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

"Meaning" isn't found in grammar

Meaning isn't in words; it isn't in the grammar; language isn't literal.

Take, for example, the innocuous question: "What do you do?"

I've seen this translated literally into Tibetan as: "ག་རེ་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཡོད།". Now, this obviously misses the mark, and you might be tempted to say it has something to do with the additional "do" that was "not translated".

But this is what's called a "meaningless do". Compare, for example: "How do you do?" to "How are you doing?". The difference in meaning is degree (of formality), but not kind. The meaning is the same: "How are you?".

Whereas "What do you do?" has an entirely different meaning from "What are you doing?" — the first being "What's your occupation?" and the second meaning "What are you up to?".

1.) How do you do? = How are you doing? 
2.) What do you do? ≠ What are you doing?

This is a twist on Chomsky's famous example:

1.) John is easy to please = It’s easy to please John
2). John is eager to please ≠ It’s eager to please John

The point is this: Meaning is not encoded in grammatical syntax. Nor is it found in bare vocabulary (see my previous post on how and why). Language is not literal. 

Thus, we cannot simply use a "words plus grammar" approach to translate languages (Grammar Translation). "Having all the words" does not ensure accuracy. "Having all the meaning" is what ensures accuracy!

If we cannot assess accuracy by simply (and literally) ensuring that each source word is rendered as a target word, how do we do it?

One method is back-translation. We can translate from target to source to see if meaning is retained. (In an ideal and objective assessment, a second translator unfamiliar with the source text is provided the target, and translates back to the source; the translations are compared for meaning).

In our example, "ག་རེ་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཡོད།" is back-translated as "What are you doing?" — and when compared with "What do you do?", we can see the mistake...

The Myth of the Literal Translation

In the popular imagination, words are real things that stand for real objects. The word “coffee,” for example, stands for the real object “coffee.” The coffee is here in my cup, and I am drinking it. What could be simpler? And what could be more real? Words, and the objects they stand for, are real, concrete entities. They are clear-cut and well-defined. And this is the world we believe we live in.

In this world, translation is the simple task of replacing one word in one language for one other word in another. An accurate translation is easy to produce: Each well-defined source word is replaced by an equivalent well-defined target word. If each word in the source language is transferred into the target language, it is “accurate.” That’s definitional.

We even have evidence of the well-defined nature of words. These evidences are collected and spelled out in our dictionaries. Each word has its definition, and it refers to something real. After all, that real something is what we are talking about when we use that word! For the translator, we have evidence of the well-defined nature of word-to-word correspondances. These are collected and spelled out in our translation dictionaries.

This is the kind of story we all tell ourselves. And this simplified version of “what language is” works well enough in the everyday lives of everyday people. What we don’t realize, however, is that words lose their meaning in isolation—that merely the act of uttering them within an everyday context is what imbues them with meaning. And to be a language professional necessitates that we wrestle with these ideas seriously...

 A building is in the progress of being erected (shīgōng zhōng, 施工中). Of course, it would be absurd to claim that the hilariously translated “Erection in progress” is accurate, even though it is “literally correct.” A translation sensitive to contextual meaning would be: “Under construction,” even though the word "under" (xià, 下) doesn't literally appear in the Chinese... 

A building is in the progress of being erected (shīgōng zhōng, 施工中). Of course, it would be absurd to claim that the hilariously translated “Erection in progress” is accurate, even though it is “literally correct.” A translation sensitive to contextual meaning would be: “Under construction,” even though the word "under" (xià, 下) doesn't literally appear in the Chinese... 

Words themselves aren’t literal

The biggest stumbling block for literal translations is the simple fact that words themselves aren’t literal. Words aren’t real “things” (at least not in the way they think they are) and they don’t stand for real objects (at least not in the way we think they do). Words are ambiguous; contextual; metaphorical; and more. Like every other phenomena, words are dependent not independent. We can see that words are contextual, not literal, by taking a closer look at what words depend on for their meaning:

  1. Words depend on physical contexts

  2. Words depend on sociocultural contexts

  3. Words depend on linguistic contexts

  4. Words depend on their language

1. Words depend on physical contexts

The most obvious ways that words belay their un-literal-ness is that they don’t refer to “one thing.” Instead, they refer to a pattern of things—a class of things that share something in common. In the case of any one word, it represents a whole range of things. There are always borderline cases. If we’re lucky literal-ists, a word only applies to one thing... But usually, words also have multiple “things” that they refer to. For example, "LAP": 

  1. the flat area between the waist and knees of a seated person
  2. one circuit of a track or racetrack
  3. (of an animal) take up (liquid) with the tongue in order to drink
  4. ...
  5. ...

