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Southwestern Professor Forms Nonprofit to Help Keep Tibetan Language Alive

As a graduate student working on her doctorate in chinese literature, Patricia Schiaffini made several trips to the Tibetan-populated areas of China to learn more about Tibetan authors.

As a graduate student working on her Ph.D. in Chinese literature, Patricia Schiaffini made several trips to the Tibetan-populated areas of China to learn more about Tibetan authors. During these visits, she also learned something else: that many Tibetans were becoming less and less fluent in their own language because they tended to speak more Chinese in day-to-day life. She also learned that there were very few children’s books written in Tibetan.

“Tibetan children are losing their own language and their own culture because they don’t have resources in their own language,” says Schiaffini, who now teaches Chinese as a part-time assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Southwestern.

When she returned to the United States after completing her dissertation research in 1999, Schiaffini started to brainstorm ways that she could help the Tibetan people in China, but it was not until she had her own children that she realized exactly how important children’s books really are.

As a Spanish woman married to a Chinese man raising children in the United States, Schiaffini says it is very important to her that her children learn all three languages and cultures. “If you are going to try and teach your children a language other than English in the home, you need entertainment in that language,” Schiaffini says. “Children receive literacy through entertainment.”

Remembering the lack of children’s literature in the Tibetan language, Schiaffini formed the idea for the non-profit Tibetan Arts and Literature Initiative, or TALI. TALI is a non-governmental organization with no political or religious affiliations and is intended to spread literacy and promote the appreciation of literature and art in the Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China.

When she returned to the Tibet Autonomous Region for a visit in the summer of 2006, Schiaffini took the idea for TALI with her. The commune of writers and artists she had lived with agreed the initiative was a good idea, and slowly but surely they started to send her ideas they had for children’s stories.

Schiaffini faced numerous obstacles in getting the stories into print, however. The loss of the Tibetan language is not just a trend among the youngest generation. Schiaffini had a hard time finding people who were both fluent in written Tibetan, and also technologically adept enough to get the book into print. By working together with a few dedicated individuals, however, they were able to overcome these challenges and get the books to press.

The first book completed was A Small Frog and A Crow, which is based on a Tibetan folktale about a little frog whose resourcefulness allows her to escape the tight claws of a hungry crow. The book is intended for children 3-6 years of age.

TALI also has published a second book titled The Prince and the Yogin’s Daughter, which is a classic Tibetan love story about two lovers who are forced to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be together. This book was written for children ages 10 and older.

Schiaffini had both books illustrated by noted Tibetan artists. “For many children, these books also are their first real exposure to art,” she says.

The first books were distributed in August and September, and Schiaffini says 10,000 copies have been distributed so far. Volunteers take the books with them on their travels into rural Tibetan-populated areas, and for many children these books are the first that they’ve seen.

Schiaffini is seeking funds to publish five more books in the coming year, including a Tibetan translation of the popular children’s book Happy Birthday Moon.

TALI also is exploring the possibility of producing a series of television and radio programs that would bring literary works to Tibetan children.

In addition to the publishing projects, Schiaffini is working on several other projects to increase understanding between the peoples of the United States and China. She has organized exchanges of artwork and letters between children in Austin and children in Lhasa, which is the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). She hopes to take several Austin-area teachers to Tibet next summer for a teaching workshop.

For more information on TALI, visit www.talitibet.org. To see pages from some of the books TALI has published, visit http://www.southwestern.edu/newsroom/tibet/tibet.html.