Reading: What is it, really?

We all know what reading is, right? It's that thing you're doing right now. But do you really realize what you're doing right now? 

There are a few assumptions about reading that we all have. Most of us are used to reading being silent, private, easy, and fast. We're so well-practiced, that we don't realize what it took to get to the point where reading was simply second nature to us. 

Reading isn't silent!

But reading is a complex process. It takes many skills working in tandem. Although many of us today read "silently", what we are doing isn't silent—it's just very very quiet! 

Perhaps you can remember back to the days when you were learning how to read. Probably your parents and teachers and, if you were lucky, many other friends and family would read out loud to you. You started by looking at the pictures, hearing the words, and, over many repetitions, memorizing the story. 

You might have "read" the storybooks back to yourself or your family, using the pictures as clues, speaking out loud the main narrative in bits and pieces as you turned the pages. Slowly it dawned on you that these strange markings on the page—the letters—actually meant something, and were connected to the sounds of the words being read! 

The clear point here is that letters stand for sounds. Kids with good speaking skills and a natural sense of rhythm make good readers; Adults reading or thinking silently actually move their vocal chords and speech muscles in slight but measurable ways!

While we can suppress "reading out loud", but we can't get rid of it. We "hear" a voice in our heads, an author "speaks" to us; we re-present reading orally and aurally! Letters are cues for us to recreate speech sounds

This first step of the reading process is called decoding. Learning how to turn letters into sounds is a very important skill. BUT DECODING ISN'T READING! 

Again, think of what you're doing right now. Are you just making sounds? Or, are you also making sense?

"Reading" requires comprehension! 

Again, just making the sounds represented on the page isn't "reading". "Sounding out words" is an important skill for beginning readers to learn; but once the word is sounded out, we need to be able to connect it to a meaning! 

The fastest and best way to do this is by already knowing the word through experience. Once again, as you read this, how many times did you look in a dictionary? I'm willing to bet it's zero. How many unknown words can be on a page before you're doing more "looking in the dictionary" than "reading"?

The numbers from the research suggest unknown vocab can be up to 2%. Greater than 5%, and readers can't understand enough of the words to make sense of the sentences! That's why beginning readers need simple, speech-like material to begin reading. 

A real problem for Tibetan

That's a real problem for Tibetan. If we look at the current materials that exist for learning to "read" Tibetan, we have to admit that these materials do quite a lot of teaching us how to look in a dictionary—and not a Tibetan dictionary, but a Tibetan-to-English dictionary. 

If we look at the materials that exist for children, we have to admit that those materials contain very un-speech-like writing. And far greater than 2% un-speech-like words! So how do we really actually start reading, not "reading", in Tibetan?! 

Diglossia: Language Change & Standardization

I recently ran across some old notes from a presentation series that I'd like to publish as a resource here. The first topic I'd like to cover is "Diglossia". This is a key term that anyone with interest in Tibetan language should know; the term was coined in Ferguson's seminal work, title of the same name. Here is the citation and a definiton: 

Ferguson, “Diglossia,” (1959). Word 15: 325–340.

In linguistics, diglossia (/daɪˈɡlɒsiə/) is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety (labeled "L" or "low" variety), a second, highly codified variety (labeled "H" or "high") is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used for ordinary conversation. In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers.

Ferguson expands on this definition of diglossia (di- two, glossia- languages) by offering us 3 aspects common to diglossic languages: 

  1. there is a large body of culturally defining literature;
  2. there are low literacy rates; and
  3. the literature has been around for centuries.

In other words, a large body of culturally defining literature, often religious in nature, tends to have an effect on the linguistic norms of a speech community. This effect is conservative in nature, so that as the spoken form (L) naturally changes and evolves, the literary form (H) remains frozen and fixed. 

This exacerbates a common phenomenon where any and all language change is viewed as "degradation". To quote Steven Pinker from his book "Sense of Style", 

"Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it... Moral panic about the decline of writing may be as old as writing itself. According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young". 

For more on this, let's turn to John McWhorter (from his book, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue"):

“In ancient times, few societies had achieved widespread literacy. Writing was primarily for high literary, liturgical, and commercial purposes. Spoken language changed always, but the written form rested unchanging on the page. There was not felt to be a need to keep the written form in step with the way people were changing the language with each generation.

"For one, each language was actually spoken as a group of dialects very different from one another, such that there was no single spoken variety to keep up with. As long as the written form was relatively accessible to the general population, however they actually spoke, then the job was done. Old English, for example, came in four flavors: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon.

"Most Old English documents are in the West Saxon dialect, because Wessex happened to become politically dominant early on. But this means that what we know as Old English is mostly in what is properly one dialect of Old English, and the speakers of the other dialects just had to suck it up. They did, and there is no evidence that anyone much minded.