Let’s take a look at some more examples. Let’s say I utter the simple phrase, “Oops! The coffee spilled. Bring me a mop” And now, you have an image of spilled coffee in your mind. But now I change the physical context of my utterance. I say, “Oops! The coffee spilled. Bring me a broom.” Unless you’re in the habit of brewing your own coffee, or like me, spent time working in a coffee shop, the second context might not bring the right image to mind. But it looks something like this:

  The coffee spilled; bring me a mop.

The coffee spilled; bring me a mop.

  The coffee spilled; bring me a broom.

The coffee spilled; bring me a broom.

The word “coffee” (like all words) is actually ambiguous. It is the pattern of things that are somehow coffee-like. It’s the beans and the grounds and the liquid brewed from them... If I say, “I’m gonna go pick up some coffee” you literally don’t know exactly what I mean. You need more information. The reason we don’t realize words are ambiguous in this way is that we generally use them in contexts. What makes their meaning clear isn’t the words themselves, but the contexts they are used in.

For example, I might say, “I’ll pick up some coffee at the store.” Now you know I probably mean beans or grounds, and not the hot beverage. “The store” gives some context clues. The key here, though, is that you need to be in on the context clues I’m providing. You need the requisite linguistic experience that has primed you to interpret the word “store” the same way I do. After all, there is nothing inherent in the word “store” that precludes it from being a place that sells brewed liquid coffee!

All words are used by human beings, and all human beings are embedded in a culture. Our language itself is passed down to us. It is our cultural heritage—not an individual invention, but a shared, cultural good. So, of course, the most common way to be in on it is to have similar experiences of similar objects by being embedded in the same culture... 

2. Words depend on sociocultural contexts

calvin hobbes subtitles

The second way in which words don't have literal meaning is belayed by variance according to sociocultural context. We rarely spell out exactly what we mean (we're rarely "literal"). Instead, we expect others to be sensitive to the contexts in which we use words. When someone asks, "How are you," the response is nearly automatic—"Fine, how about you?" The question isn't literal, nor is the answer. The person asking generally has no interest in how you actually are, and neither would you tell them that things are going terribly (even if they were). 

That's because the question is not a "literal" question. It's real function is social in nature. It's meaning is something like: "a polite recognition of your existence in a shared space where an interaction is about to take place." As is the reply. It performs as a sort of signal between the two of you that, hey, I'm a person who's a decent person, and this interaction is going to go just fine. It works to simplify something that could be complicated and messy (the interaction of two people) into something simple and smooth (an everyday interaction).   

For another example, I think we're all aware of the difference in "the kind of language we use with our friends" and "the kind of language we use with our parents." Or how about "the kind of language we use with strangers at a formal event?" Part of being a well-socialized human is knowing what kind of language to use where. Word meanings shift according to social context—a word that's funny or natural with friends might be insulting or embarrassing to use with your parents and completely unacceptable in social company... 

Words are not literal because they are things that carry messages. Messages, by their nature, carry information from one person (the speaker or author) to another (the listener, reader, or audience). These people are active participants in assigning meaning to words. In other words, "words" don't exist out there all by their lonesome. They exist in relationship to speaker and audience. They are dependent, not independent! 

3. Words depend on linguistic contexts

First, let's note that "words" can vary in meaning depending on the words they are used with.  Let's begin by asking ourselves a very basic question: Why are we worried about "words" at all? After all, a "word” is an ambiguous and arbitrary unit of meaning; units of meaning can be larger and smaller than “a word.” A "word" can be used alone—lap—in a compound word—laptop—or within a phrase—lap of luxury—and communicate something different each time! 

Words even have connotations that are sometimes hidden. They might "literally" have a neutral meaning, but be used exclusively in negative contexts! In the linguistics literature, this is called semantic prosody. For example, the English word "spread" literally means "to expand or extend across an area." And yet, an investigation of how it is used in context shows us that it has a negative semantic prosody. We talk about diseases, cancers, and viruses as "spreading." When we talk about positive things, we use words like "growing" or "advancing" or "expanding!" 

If we're translators, we need to understand these inter-linguistic relationships in both languages. We need a sense of word connotation, not just of literal meaning, or we may mis-understand an inference the author is making; we may choose an inappropriate translation term; or, we may misunderstand the source text (by mistaking a word's secondary use as a primary use, for example). 

