Recommended Tibetan Language Dictionaries, Textbooks and Learning Materials (with Ratings)
Monlam Tibetan-English Dictionary. Continually updated, the newest version is the Monlam Grand Tibetan Dictionary 2020. Available for download online. Probably the most comprehensive Tibetan dictionary for Colloquial and Modern Literary terms. One advantage is that it is being updated on a regular basis, with new vocabulary being added every year or two. Currently it contains over a staggering 207,000 Tibetan words and terms, but does not include so many Classical Tibetan and Buddhist terms. Rating: 9/10
The Dharma Dictionary (Rangjung Yeshe Wiki), under the auspices of the Tsadra Foundation. A website in the Wiki format dedicated to Tibetan terminology, 2005-present. Its exact name has yet to be clarified, and it has gone by a few different monikers. In reality, it is and always was owned and run by the Tsadra Foundation, but was originally a free public download of the Rangjung Yeshe Dictionary Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Culture. It includes over 2100 entries by Erick Tsiknopoulos, as well as the complete published Tibetan word lists of translators such as Erik Pema Kunsang, Richard Barron, Ives Waldo and Jim Valby. One of the most useful resources for Classical Tibetan terms and textual translation, as the unique definitions of several different translators are provided, including some newer entries by Gyurme Dorje, Thomas Doctor, Matthieu Ricard and others. The site contains over 182,000 entries (not all of them separate dictionary terms). This is an important “go-to” website for translators. Erick Tsiknopoulos has contributed the highest number of new Tibetan dictionary entries on the site since its inception, and has been actively working on creating entries on a regular basis since 2017. Rating: 7/10
The Great White Conch Dictionary (dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo), by Dungkar Lobsang Thrinlay, 2002. An encyclopedic Tibetan-Tibetan dictionary with special emphasis on Buddhist terminology, originally published in Beijing in two large volumes, coming to 2388 pages total. Reprinted and sold by Sherig Parkhang in Dharamsala and elsewhere in India and Nepal, and now available as an app.
The full title is Illuminating the Topics of Knowledge: The Great Lexicon of Tibetology Compiled by the Honorable Master Scholar, Dungkar Lobsang Thrinlay (mkhas dbang dung dkar blo bzang ‘phrin las mchog gis mdzad pa’i bod rig pa’i tshig mdzod chen mo shes bya rab gsal). Rating: 10/10
The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, 2001. The largest Tibetan-English dictionary ever published. Older copies tend to fall apart due to the sheer girth of this gigantic book. Goldstein is a true scholar and his work is accurate. This book will stand as one of the greatest feats of Tibetan language scholarship for decades to come. For whatever reason, this monumental work seems underappreciated. Its only notable downside is its unwieldy size in most of its published forms. The best dictionary for Modern Literary and Colloquial Tibetan pre-2001, only outshined in some ways by the new electronic Monlam Dictionary. Rating: 9/10
English-Tibetan Dictionary of Modern Tibetan, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, 1999. By far the most beneficial printed dictionary for Beginner and Intermediate Level students of Colloquial and Modern Literary Tibetan. Highly recommended. It can be hard to find a printed copy of this masterpiece, but it’s still published and sold by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives in Dharamsala, in a beautiful turquoise cover. Memorizing the entire book is advisable. Rating: 10/10
The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary (bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo), by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, 1993. A Tibetan-Chinese-Tibetan dictionary published in China by the Chinese government, considered to be the one of the main sources for scholars and translators in Tibetan studies. Contains the vast majority of important terms found in Tibetan texts (though not all) as well as modern vocabulary, and is one of the most complete and functional Tibetan dictionaries available. Rating: 10/10
Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology, by Tsepak Rigzin, 1986. A catalogue of Buddhist terminology, which includes the Sanskrit equivalents. By no means comprehensive of most Buddhist terminology, it fails to live up to its title, but is a noble effort with some interesting inclusions. Good for reading as a sort of textbook. Rating: 6/10
The New Light English-Tibetan Dictionary, by T. G. Dongthog, 1973. Quite outdated but still remains a decent resource for general terms. The early attempts at rendering English words into Tibetan are sometimes inaccurate or artificial. Worth having a copy for occasional reference. Rating: 4/10
