This post is in relation to an earlier post, Reforming Thai Language Structure by Sam Deedes, on the possibilities of improving Thai literacy by spacing the words and including punctuation.
Here are the citations and abstracts of a couple of studies I am familiar with that relate to this topic:
Kohsom, C, & Gobet. F. (1997). Adding spaces to Thai and English: Effects on reading. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society, 19, 388-393. Abstract: Most research on reading has used Western languages, which have the property of being spaced. This paper examines how spacing and meaning affect reading in Thai, a modern, alphabetic and unspaced language. Results show that subjects were faster in reading and made less errors when spaces were added. Meaning facilitates reading as well, and does not interact with spacing. Finally, ability to read unspaced texts in Thai does not transfer to English. The results support the hypothesis that spaces, when present at all, offer perceptual cues that facilitate reading. Efficiency considerations raise the question of whether Thai should follow the example of Western languages and incorporate spaces and punctuation.
Winskel, H., Radach, R, and Luksaneeyanawin, S. (2009). Eye movements when reading spaced and unspaced Thai and English: A Comparison of Thai/English bilinguals and English monolinguals. Journal of Memory and Language. 61 (3), 339-351. Abstract: The study investigated the eye movements of Thai-English bilinguals when reading both Thai and English with and without interword spaces, in comparison with English monolinguals. Thai is an alphabetic orthography without interword spaces. Participants read sentences with high and low frequency target words embedded in same sentence frames with and without interword spaces. Interword spaces had a selective effect on reading in Thai, as they facilitated word recognition, but did not affect eye guidance and lexical segmentation. Initial saccade landing positions were similar in spaced and unspaced text. As expected, removal of spaces severely disrupted reading in English, as reflected by the eye movement measures, in both bilinguals and monolinguals. Here, initial landing positions were significantly nearer the beginning of the target words when reading unspaced rather than spaced text. Effects were more accentuated in the bilinguals. In sum, results from reading in Thai give qualified support for a facilitatory function of interword spaces.
In addition, the most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD 2009) reports Thailand’s average overall reading score as 421–the international average for OECD countries was 493. Furthermore, boys in Thailand scored 400, while girls scored 438. For comparison:
- Indonesia: 402
- Singapore: 526
- US: 500
- UK: 494
- Australia: 515
- Japan: 520
- Shanghai-China: 556
Obviously, the studies above relating to spaced and unspaced texts are only two studies, thus their generalizability to influence language policy is limited. Indeed, the latter study only found partial support for spaced Thai texts. In addition, there are multiple reasons for Thailand’s reading scores and general attitudes towards reading, as well as a number of ways to improve them that are unrelated to using spaced texts. Some of these steps toward developing a ‘reading culture’ include: improving teaching methodology, improving teaching materials, providing more funding to schools (particularly rural ones), providing better and more access to literature (such as libraries and affordable books), providing programs to educate parents on the benefits of reading aloud to their children as well as the negative effects of excess TV.
As I believe was pointed out in one of the comments to the previous posting, Vietnam switched to using a system based on roman letters called Chu Quoc Ngu. As noted in the comment, missionaries–most notably Alexander de Rhodes–developed this system in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the French finally made it the official system in the 20th century. This system replaced Chu Nom; which is largely based on the Chinese character system and is not an alphabetic system nor does it incorporate interword spacing. However, even though the French made Quoc Ngu the official alphabet, it was through the efforts of various Vietnamese in the early twentieth century that popularized its use.
Indeed, as Nilm Jamiseson noted in his book Understanding Vietnam (1995), while the French colonial authorities supported Quoc Ngu, the opinions of the French community were divided, with many feeling that teaching the Vietnamese French was preferable. However, it was primarily two Vietnamese, Truong Vinh Ky and Huynh Tinh Cua, who were instrumental in popularizing Quoc Ngu. Through their running of the Gia Dinh Journal and other works, they developed Quoc Ngu into a standardized and effective means of communication. These two men, along with de Rhodes, are semi-immortalized in Vietnamese culture by having streets, and in some cases–schools, named after them in a number of cities in Vietnam.