4. Words depend on languages

On top of all that, even if words were literal, they never "literally" mean anything in another language. Languages are self-contained worlds, worlds that stand on their own, and are self-referential. When I speak in English, I don’t “mean anything” in Tibetan—my words make sense in the English-only context in which they were uttered. Tibetan utterances, likewise, have no inherent English meaning—they only have a Tibetan meaning.

What I’m getting at here is that reality, whatever it is, is a vast sea of undifferentiated phenomena. And that our cognition, it seems, somehow does the work of filtering and categorizing it. Our mind is constantly searching for, and then constructing, patterns out of our raw sensory data. From this perspective, language is a tool we’ve inherited from our ancestors that help us match patterns, and communicate them (in useful ways) to our companions.

The key point, though, is that languages have solved the problem of “how to split up reality into useful objects” in different ways. And that means words across languages vary in the way they draw boundaries, even in the physical world. These variances aren’t just superficial; they can be fundamentally different, even at the deepest, most subconscious level. 

As we've already discussed, words are inherently ambiguous. Again, if I say, "I'll go get some coffee," you literally don't know what I mean (unless I give you the context, or unless the context is given by experience). Similarly, if I exclaim, "Ow!" you know that I encountered a sudden pain. But, there is still ambiguity—you don't know what kind of sudden pain I experienced. Was I burned? Pinched? Hit? Did I knock into something? 

In Tibetan, there are two possible translations of "ow!"—ཨ་ར་ and ཨ་ཚ་! When a Tibetan speaker encounters a sudden pain that is sharp or hot, they spontaneously utter ཨ་ཚ་ (atsha). If that pain is dull or blunt, the word used is ཨ་ར་ (ara). The point is that all words in all languages are always ambiguous to some degree. Reality is too complicated to be otherwise! But, all words in all languages aren't ambiguous to the same degree! In this case, Tibetan is less ambiguous than English: 

B. Student Presentation (What is language_ + Tibetan & more).png

This puts us in quite a bind. To translate "literally" from Tibetan into English, simply saying, "Ow!" leaves information out that is encoded in the Tibetan. Yet, putting more words in (to explain the context) means adding words that literally aren't there! In other words, there is no way to translate literally because there is no literal correlation between languages! 

It's an impossible standard because words themselves simply aren't literal—they depend the physical context in which they are uttered, the sociocultural context in which the author and audience are embedded, the linguistic context of the other words they are being used with, and finally, the specific language in which they are being used. 

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! 


སྔོན་པོ། Tibetan 'Grue'

Did you ever notice that the colors in Tibetan pretty standard-ly end in 'po:'

མར་པོ།  སེར་པོ།  དཀར་པོ།  ནག་པོ།  སྔོན་པོ། ་་་་་་  

Except for one: ལྗང་ཁུ། ? Why the odd ending for the color "green"?

There are two curious entries in the བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ། related to this:

  • ལྗང་བུ། གྲོ་ནས་ཀྱི་མྱུ་གུ་སྔོན་པོ།
  • སྔོན་པོ། ནམ་མཁའི་དོག རྩྭ་སྔོན་པོ། རས་སྔོན་པོ།

Both entries suggest that the natural color of grass, or barley sprouts, in the Tibetan color scheme is not "green" but "blue." If so, it would make sense that "green"—ལྗང་ཁུ—was coined with the import of Buddhist color schemes from India.

And that སྔོན་པོ is not "blue," but "grue."

This theory gains even more weight when we count the number of hits we get when searching for color terms (note that the frequency of all terms, across English and Tibetan, are %-wise comparable, with one exception—green):

TBRC (Tibetan Corpus):

  1. WHITE - dkar po - 52,623
  2. BLACK - nag po - 38,938
  3. RED - dmar po - 36,848
  4. BLUE - sngon po - 25,870
  5. YELLOW - ser po - 18,225
  6. GREEN - ljang gu - 7,402 + ljang khu - 3,708 = 11,110

COCA (English Corpus):

  1. WHITE - 208,113
  2. BLACK - 176,735
  3. RED - 90,798
  4. GREEN - 71,948
  5. BLUE - 59,997
  6. YELLOW - 26,990

Automating "Translation"

I've written a very simple script that "translates" Tibetan—or rather, it does as much Tibetan work as many of us do in the university-level classroom.

I'm going to pick on Rockwell here, because that's the book I was taught Tibetan from. All I've done for the script is input the glossary from Rockwell—the script simply converts the Tibetan symbols to Rockwell's given English equivalent.

