Columbia University is one of the strongest centers for modern (colloquial and literary) and classical Tibetan language. It is one of the few places in the United States where students can take three consecutive years of Tibetan modern language classes. The Modern Tibetan Studies Program also works with inter-university arrangements that allow New York University, the City University of New York, and, in the case of language courses, Yale and Cornell students to cross-register at no extra cost through the Language Resource Center. All MTSP courses are open to students in any of the Consortium of New York Universities.
Tibetan language courses at Columbia began before 1998 with Lozang Jamspal teaching courses in classical Tibetan language. When Professor Robert Thurman began teaching in 1998 he added courses in advanced Tibetan translation. Courses in modern Tibetan language were added when Tenzin Norbu Nangsal joined Columbia in 2000. In 2001, Columbia—in partnership with the University of Virginia and Tibet University – established the first Tibetan language program for foreign students in Central Tibet. The intensive Tibetan Language Summer School, based at Tibet University in Lhasa, ran from 2001 until 2006.
Enrollment of Tibetan language courses increased significantly in 2014 with the arrival of Sonam Tsering, employed as the Director of the Tibetan Language Program.
Sonam Tsering has developed a three-year course in modern colloquial and literary Tibetan, and currently teaches six courses per academic year. His vision is to promote Tibetan as a major language at Columbia University, rather than it existing on the margins. Sonam Tsering earned a teaching award in 2019 for his dedication to his students and innovative teaching. For example, he has developed learner-centered curricula and teaching materials that incorporate multimedia instructional technology (including audio and video clips of Facebook and WeChat as well as real Tibetan televisions shows made available to students on YouTube) for interactive and collaborative language learning in the classroom. His classes at Columbia are linked via high-definition video-conferencing with students at Cornell and Yale as part of Columbia’s Shared Course Initiative (SCI). Classical literary Tibetan has been taught by Pema Bhum and Kunchog Tseten since 2015, and these courses are also shared with students at Cornell and Yale.
As Director of the Tibetan Language Program, Sonam Tsering is keen that students should increase their cultural awareness alongside developing language skills. He organizes various social activities including a spring language program picnic event and a Tibetan New Year’s party. Although from the Amdo region of Tibet, Sonam Tsering teaches the general Tibetan speech comprehensible to all educated Tibetans. He has secured National Resource Center funding through WEAI to plan a summer school program in the northeastern region of Tibet, which will be the only program of its kind.