Number of speakers. About 1.4 million people speak Amdo Tibetan and most of these people do not speak or understand other dialects. Tibetan is officially divided into three dialects, corresponding to the three geographic and cultural areas of Tibet: Utsang (or Central), Khams and Amdo. The region of U and Tsang roughly matches the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, while Khams is split between parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Chamdo in the TAR. Amdo areas are also split between different provinces--Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu.
While some linguists disagree with categorizing the diverse varieties of Tibetan spoken in the Khams area as a distinct dialect, the speech of Amdo and Utsang people constitute two very distinct styles. Outside of China, the Utsang dialect, specifically the variety spoken in and around Lhasa, is the near universal standard and almost all language classes and materials produced outside of China teach Lhasa Tibetan. Within China there is a movement to create an official, or Standard Tibetan along the lines of 普通话 (putonghua) for Chinese and that standard dialect will almost certainly also be based upon the speech of Lhasa. Even though implementation of any standard is still far away, it would seem to make sense for the learner to study the Lhasa dialect, but there are actually many reasons to study Amdo.
Reasons to study Amdo Tibetan:
1) Number of speakers. About 1.4 million people speak Amdo Tibetan and most of these people do not speak or understand other dialects, so you can speak fluent Lhasa dialect and still have to rely on Chinese or English to communicate with Tibetans in Amdo. In addition, with such a large population, Amdo Tibetan has its own websites, television and radio stations and movies. If you buy foreign or Chinese films dubbed into "Tibetan" in Xining or Labrang, they will be in Amdo.
2) History and culture. Amdo is an important area in terms of Tibetan culture and history. Amdo is the home of Thanka painting and the Gelukpa Tradition. It is the location of the famous Labrang and sKumbum Monasteries and it is the birthplace of many important Tibetans. Many foreigners think that Tibet begins and ends with the TAR. This is a sad mistake.
3) Religion. If your reasons for learning Tibetan include being able to communicate with a specific teacher or community of practitioners, it makes sense to study the dialect spoken by these people so if they speak Amdo, learn Amdo. Many great Buddhist teachers are from the Amdo area and many important religious texts originating from Amdo are written in language that is influenced by the spoken Amdo.
4) Proximity to Classical Tibetan. I don't regret studying Lhasa Tibetan before switching to Amdo (much) in part because the version of spoken Tibetan that I studied was very close to so-called Literary Tibetan, which is what a large number of contemporary websites and publications are written in and which maintains a lot of the conventions of Classical writing. However, in its own way the spoken language of Amdo also retains much of the pronunciation and grammar of Classical Tibetan, making it closer in some ways to written Tibetan than the Lhasa dialect is. This is most apparent in the pronunciation but there are also "living relics" of Classical in the vocabulary and grammar of Amdo. In particular, if you have the goal of reading written materials produced by Amdo speakers, you'll have an easier time of it if you understand spoken Amdo.
5) It’s beautiful. The sound system of Amdo is quite different from Lhasa. In fact, it's different from any other language or dialect I’ve ever studied and I’ve studied lots of languages. This makes pronunciation a real challenge, but not an insurmountable one. It also means that everything Amdo, from songs to poetry to jokes, has a unique and special flavor. I have to admit I cursed the language when I first started learning it but now that I feel like I have mastered an intelligible accent, I treasure the unexpected beauty and meaning that exposure to this language has brought into my life. I'll try to pass on some of this beauty to you by including clips of songs and poetry in the audios for lessons.
Having convinced you of the clear superiority of Amdo to all other forms of Tibetan, let me just give you one caveat: basically, if you do not plan on spending time in Amdo, interacting with Amdo speakers or reading texts produced by Amdowas, but you do plan on interacting with Utsang or Kham speakers, save yourself the trouble and learn Lhasa Tibetan instead. I spent five months studying Tibetan in India only to discover that most of what I'd learned was useless here in Amdo. I'd hate to contribute to anyone else having the same experience. Of course, there's no reason why you can't study both, but I recommend mastering a comfortable grasp of the basics of one before beginning the other.
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