In other words, I've outsourced the tedious work—work every student is taught to do in the grammar-translation classroom—of "using the glossary to look up words one-by-one" and then "write out the English words one-by-one," and given those jobs to the computer. 

What I've done is given the computer the following tasks:

  1. Recognize the Tibetan symbol(s)
  2. Look the symbol string up in the glossary
  3. Replace the Tibetan symbols with English symbols

Using the Script

For example, I can feed the following symbol string to the computer:


  1. །སངས་རྒྱས་ཆོས་དང་དགེ་འདུན་ལ
    །སྒོ་གསུམ་གུས་པས་སྐྱབས་སུ་མཆི KP 3A:6 (verse)
  2. ་་་བླ་མས་བུ་ཆེན་རྣམས་ལ་ཆོས་དང་གདམས་ངག་གི་དཀོར་མཛོད་རྣམས་ཁ་ཕྱེ་་་ MINT 88:11-2...

What the script spits out is:


  1. ། [Buddha] [dharma] [*AND*] [Buddhist community, sangha] [*TO(la)*]
    [three gates = body, speech, mind] [respect, devotion] [*AGENT/INST*] [refuge] [*TO*(ladon)] [to go] KP 3A:6 (verse)
  2. ་ [lama] [*AGENT/INST*] [son] [great] [*PLURAL*] [*TO(la)*] [dharma] [*AND*] [oral instruction] [*OF*] [treasury] [*PLURAL*] [pf. to open] ་ MINT 88:11-2...

Now I'm ready to "translate"! Using the grammar clues [*GRAMMAR*], all I need to do now is re-arrange the English words into a sentence that makes sense. (This is exactly what many Tibetan students are up to to this day!). 

But wait... I have to ask, couldn't I give this output to just about any native English speaker, even one who doesn't know a lick of Tibetan? With a few simple instructions (try reading it backwards; word order is SOV; etc.), they, too, could begin "learning Tibetan" without ever actually seeing even one word of Tibetan.

The question I'd like Tibetan teachers and students to think very hard about is this: If the computer can easily provide the English for us, what "Tibetan" work is really being done?


I've mentioned in a past post that "reading" is a complex process that requires: 1) decoding and 2) comprehension. What the script does is a version of the first bit of work for the student: decoding.

And, I'm arguing, that's all the Tibetan work a student can do in the Grammar-Translation classroom anyway. When we're taught in English, and we decode Tibetan into Englishall of our comprehension necessarily comes in English! We never learn how to comprehend Tibetan.

If students don't learn how to comprehend the source text (to truly read it), how can we expect them to learn how to translate?! If students can't learn how to think in Tibetan, how can they begin to understand an author who thinks in Tibetan?!

Machine Translation

One final point: This is not machine translation. Even if we started asking the computer to re-arrange the words according to the grammar (which we could do), it wouldn't be anything like how modern MT (machine translation) works.

Early on, this was exactly the method computer scientists tried to use to make a working MT. But natural languages are idiomatic; they break their own rules; they are metaphorical, not literal; they are, in the end, so much more than just bare vocabulary and grammar that this approach simply doesn't work.

So much so that every working MT model, like Google Translate, is based on other methods—like multi-word-level statistical analysis. 

If even machines can't make word-by-word translation work (and, they are much much faster at looking up words in the glossary than humans are), then why do we still expect Tibetan students to?!


Early Buddhists: Plain Language Advocates

"Two monks, Brahmans by birth, were troubled that other monks of various clans, tribes, and families, were corrupting the Buddha's words by repeating them each in his own dialect (sakāya niruttiyā).

They asked the Buddha, 'Let us put the Buddha's words into Vedic Sanskrit verse (chandaso āropema).' But the Blessed One, the Buddha, rebuked them...

And he commanded the monks: 'You are not to put the Buddha's words into Vedic Sanskrit verse. To do this would be to commit an infraction. I authorize you, monks, to learn the Buddha's words each in his own dialect.'"

Vinayapitaka 2:139, translation available in Pollock, Sheldon: The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power, p. 54


Space between Words

It would behoove the Tibetan translator to be familiar with Paul Saenge's book "Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading."

While we all know that Tibetan employs an interpunct (the "tsheg", ཚེག་) to divide syllables, we should also realize that it lacks a space between units of meaning, as is the tradition of modern languages such as English. This can probably be traced back to the writing system's origins in the Devanāgarī script of Sanskrit (which also did not employ a space, although modern Hindi does).