"In addition, there was always a natural tendency, which lives on today, to view the written language as the 'legitimate' or 'true' version, with the spoken forms of the language as degraded or, at best, quaint—certainly not something you would take the trouble of etching onto the page for posterity with quill and ink. As such, the sense we moderns have that language on the page is supposed to more or less reflect the way the language is spoken would have seemed peculiar to a person living a thousand years ago, or even five hundred.

"In Europe, for example, it was the technology of the printing press and the democratic impulses in the wake of the Reformation that led to calls for written material in local languages. Until then, people in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal readily accepted Latin—a different language entirely from what was spoken 'in the street'—on the page.”

In other words, we can imagine that “diglossia” was the world-wide standard among languages prior to the widespread literacy that was made available by the printing press and a move to written vernaculars... 

And that brings us to our final note on the day, that there is another modern diglossic language that closely parallels Tibetan: Arabic. Mohamed Maamouri writes: 

“There is a growing awareness among some Arab education specialists that the low levels of educational achievement and high illiteracy (and low literacy) rates in most Arab countries are directly related to the complexities of the standard Arabic language used in formal schooling and in non-formal education. These complexities mostly relate to the diglossic situation of the Arabic language and make reading in Arabic an overly arduous process.”

“A gap was formed between that standardized language of Islam as recorded in the Quran and related religious writings and the Arabic language commonly used by Arabs and non-Arabs alike. This language duality was reflected in the debate between Al-Kufa and Al- Basra, two major schools of .Arabic grammar, around issues of language 'degradation' and 'corruption' and the consequent issues of usage over linguistic purity and correctness.”

Diglossias form, in part, because all language change at odds with religious scripture is seen as “degradation”. And this lack of change in written norms leads, naturally and over time, to greater and greater gaps in "how things are spoken" and "how things are written". This gap, in turn, makes in harder and harder to become literate - hence the low literacy rates. 

For more, I suggest the following resources: 

  • McWhorter, John. "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue". 
  • Gelder, Beatrice. "Speech & Reading: A Comparative Approach". A collection of essays on speech and reading.
  • Aitchison, Jean. "Language Change: Progress or Decay?" A discussion of how and why language changes. Spoiler: the answer to “Progress or Decay” is “neither;” language change is simply a fact. For example, if language is continually in a state of decline and decay (as each subsequent generation of every language that exists usually claims), how has language not ceased to exist? 
  • Arokay, Judit. "Divided Languages? Diglossia, Translation, and the Rise of Modernity in Japan, China, and the Slavic World". An in-depth survey of diglossic languages in Asia (particularly Japan, China, and Eastern Europe/Russia), and how they “dissolved” the gap between formal, traditional literature and informal, modern vernacular by adopting modern vernacular for literature.
  • Linn, Andrew R. "Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Language"
  • Freeborn, Dennis. "From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time"
  • Deumert, Ana. "Standard Languages: Taxonomies & histories"

Tibetan isn't special

Tibetan isn't special. Or rather, it isn't any more special than any other language. 

People speak, read, write, and translate Tibetan for many reasons. Some of us fell into it circumstantially; some were born into it; others are inspired, and see depth and beauty in Tibetan culture, religious texts, its people and its literature. 

There are a million different reasons Tibetan might be special to me or you in particular. But if we are even the littlest bit honest with ourselves, we have to admit that none of these qualify Tibetan as "more special" than any other language in general

There are many beautiful and inspirational literatures. There are many cultural heritages, religious traditions, and speech communities worldwide—and in all of them, there are proponents and believers and translators who swear that their language is special, beautiful, and unique! 

Once we accept the fact that Tibetan isn't special; that Buddhism is just another religion; and that our own personal biases and attachments needn't cloud our judgment on important matters, it opens up so many possibilities for learning and improving our Tibetan language work! 

We can learn from translators of other languages; we can analyze and adopt language practices that work well, are more efficient, or start using technological tools and common-sense solutions that have proven track records in other languages! 

Our relationship with the Tibetan language can actually improve if we look at what other people are doing in other languages, even if we have no relationship with those particular languages. And even if we have a broken relationship with our own language or religious tradition, there are things we can learn from them... 

How long to learn Tibetan? – FSI's "Language Difficulty" Rubric

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) created a rubric to measure relative language difficulty. The idea behind this rubric is that the more closely related a language is to your mothertongue, the easier it is to learn. For example, Scandinavians have such an easy time learning English (and vice versa) because their native tongues are so similar to English. 

That's why FSI classifies languages like Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian as "Category I". Learners can expect proficiency in Category I languages relatively quickly: after some 600 hours of language study. 

While Tibetan doesn't make the list, we can make the educated guess that it falls in the most difficult category: "Category V: Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers." Why? For one, this is how many of its Asian language peers, like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are categorized.

For another, the significant difference between "How to speak Tibetan" and "How to read and write Tibetan"—diglossia—makes the language more difficult. And Tibetan's diglossic peer, Arabic, is also categorized as a Category V language (much for this very reason, we can assume). 

