Save an Endangered Language: Learn Dzongkha

Dec 15, 2015 1:37:46 PM / by Britta Wilhelmsen

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If you’ve been following along on our endangered languages exploration, we salute you! If you don’t know what we’re talking about, we encourage you to check out our previous posts on YiddishTuvan, Scottish Gaelic, and Cherokee. These are just a few of the exciting courses available on Mango, where you’ll learn the ins and outs of the indigenous languages the world has to offer. As promised, today’s pick leads us to the small Asian country of Bhutan, sandwiched between Nepal, India, Bangladesh and China. If you’ve ever thought of traveling there, you’re in luck — Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan and an extremely interesting one at that.

First, a bit of history

“Dzongkha” is a South Tibetic language with about 130,000 speakers (not to be confused with standard Tibetan, which is an entirely different language altogether).  The word literally means the language of “kha,” spoken in the “Dzong” fortress.  In the 17th century, these massive dzong fortresses were created by Ngawang Namgyal, a man otherwise known as the unifier of Bhutan.  These fortresses functioned as centers of learning as well as significant political and military power establishments, and can still be seen stretching across the mountainous landscape of the country.  Traditionally, the first speakers of Dzongkha were known as the ‘Ngalong, a group of people that inhabited western Bhutan.  The ‘Ngalong were pretty progressive - not only are they credited with the origin of Dzongkha, but they were also the first in the country to adopt the Buddhist religion. Not too bad!

Grammar and alphabet

If you’re looking to become a Dzongkha expert, we’ve got good news! You might not believe it, but Dzongkha grammar is actually incredibly easy to learn compared to other Asian languages. The reason why? It utilizes only two different “aspects” of grammar taken from the Tibetan language, which are called Sumchupa and Takijugpa.  Because it’s condensed into these two aspects, the grammar rules are comparatively quite easy to remember. Most other similar languages contain a combination of three or more grammar aspects.

As for its alphabet, Dzongkha contains 30 letters taken from an ancient script called ‘Uchen. This is the same type of script used in the Tibetan language, originally derived from Sanskrit in the middle of the seventh century.  Most letters in the Dzongkha alphabet are pronounced by expelling air from the lungs and using the tongue to articulate different sounds.  Interestingly, the language does not have scientific terms to represent body parts such as “gums,” “teeth,” or “lips,”  therefore Dzongkha classifies its sounds into different categories to indicate their correct pronunciation. Several of these categories include nangdu threpa (nang-du-phradpa) "internal touching,” cungze threpa (cung-zad-phradpa) "slight touching," tsumpa (btsum-pa) "closing,” and chewa (phye-ba) "opening.”  It might take some practice, but Mango’s got your back on this one.  

In the meantime, check out the quick guide below for some basic Dzongkha pronunciation:

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Why Dzongkha is worth saving

The problem today is that many Bhutanese children don’t have enough mainstream exposure to Dzongkha, making it difficult for them to adopt the language into their environment. Most TV programs are in English or Hindi, creating a population that sees these languages as the “popular” ones, while Dzongkha is pushed to the side. Luckily, legislators are currently working to improve the presence of Dzongkha in schools and communities in an effort to promote its study.

Dzongkha is ultimately more than just a language. Like many other endangered languages, Dzongkha carries a rich indigenous history that dates back to ancient times - something that, if you ask us, is definitely worth preserving.  If learning about this indigenous language has sparked your interest, head on over to our Endangered Languages Page and get started on some basic Dzongkha today!  We can’t wait to hear what you think.  


Learn Dzongkha Free

Topics: Language Learning and Culture, Mango News

Britta Wilhelmsen

Written by Britta Wilhelmsen

Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she's not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires' beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

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