What seems not to be common knowledge, however (at least, I had never heard of it), is that when Latin and Greek were written in ancient times, they were written as continuous script (scriptura continua). Indeed, the focus on the orality of these ancient texts made spacing inconsequential. (They knew about spacing in other languages, and had experimented with it; they just found it useless).

Saenge writes: "These latter writing systems require a longer training period, one that features oral reading and rote memorization." By now, I hope this is beginning to remind you of another oral tradition heavily based on rote memorization, and how this book may give us some insights into Tibetan Buddhism and its textual tradition.

Oral reading was thus not only the preferred method of reading, but a necessary aspect of decoding and understanding writing since "overt physical pronunciation aided the reader to retain phonemes of ambiguous meaning." Rote memorization was used since "long-term memory of texts frequently read aloud also compensated for the inherent graphic and grammatical ambiguities of the languages of late antiquity."

In fact, "it was the very absence of word boundaries that made the technique of the identification and memorization of those sequences of letters representing licit syllables a fundamental aspect of ancient and early medieval pedagogy." And, let's add, a fundamental aspect of Tibetan Buddhist pedagogy (and here I'll point readers to Anne C. Klein's article, "Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet").

The implication is, of course, that as students of the Tibetan language, gaining a sense of Tibetan prosody is all the more important; for even in a space-separated language, readers access phonology to comprehend the written word (see Treiman et al., 2003. “Language Comprehension and Production”).

And I'll add a Tournadre quote here to bolster this point: "It should be emphasized that prosody and accentuation are extremely important for reading Literary Tibetan, whether verse or prose. Even from a grammatical point of view it is essential to make the right pauses and these follow some prosodic rules. If those rules are not applied, the text becomes incomprehensible" (p. 479 of the Manual of Standard Tibetan).

What is clear, however, is that "during the course of the nine centuries following Rome's fall, the task of separating written text, which had been for half a millennium a cognitive function of the reader, became instead the task of the scribe." This had an enormous impact on how we approach texts, how we read them, and in what contexts and for what purposes. As the title of the book suggests, what had once been mainly an oral and communal activity became an individual and silent one. Speed had been exchanged for the strong connection to language's oral roots.

Speaking of the benefits of spacing, studies cited in the book have shown that English texts are more easily and efficiently read when separated by spacing, and that "word-separated writing enhances the reader's short-term memory of word order." This is because space automatically parses meaning at the word level, allowing for automatic recognition at the level of the word as an entire unit. This word-level recognition adult readers develop is called "automaticity."

One's initial feeling (say, if one were a language pedagogist developing beginner's materials) may be that separating words would be most necessary for beginning readers. Yet, it's important to note that the opposite is actually true: "Experiments performed on adult, English-speaking readers confirm that the total suppression or partial obfuscation of spatial boundaries between words increases the duration of the cognitive activity necessary for reading. Conversely, although young readers who are obliged to read silently may encounter difficulties in comprehension, deletion of interword space does not affect them." In other words, removing spaces interferes with an advanced reader's ability to speedily and automatically recognize and understand words, while children are still reading at the level of the syllable.

And children's natural inclination is to both read and write in scriptura continua, as it's actually, in a way, a more accurate reflection of the fluidity of natural speech. Still, "the ever-present space between words allows young occidental readers to develop easily from reading skills based on synthetic recognition of a word by means of its syllabic component to the global recognition of the word as an entire unit with a single meaning and pronunciation."

Since the space parses language at the level of the word, less cognitive capacity is needed to disambiguate the language. This frees up more attentive capacities to be used for comprehension and speed. Thus, even if someone habituates themselves to the Tibetan orthography, they may "adapt and improve their reading rates over time; however... these readers' brains would always compensate for the extra cognitive burden by more numerous ocular fixations and regressions." An awareness of this fact should be soothing to those of us struggling to attain some level of Tibetan language reading comprehension.

In general, it seems Classical Tibetan pedagogy has, at least partially, sprung from the inability to approach Tibetan reading as we approach English reading; we believe the oral language is useless to the study of the literary language of old. What this all seems to point to, however, is that perhaps a shift in our approach would be beneficial; instead of slowly, silently, and laboriously pouring over a text in order to parse and understand it, strengthening our connection to the language's orality ought not be anything but beneficial...

I will finish with a final quote from the book:

"The importance of word separation by space is unquestionable, for it freed the intellectual faculties of the reader, permitting all texts to be read silently, that is, with eyes alone. As a consequence, even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts. Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance."