Most urban Tibetans speak Mandarin in addition to Tibetan. Even in the countryside you can get by with basic Mandarin in most restaurants and hotels, since they are normally run by Mandarin-speaking Han or Hui Chinese. That said, Tibetans are extremely pleased when foreign visitors at least greet them in Tibetan, so it’s well worth learning a few phrases. Very few Tibetans outside of the tourism industry speak English.

Courses

It is possible to enrol in a Tibetan language course at Lhasa’s Tibet University. International students can only begin studies in autumn and must register by 31 March. Beginner- to advanced-level language classes are available, as well as cultural classes on such topics as calligraphy, history and painting. For an application form contact the Foreign Affairs Office. If you are accepted, the university will help arrange a student (‘X’) visa and, after three months, residency status in Lhasa. Students have to stay in campus accommodation. It should also be possible to hire a private tutor from the university.

Many travellers find it more convenient to study in Dharamsala or Kathmandu, although students say that the mix of dialects and high levels of English make them less effective places to study. Courses offered there include Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan language and Tibetan performing arts.

Many universities in the West also have Tibetan language courses and it's also possible to take classes just about anywhere with a private teacher via Skype.