A Tibetan-English Dictionary, with Sanskrit Synonyms, by Sarat Chandra Das, 1902. The ultimate classic, the book that started it all, and arguably one of the most brilliant works of scholarship ever created, especially considering its time. This book was still considered vital for Tibetan study in the 2000s, well over a century after it was published. Slightly less important now, it still retains its rightful place as one of the most important Tibetan dictionaries of all time, and remains a fascinating historical and linguistic document of early 20th century Tibet. Many quotations from rare Tibetan historical works are provided as sentence examples. However, it should be noted this illustrious old dictionary has some predictable mistakes, and is not wholly reliable as a modern research reference tool. Das’ work served a strong technical purpose for about 100 years, but not so much afterwards. Rating: 7/10
Tibetan Language Textbooks
Learning Classical Tibetan: A Reader for Translating Buddhist Texts, by Paul Hackett, 2019. Although some selections are too advanced for Beginner and even many Intermediate Level students of Classical Tibetan, overall this book does a good job at introducing the study of classical Tibetan in the traditional way, with ample grammatical analysis. The English translations of the Tibetan texts leave much to be desired, and the verbose descriptions of grammar can be overwhelming, but the organization and structure of the book are generally solid. One of its strongest features is the excellent choice of selected readings, which consists of several philosophical, commentarial and practice-oriented Dharma texts. Rating: 7/10
Advanced Colloquial Tibetan, by Justin Kirkwood, 2012. Justin worked on this book for a couple years while living as a monk at Sherab Ling monastery in Bir (Himachal Pradesh) from 2010 to 2012, and managed to compile a fairly comprehensive list of the most essential modern Colloquial Tibetan vocabulary and idioms, updated for the 21st century. His generous and dedicated work has stood the test of time, especially since very few other Tibetan language textbooks cover much of the core spoken vocabulary included in this book. The verbs and adjectives included here should be memorized by all serious students of Colloquial Tibetan. Justin accomplished an important task and opened the doorway to further and much-needed analysis of the modern spoken language, which unfortunately has still been largely overlooked in Tibetan studies. Available online. Rating: 9/10
How to Read Classical Tibetan, Volume 1: Summary of the General Path, by Craig Preston, 2005. A more advanced book for students who already have a good understanding of Classical Tibetan. This book presumes a great deal of previous study, and is therefore more appropriate for Advanced Level students who have already completed 1000 hours of previous study. It is therefore more useful for those who can already read complex texts (like the Lamrim Chenmo) to some degree. Its most obvious problem is the inconvenient long-page format of the published book, which was an unfortunate trend of the 2000s. Worth looking at for more experienced students, and especially for those who want to translate philosophical works. However, the style and methods of instruction used in the book may not appeal to many students, and is based on Joe Wilson’s system of grammatical analysis. Rating: 6/10
How to Read Classical Tibetan, Volume 2: Buddhist Tenets, by Craig Preston, 2009. The second volume in the series. Rating: 6/10
Lhasa Verbs: A Practical Introduction, by Geoff Bailey and Christopher E. Walker, 2004. Published in Tibet, this book is little known but is actually one of the best Colloquial Tibetan textbooks of the 2000s. It also serves as one of the best compilations of common verbs in modern speech. Some of the verbs are particular to the Lhasa dialect and therefore not so relevant for most students. Rating: 9/10
Manual of Standard Tibetan: Language and Civilization, by Nicolas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje, 2004. Touted as revolutionary when it first came out, but somewhat overhyped in hindsight, the text itself is actually fairly introductory, and much of the actual text is grammatical explanation, linguistic analysis or cultural information, rather than language lessons. Typically academic in a rather disembodied, abstract and theoretical fashion, the book is in some sense the Colloquial Tibetan corollary to Joe Wilson’s Translating Buddhism from Tibetan, and not really in a good way. Much like Wilson’s giant red brick, this book seems to be either loved or hated by students. Still, the book is well organized and fine for Beginner Level students of Colloquial Tibetan. Much of the original buzz about this book was owing to the fact that Nicolas Tournadre is one of the most knowledgeable anthropological linguists in Tibetan language(s) studies, which is reflected in his text. However, the study materials provided are not very comprehensive and serve as a rather limited introduction. Rating: 5/10
