1. In the East Asian Studies B.A., offered at several universities, 6 units (1 year) of language is required; however, most universities only offer Tibetan as an elective (not as a degree focus), and no universities offer a "language and literature" degree in Tibetan
  2. For many M.A. students, a year of Tibetan is optional; for Ph.D. programs often require 4 years of "Classical Tibetan"; spoken Tibetan is optional

In other words, it looks as if a graduate student may enter Tibetan Studies Ph.D. program as a beginner, and take as little as eight language classes in Tibetan—or 280 total hours of English-medium classroom instruction in Tibetan. 

That is the minimum requirement. An exceptional student who takes every Tibetan course offered every year for 10 years could amass 855 classroom hours; yet, it seems, would be hard-pressed to not begin repeating material after plateauing in the advanced class (alongside newly advanced students). 

2. An Asian language peer

2.a) Majoring in Japanese 

Let's compare that to an Asian language peer: Japanese (I've chosen Japanese as an instructive parallel due to its similar syntax and the fact that its classical language spans roughly the same time period as Tibetan’s: 800-1200 CE). I've also taken language requirements from programs at the same universities where Tibetan is offered

  1. A B.A. requires 2 years basic language + 3 years worth of advanced language + 1 year literature + semester classical + semester capstone (with “an emphasis is placed on language acquisition”) 
  2. Graduate students are expected to attain level N1 in Japanese (C1-C2, advanced-fluent); focusing on classical literature is available at this level

To sum up the differences in language education between a student focusing on Japanese and a student who focuses on Tibetan, we may state that: 

  • Language requirements are 7 times lower for the Tibetan language student 
  • Japanese language programs have teachers who are a) native speakers and b) trained in teaching Japanese as a foreign language; while some Tibetan programs have a), none have b)
  • Spoken Japanese study invariably precedes classical language study; in Tibetan, it is not only reversed—spoken, if it's even offered, is considered optional

2.b) Attending Translator Training

Besides simply studying a language, there are many skills particular to the profession of "translator" that training programs seek to impart. Let's look a little closer at the differences between a Tibetology degree and a Translator Training degree: 

Translator Training

Field of Study: Translator Training & Intercultural Communication

Professional Aim for Graduates: Professional Translators & Interpreters

Language Requirements: Level B1 prerequisite; Level C1 required

Language Pedagogy: modern second language methods (comprehensive proficiency) 

Additional Coursework: modern linguistics; intercultural communication; theories, techniques & technology of translation

Approach: Modern Translator Training


Field of Study: History of Religion / Tibetology / Buddhist Studies

Professional Aim for Graduates: Tenure-track Professors / other academic posts

Language Requirements: Beginners admitted; 280 hours required

Language Pedagogy: Grammar-Translation ("reading"-only, English language medium, word-by-word)

Additional Coursework: Historical, philological, philosophical, theological, ethnographic, & literary approaches to the study of religion

Approach: Philological / Historical

Whether we are an aspiring or current translator, it's important that we recognize this incredible gulf that has opened up between "how Tibetan translators are trained" and "how other translators are trained". Where did this chasm come from? 

Especially knowing that both methodologies have roots in the university system, we need to delve into the origins of these differences, and ask oursleves if there's anything we can learn from how other language programs operate in this day and age. What drove them to change, and why are Tibetan programs so different? 

The information contained elsewhere in this blog and website is, in part, an attempt to answer some of these questions. If you're a reader, I'd suggest my reading list. If you prefer videos, more can be found in my series on Tibetan as a second language