As the French pressed ahead with their public school system, producing thousands of students able to read Quoc Ngu, a number of writers were able to capitalize on this to further both the modernization of Vietnam as well as nationalism. Nguyen Van Vinh, for example, ran one of the earliest Quoc Ngu papers in Hanoi the Indochina Journal. He also made numerous translations of both Vietnamese literature and Chinese literature into French and Quoc Ngu. It was through the efforts of these men and others involved in literature development during the early twentieth century who were instrumental in the successful reformation of the writing system.
Thailand on the other hand, has experience a number of unsuccessful attempts to reform the Thai (central Thai) language and writing system. Since the introduction of written Thai, various governments during the Bangkok Era have attempted to reform written Thai (Vella, 1978; Barmé, 1993). These reforms have included spelling reforms to more accurately reflect the etymology of the words and an attempt to modify the writing system to reflect the Western practice placing vowels and consonants in the order in which they were pronounced as well as adding spaces between words. The most recent attempt at a major reform of the writing system was under the regime of Phibun Songkram.
In May of 1942, the Phibun government introduced a new simplified form of spelling that would supposedly facilitate learning to read. Barmé noted that, “although this reform seemed to make a good deal of sense in strict pedagogical terms, it was not well received among certain sections of the educated Thai public: some critics charge that the whole body of the nation’s literature would be lost to future generations while a number of well-known authors and newspapermen ceased writing altogether in protest” (1993: 156). As this system lacked popular support outside the regime’s leadership, the new system was abandoned when Pibun relinquished power in 1944.
Thus, we see a very different picture between the situations of the adoption of Quoc Ngu in Vietnam and attempts to reform written Thai. Part of the problem, and this is the same with regard to attempts at spelling reform of English, is as Vella noted “…it [language reform] called for changes in an area that is heavily weighted with habit and emotion in every culture” (1978: 242).
The current literary situation in Thailand, I believe, can be adequately illustrated by relating observations from a recent trip from southern Prachuab to Bangkok on the train. As the train reached the Thonburi station, I noticed all the houses with their ramshackle tin roofs and siding. However, what caught my eye was not the condition of the houses but rather that most of them sported nice, red TV satellite dishes.
That said, there are some encouraging signs of efforts on the part of universities and other groups in Thailand. For example, the Rakluke Group publishes a number of children’s magazines such as Kidscovery and Highlights: HighFive. The latter of which is a bilingual–English/Thai–version of the early childhood offshoot of the well-known children’s literary magazine from the US, Highlights for Children. While the Thai font is sometimes a bit on the small side, at 60 baht per issue, it is a relatively inexpensive way to support an early love of reading.
As to whether or not to incorporate interword spaces, I would expect more research on this topic before any attempts at reforming Thai script are made. However, given the current nationalistic atmosphere of the current political climate, I see any language reform attempts as unlikely at this time. Furthermore, as Kohsom and Gobet noted in their conclusion about whether Thailand should incorporate interword spacing, “this decision depends on a trade-off between the cognitive and educational gain of adding spaces and its cost–cultural, social, and economic” (1997: 393).
Mr. Tyler first came to Thailand to work as a volunteer in southern Thailand. After he finished his service he worked at an internternational school in Thailand for a number of years. He currently works at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Barmé, Scot. (1993). Luang Wichit Wathakan and the creation of a Thai identity. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Jamiseson, Nilm L. (1995). Understanding Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kohsom, C, & Gobet. F. (1997). Adding spaces to Thai and English: Effects on reading. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society, 19, 388-393.
OECD. (2010). PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: www.oecd.org/edu/pisa/2009
Vella, Walter F. (1978). Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the development of Thai nationalism. Honolulu, HI: The University Press of Hawaii.
Winskel, H., Radach, R, and Luksaneeyanawin, S. (2009). Eye movements when reading spaced and unspaced Thai and English: A Comparison of Thai/English bilinguals and English monolinguals. Journal of Memory and Language. 61 (3), 339-351.