Colloquial Tibetan: A Textbook of the Lhasa Dialect, by Tsetan Chonjore and Andrea Abinanti, 2003. Another textbook published by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives. Limited in scope and ultimately subpar, but generally somewhat useful for Beginner Level students of Colloquial Tibetan. Rating: 4/10
A Beginning Textbook of Lhasa Tibetan, by Ellen Bartee and Nyima Droma, 2000. A decent introduction to Colloquial Tibetan. Generally speaking, as a textbook it has many flaws, such as mistakes in the text, and the form of spoken Tibetan it presents is somewhat old fashioned. This book provides a kind of skeletal structure which can serve as a firm linguistic foundation, upon which the teacher can add necessary supplements through explanation. Overall, this book can be good for use in a classroom setting, but not so much for personal study. It simple structure is probably its greatest strength, and it fulfills its purpose as a general introduction to most aspects of basic grammar and vocabulary. This book has been used many times with previous students of Trikāya Tibetan Language Academy, who have usually given it positive feedback. The fact that it doesn’t spend much time on spelling or pronunciation is also quite expedient. Rating: 6/10
Essentials of Modern Literary Tibetan: A Reading Course and Reference Grammar, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, 1993. Rather outdated now, but still one of the only introductions to Modern Literary Tibetan. This book was likely part of what brought attention to Modern Literary Tibetan as a distinct form of Tibetan language, which accordingly requires a separate study. However, the selections in the book can be somewhat awkward, and the style of MLT taught therein is quite formal and certainly dated to pre-1993. Useful for understanding modern Tibetan literature written in the 1960s to 1980s, but the written language has changed much since then, especially due to more contact with the West, modern technological developments and the influence of Chinese, Hindi and English language. Rating: 6/10
Translating Buddhism from Tibetan: An Introduction to the Tibetan Literary Language and the Translation of Buddhist Texts from Tibetan, by Joe Wilson, 1992. Although it suffers from being overly academic in orientation, this is still a good introduction to Classical Tibetan for Intermediate students, especially in terms of grammar. Ground-breaking at the time it was published, it has lost some of its grandeur with time, but still deserves some attention despite its flaws. The first few sections are slow going, and are generally off-putting to those who do not already have some foundation in Tibetan. The second half of the book is much more useful and better written. Whether this weighty tome is really useful as a guide for translation, or more suitable as a weapon, is a different matter. Not recommended for beginners. Rating: 6/10
The Classical Tibetan Language, by Stephen V. Beyer, 1992. This is a learned overview of the structure and features of Classical Tibetan. More of a general book than a textbook per se, but provides detailed information on grammar. Rating: 7/10
A Primer for Classical Literary Tibetan: Volumes 1 & 2, by John Rockwell, 1991. Unfortunately out of print and generally hard to find (even in India and Nepal where most of such books are available), but old copies appear to be for sale on some websites, and the PDF is available online. One of the most conveniently arranged introductions to Classical Tibetan ever created, especially useful for beginners. Rating: 10/10
Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture, by Geshe Lhundup Sopa, 1983. Probably the best Tibetan language textbook published by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives in the 1980s, and also one of the best Tibetan language textbooks from the 1980s in general. Despite its age, it’s actually still one of the best books to read as an Intermediate Level student of Tibetan, because it introduces one to Classical, Colloquial and Modern Literary vocabulary simultaneously in the course of transcribed lectures on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, which serve as the basis for each lesson. Rating: 9/10.
Other Tibetan Language Learning Materials
Tibetan Flash Cards from the Tibetan Language Institute, by David Curtis. One of the best ways for beginners to learn the Tibetan script and some basic vocabulary.
LEARNING: Basic Reading Tibetan Language (YouTube Channel). Some good videos to help with reading practice.
BodYig Jung (YouTube channel). Features several video lessons on Tibetan language.