Sino-Tibetan Languages: Research Methodologies and Approaches to Linguistic Field Studies and Language Documentation among Tibeto-Burman Speaking Minorities in China

Level - Target audience

PhD students with a background in Chinese studies and/or Chinese culture and religions; and/or PhD students with a linguistic background and an interest in language families / Sino-Tibetan / Tibeto-Burmese languages ; and/or students engaging in linguistic field studies in East Asia; and/or students engaging in the study of endangered languages and ethnic minorities in East Asia. The film screening will be open to a wider and less specialized audience.

Organizing & Scientific Committee

  • Prof. Christoph Anderl - Faculty: Arts and Philosophy, Department: Languages and Cultures (Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies / DiaLing)
  • Prof. Ann Heirman (Languages and Cultures – East Asia)
  • Prof. Linda Badan (Translation, Interpreting and Communication / MULTIPLES / DiaLing)


This specialist course will focus on an interdisciplinary approach to the Sino-Tibetan (ST) language family, with an emphasis on languages of the Tibeto-Burman (TB) branch spoken by ethnic minorities in China. In the course there will be an emphasis on linguistic aspects, such as the genetic relations between the ST languages in a historical perspective, comparative approaches to the study of language families, fieldwork research on endangered languages, fieldwork methodologies, as well as the cultural and religious background of ST speaking ethnic minorities in China.

Topic of the course

The course focuses on the Sino-Tibetan language family and Tibeto-Burman languages as spoken in Southwestern regions of China, as well as the sociocultural, religious, and ecological contexts of ethnic minorities of these regions. The DS will provide an overview of ST languages in a historical perspective, and deal with the research of language families in a comparative context (especially contrasting / comparing the Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan groups). More specifically, the focus will be on Tibeto-Burman languages as spoken in the Southwestern region of Yunnan, China, many of them being endangered and on the verge of becoming extinct. The linguistic aspects will be discussed in a contextualized way, giving consideration to the sociocultural, religious (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, and native religions), and environmental / ecological aspects of the ethnic minority communities. Another part of the course will concretely deal with linguistic fieldwork methodologies and the documentation of endangered languages.

Objectives of the course

The course aims at providing intensive training for doctoral students with a background in East Asian linguistics, comparative linguistics, linguistic field work, endangered language studies, Chinese minority studies, Chinese culture studies, and Chinese religious studies. The DS course will feature lectures by leading scholars in the field of ST/TB studies, presentation of dissertation projects, round-table discussions, and the discussion of recent research on comparative studies on language families and linguistic fieldwork methodologies; in addition, the course also focuses on the cultural and religious context of TB speakers in Southwestern China. Concretely, the course aims:
1) to enhance the PhD students’ understanding of the linguistic and cultural diversity of China, with an emphasis on TB languages spoken in Southwestern China;
2) to increase the students’ sensitivity concerning the research on endangered languages in China and the sociopolitical and religious situation of TB speaking ethnic minorities;
3) to discuss with the participants state-of-the-arts research concerning linguistic methodologies on the ST group (in comparison to the Indo-European group), and to enhance their knowledge of the historical relations between languages of the ST group;
4) to provide new insights concerning linguistic field studies in Southwestern China and neighbouring areas;
5) to enhance the students’ competences to present their research results.

Based on the current Covid19 situation, these dates are tentative and could be adjusted; alternatively, in case international travels are impossible in October 2020, the DS could be also transformed into an online event (e.g., one-day DS course per week, during a period of five weeks); if necessary, adjustments will be applied.

Tentative Program

October 26 – 30, 2020 (Mon to Fri)

  • Monday, October 26th:

9:30: Welcome Greetings (C. Anderl; A. Heirman; L. Badan)
10:00-12:00: Sino-Tibetan Languages: Introduction and Historical Perspective (Nathan Hill)
12:00-13:30: Lunch Break
13:30-15:30: Tibeto-Burman Languages: An Introduction (Nathan Hill)
15:30-16:30: Sino-Tibetan Languages: Research Methodologies in a Comparative Perspective 1 (Nathan Hill)

  • Tuesday, October 27th:

10:00-12:00: Linguistic Field Work Methodologies 1: New Developments (Nathan Hill)
12:00-13:30: Lunch Break
13:30-14:30: Religion and Culture of the Biyo Communities of Southwestern China (PhD student Shan Bai)
14:30-15:30: Discussion with Students (C. Anderl; N. Hill; J. Wang; L. Badan)
15:30-16:30: Sino-Tibetan Languages: Research Methodologies in a Comparative Perspective 2 (Nathan Hill)

  • Wednesday, October 28th:

10:00-12:00: Introduction to the Hani language group (Wang Jianhua)
12:00-13:30: Lunch Break
13:30-14:30: Round Table Discussion: Research on Language Families in a Comparative and Interdisciplinary Perspective (Nathan Hill, Wang Jianhua)
14:30-16:30: 16:30: Interactive Presentations of Students’ PhD Projects

  • Thursday, October 29th:

10:00-12:00: Linguistic Field Work Methodologies 2: Field Work Among Hani Communities in Southwestern China and Beyond (Wang Jianhua)
12:00-13:30: Lunch Break
13:30-15:30: Hani Religion and Culture / Presentation of a Documentary Film on Minorities in Southwestern China (Wang Jianhua)*
15:30-17:00: Interactive Presentation of Students’ PhD Projects

  • Friday, October 30th:

10:00-12:00: Linguistic Field Work Methodologies 3 (Linda Badan)
12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

13:30-14:30: Religions and Cultures of Minorities in Yunnan Province (Wang Jianhua)
15:30-16:30: Final Discussion with Students


Ghent University, Het Pand, Onderbergen 1, Gent. Room to be determined. Subject to change to online course.


  • Nathan Hill - Affiliation: SOAS University of London

Nathan Hill studied Tibetology and Historical Linguistics at the Catlin Gabel School and Harvard University, in addition to institutions in France, Nepal, Tibet, and Japan. Currently he is teaching at SOAS, London, and is also a distinguished lecturer
at Renmin Univ., Beijing. Hill is one of the leading scholars concerning the history of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and has published extensively in this field, in addition to his research on Tibeto-Burman languages and the methodologies of
historical and corpus linguistics.

  • Wang Jianhua - Affiliation: School of Sociology, Yunnan Minzu University

Wang Jianhua studied Ethnobotany at the Kunming Institute of Botany and Anthropology at the University of California Riverside. Currently, he is a professor and vice head of the Department of Anthropology at the School of Sociology, Yunnan
Minzu University. In addition to the teaching and research on minority languages and cultures, he is highly engaged in the preservation of endangered Hani languages and is the International Coordinator of the Mekong Akha Network for Peace
and Sustainability (MAPS), Chiang Mai, Thailand, coordinating research activities in Hani speaking areas of Thailand, China, Laos, and other regions.

Registration fee

Free of charge for PhD students of the Doctoral School of Arts, Humanities and Law at Ghent University


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Teaching materials

Reading materials (required readings and suggested readings), electronic sources, and the source texts to be translated in class will be (electronically) provided to the participants prior to the course.

Number of participants

Maximum 20

Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

100% attendance (sinological group 20 hrs, non sinological group 16 hrs); active participation (text reading, individual presentations by doctoral researchers, discussions).