The FSI estimates that learning a Category V language takes some 2,200 hours of language instruction. This is a serious number. For comparison's sake, a student in the university system can graduate with a mere 280 hours (taught in the English medium, no less). That's well short of FSI's suggested number needed to attain proficiency... 

Hours of Tibetan Language Instruction

How much language instruction does a PhD guarantee?

Are you planning on becoming a Tibetan language translator? It might surprise you to learn that there are no translation studies programs for Tibetan (Raine, 2011).

Universities that do work in Tibetan language do not offer degrees in translator training. Creating translators is not the stated aim of these programs; neither are their language requirements, teaching methods, nor coursework geared toward translation or translator training.

Instead, what is offered in formal institutions are degrees in History of Religion, Tibetology, and Buddhist Studies or Philosophy. Let's first take a closer look at these programs and ask some simple questions:

  1. How much language instruction do they provide? And how much do they require?
  2. How do these language classes stack up to other language programs? How do they stack up to modern translator training programs?

After all, if academia is to be the benchmark by which we measure Tibetan language expertise, what exactly is that mark? 

1. How much language instruction is there? 

  1. In the East Asian Studies B.A., offered at several universities, 6 units (1 year) of language is required; however, most universities only offer Tibetan as an elective (not as a degree focus), and no universities offer a "language and literature" degree in Tibetan
  2. For many M.A. students, a year of Tibetan is optional; for Ph.D. programs often require 4 years of "Classical Tibetan"; spoken Tibetan is optional

In other words, it looks as if a graduate student may enter Tibetan Studies Ph.D. program as a beginner, and take as little as eight language classes in Tibetan—or 280 total hours of English-medium classroom instruction in Tibetan. 

That is the minimum requirement. An exceptional student who takes every Tibetan course offered every year for 10 years could amass 855 classroom hours; yet, it seems, would be hard-pressed to not begin repeating material after plateauing in the advanced class (alongside newly advanced students). 

2. An Asian language peer

2.a) Majoring in Japanese 

Let's compare that to an Asian language peer: Japanese (I've chosen Japanese as an instructive parallel due to its similar syntax and the fact that its classical language spans roughly the same time period as Tibetan’s: 800-1200 CE). I've also taken language requirements from programs at the same universities where Tibetan is offered

  1. A B.A. requires 2 years basic language + 3 years worth of advanced language + 1 year literature + semester classical + semester capstone (with “an emphasis is placed on language acquisition”) 
  2. Graduate students are expected to attain level N1 in Japanese (C1-C2, advanced-fluent); focusing on classical literature is available at this level

To sum up the differences in language education between a student focusing on Japanese and a student who focuses on Tibetan, we may state that: 

  • Language requirements are 7 times lower for the Tibetan language student 
  • Japanese language programs have teachers who are a) native speakers and b) trained in teaching Japanese as a foreign language; while some Tibetan programs have a), none have b)
  • Spoken Japanese study invariably precedes classical language study; in Tibetan, it is not only reversed—spoken, if it's even offered, is considered optional

2.b) Attending Translator Training

Besides simply studying a language, there are many skills particular to the profession of "translator" that training programs seek to impart. Let's look a little closer at the differences between a Tibetology degree and a Translator Training degree: 

Translator Training

Field of Study: Translator Training & Intercultural Communication

Professional Aim for Graduates: Professional Translators & Interpreters

Language Requirements: Level B1 prerequisite; Level C1 required

Language Pedagogy: modern second language methods (comprehensive proficiency) 

Additional Coursework: modern linguistics; intercultural communication; theories, techniques & technology of translation

Approach: Modern Translator Training


Field of Study: History of Religion / Tibetology / Buddhist Studies

Professional Aim for Graduates: Tenure-track Professors / other academic posts

Language Requirements: Beginners admitted; 280 hours required

Language Pedagogy: Grammar-Translation ("reading"-only, English language medium, word-by-word)

Additional Coursework: Historical, philological, philosophical, theological, ethnographic, & literary approaches to the study of religion

Approach: Philological / Historical

Whether we are an aspiring or current translator, it's important that we recognize this incredible gulf that has opened up between "how Tibetan translators are trained" and "how other translators are trained". Where did this chasm come from? 

Especially knowing that both methodologies have roots in the university system, we need to delve into the origins of these differences, and ask oursleves if there's anything we can learn from how other language programs operate in this day and age. What drove them to change, and why are Tibetan programs so different? 

The information contained elsewhere in this blog and website is, in part, an attempt to answer some of these questions. If you're a reader, I'd suggest my reading list. If you prefer videos, more can be found in my series on Tibetan as a second language

Quick Tips: Talk to Yourself!

External becomes internal; explicit becomes implicit. We internalize what is, at first, external.

That's why, if we wish to develop the skill to think in Tibetan, first we must speak in Tibetan! And a great way to practice thinking to yourself in Tibetan is to start talking to yourself in Tibetan.

So the next time you're on a walk; doing household chores; making your grocery list; or simply thinking about your day, practice by doing it aloud, in Tibetan!