The Power of Language

Dharamsala is literally and figuratively a destination in the clouds with its stunning Himalayan backdrop and its diversely complex population all woven into one community. The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet (www.gu-chu-sum.org), the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with which Jess and I are learning alongside for the month is also proving to be no exception to this surreal image of strength and solidarity that has been built on a foundation of socio-cultural and political complexity. Gu-Chu-Sum inspects and examines the human rights situation in Tibet and in particular, records testimonies and publishes biographies of former political prisoners, including their health conditions and treatment. The organization also provides English and conversation classes to teach young adult Tibetans, including monks, how to share their own unique stories, as it views this first-hand sharing as integral to both the individual’s healing and self-growth processes and the greater Tibetan freedom struggle.

Jess and I’s first days at our work placement have truly pushed me to unpack some of my deepest assumptions, especially those around the English language and its associated power and privilege in broader contexts. As to not rely on the monolinguistic assumption that I will be understood and able to communicate effectively everywhere and with anyone in India as an English speaker, I had hoped to develop at least a very basic conversational level of Tibetan before if not immediately upon my arrival in Dharamsala. Although I tried to prepare to navigate through this language barrier by reading up on the Tibetan language and beginning a phrasebook, being placed in an entirely Tibetan-run NGO has brought me to the realization that perhaps these preparations were helpful, but that at the same time my understanding of some of the socio-cultural and linguistic dimensions of Tibet will only genuinely develop from tried interactions and communications with Tibetans. That being said, it is proving to be quite challenging to critically deconstruct this monolinguistic assumption as in order to facilitate this everyday cross-cultural learning, I more often than not have to fall back on my English skills, reproducing the monolinguistic narrative that I had strived to defy in the first place. In this way, I am a facing a rather disorienting dilemma: how am I to deconstruct the power and privilege of my linguistic identity if that identity is fostering the majority of the dialogues that I am having with my Tibetan colleagues and students? Is relying on this assumption more or less harmful than not experiencing any exchanges at all?

Jess and I have also discovered that Gu-Chu-Sum’s foundational ideas align with those of our students as they reiterated to us that English stands as a universal language that would create the largest space for conversation between them and the international community, conversation that they seem to view as the catalyst to Tibetan freedom. This piece has steered me to a critical examination of the power that not only I possess as an English speaker in the world, but also the power that English-speaking Tibetans have over non-English-speaking Tibetans to tell their stories, stories that are always reflective of those individuals’ particular positionalities and social biases. In this way, I find myself wondering: are my English-speaking colleagues and students steering Gu-Chu-Sum’s initiatives and the greater Tibetan struggle more one way than the other, perhaps silencing the voices and opinions of those with limited English? Although I remain unresolved about why it is that English has to be the method of transmission for intercultural sharing, I now understand that both English speakers and English-speaking Tibetans are arbitrarily awarded the power of language and that this power shapes realities, realities that for the most part are not our own.

-Jillien

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