Our goal with the new Alphabet Book “སོ་རི་མེ་བུ།” is to provide beginning Tibetan language students with research-based, Tibetan-only educational material from the very start of their studies. The overarching principle is this: The easier reading is, the more people read; and the more people read, the better they get at reading. We hope these lessons provide beginners with a concrete stepping-stone to further literary achievement in the Tibetan language.
Traditional pedagogy for learning alphabetic principles focuses on introducing the alphabet a letter at a time in a traditional order—the “ABCs” for English speakers; “ཀ་ཁ་ག་ང་།” for Tibetan. What educational research has shown, however, is that this form of education can actually be disadvantageous to the beginning reader. Instead, students benefit most from explicit instruction that concretely makes the connection between sound (phoneme) and text (grapheme). We’ve made these connections explicit by (1) using an appropriate print size; (2) using bold, color-coded text-to-sound connections; (3) using word separation; and (4) consulting frequency analysis.
1) Print Size
The first consideration for students who are studying an unfamiliar alphabet is worrying about the basics of font and font size. Capital letters are easier to read, and printed text is easier than cursive. We therefore chose the standard printed set of Tibetan letters known as dbu chen (“དབུ་ཆེན།”). Furthermore, we’ve also paid attention to what is called “critical print size” (“CPS”), as larger letters are easier to read and write. We therefore chose a large, comfortable font size for the student.
2) Color-Coding Tibetan Sounds
One of the most difficult tasks for beginning readers of Tibetan is located the “main letter” of the syllable clusters. Another early stumbling block is the fact that Tibetan uses aspiration and tone/accent to distinguish sounds (these sound features play the role that voicing plays in English). Our solution is to let the text do the work for beginners until they’ve become habituated to the patterns of Tibetan syllable formation—we’ve given main letters a “bolder” color, as well as color-coding them in the following manner:
- Warm colors represent the unaspirated sounds (sounds that leave the candle burning):
- Yellow (ཨ) represents the unaspirated “high tone” first column of the traditional alphabet
- Red represents the unaspirated “low tone” sounds (nasals and prefixed consonants)
- Cool colors represent the aspirated sounds (sounds that blow out the candle):
- Green (ཧ) represents the aspirated “high tone” second column
- Blue (འ) represents the aspirated “low tone” third column
3) Word Separation
Another difficulty early readers of the Tibetan language face is the lack of spacing; yet interword spacing has been conclusively proven to aid in reading comprehension. Therefore, in order to assist beginners in disambiguating words, a system of word separation has been used in a consistent, logical way throughout the lessons. We have chosen the “double tsheg” system of word separation in order to adopt and revive a traditional, native technique. The historical precedence for this dates back to the Tibetan writing found in the Dunhuang manuscripts:
4) Frequency Analysis
Beginning students learn more effectively when alphabetic principles are introduced in a structured way, according to which letters and spellings they will most frequently encounter. They also begin reading quicker when they’re introduced to words they will frequently read. Finally, research has also shown that there is a need to introduce similar sounds and similar symbols separately. We have formulated the alphabetic progression of these lessons by following these basic pedagogical principles.
How did we determine what the meaningful letters and clusters for Tibetan are? While there is not a vast literature of corpus research available for the Tibetan language as of yet, several do exist. We consulted these to glean the basic frequency information on letters and syllables, as well as performing our own frequency analysis on both modern and literary Tibetan texts. Based on this research, we then structured the introductory progression by asking 3 basic questions: (1) is the letter/sound cluster frequent in speech and writing?; (2) does it follow the alphabetic principle? (is its spelling and pronunciation consistent across words); and (3) is it useful for spelling words that are found in everyday speech, or can be easily and concretely represented by a picture?
Spellings and sounds that are frequent, consistent, and useful have priority; these were introduced first. The further the sounds and spellings were to these foundational principles, the later they came in the instructional cycle.
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Chos rgyal nam mkha’i nor bu, Yathog zhang zhung gi yi ge byung tshul. བོད་ཀྱི་གནའ་བོའི་ཡིག་རྙིང་ཏུན་ཧོང་གི་དཔེ་ལས་བྱུང་བ་མང་པོ་ཞིག་ཏུ་ཡིག་འབྲུ་ཕན་ཚུན་བར་གཅོད་པའི་ཚེག་ལ་རྟགས༼：༽ འདི་བཞིན་ནག་ཐིག་ཉིས་རྩེགས་སུ་བྲིས་པ་དང་སྐབས་འགར་འབྲུ་ཕན་ཚུན་བར་གཅོད་པ་ལ་ནག་ཐིག་རེ་ལས་མེད་ནའང་ཚིག་དོན་གྱི་མཚམས་འབྱེད་པའི་ཆེད་དུ་ནག་ཐིག་ཉིས་རྩེགས་སུ་འབྲི་སྲོལ་བྱུང་ཡོད་པ་དཔེར་ན་ཏུན་ཧོང་བོད་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་ཡིག་རྙིང་གི〔p1 580ཕ51〕ལས་བཙན་པོ：དབྱརད：ལྟམ：གྱྀ་ར་སྔོན་ན་བཞུག་སྟེ། དགུན་ཉ་མངས་ཚལ：དུ་གཤེགས་ཞེས་པས་ཤེས་ཐུབ་པ་ཡིན།
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