Although most tour guides are now conversant in several languages, including English, most Tibetans speak only their native tongue, with a smattering of Mandarin. A few words of Tibetan from a foreigner will always be greeted enthusiastically, and the further off the beaten track you get, the more useful they’ll be.
Tibetan belongs to the small Tibeto-Burmese group of languages and has no similarity at all to Mandarin. Tibetan script was developed in the seventh century and has thirty consonants and five vowels, which are placed either beside, above or below other letters when written down. There are obvious inaccuracies when trying to render this into the Roman alphabet, and the situation is further complicated by the many dialects across the region; the Lhasa dialect is used in the vocabulary here. Word order is back-to-front relative to English, and verbs are placed at the ends of sentences – “this noodle soup is delicious” becomes “tukpa dee shimbo doo”, literally “noodle soup this delicious is”. The only sound you are likely to have trouble with is “ng” at the beginning of words – it is pronounced as in “sang”.