May 1, 2007

Spelling and speed reading

Most everyone has probably seen that email people like to forward around that says as long as the first and last letters of a word are in the right place, the order of the letters in between doesn't matter. Usually looks like this:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.
Richard Barrow on the forums wondered if this sort of thing be applied to Thai. So I thought about it and wrote this:

I think this sort of experiment is more difficult to apply to Thai, because the spaces between words in English all you to tell at a glance (without having to process the content of the word) what the first and last letters of a word are.

Also, the strong presence of monosyllabic words or morphemes means you often don't have much option for mixing up the letters, even if you were to insert artificial spaces.

Perhaps with multisyllable words you could pull off a similar experiment in Thai, but these words have so many implicit vowels that I wonder how well it would work. I can see ปะรามณ being recognized for ประมาณ fairly easily (or even ปมาระณ), but words like ศตวรรษ seem like they would be more difficult--ศรวรตษ looks pretty nonsensical. Then again, context is essential to the experiment.

The next step is to ask, how does one speed read in Thai? Is it the same as in English? I think ultimately it's probably similar, processing words as a larger units for quicker comprehension, but Thai sort of forces you to make the leap quickly, where the spaces between English words are mollycoddling. The concept of "word" in any language is nebulous (which deserves its own post another time), and one word in English obviously doesn't always map to one Thai word. In fact, discounting neologisms coined to match English counterparts, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case a minority of the time. Going back again to Thai's high degree of monosyllabism, and the strong tendency to employ compounds of all varieties, I think Thai "speed reading" requires recognizing and processing written text in chunks larger than English "words."

I am not a particularly slow reader, but I'm not ready to start recording Thai books on tape, either. How do I practice reading quickly? For one thing, I try to test myself when I'm riding in the car. Glance at a passing sign for a split second and see if I can sort out what it said. Short signs like ขายยา are a cinch, but there are plenty of challenging signs everywhere. Good practice. Movie subtitles, of course, are good practice, too. I saw Spider-man 3 today, and really enjoyed reading the Thai. It's also a crash course in translation theory, since movie subtitles make for good case studies in loose translation.

But one of the best ways I've found to improve my reading fluency is to read aloud. I read Thai books to my wife for leisure. My method is to read ahead a few words, using the same basic technique as with the road signs. Be reading aloud the phrase your eyes passed over about half a second earlier, to let your mind work out the word/phrase boundaries ahead of time. This allows me to continue to read fluidly. Of course, it's difficult. I make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes just have to laugh at myself for how much I manage to mangle some sentences. New vocabulary can trip you up, but once you start to get this technique down, it is definitely a useful skill to be able to read unfamiliar words and expressions accurately and without stumbling, even if you don't know their meaning. It feels good when I can do that in long stretches, so I usually just power through words I don't know, trying to figure out their meaning from context, and making a mental note to ask about this word or that at the end of the sentence/paragraph. But often, the meaning of a word I might have stopped to ask about mid-sentence is made perfectly clear within that paragraph. I try to imagine it like a performance--even if I don't know the meaning, my audience (i.e. my wife) does, and I shouldn't interrupt the show until I've come to a more natural stopping point.

For example, right now we're (slowly) reading the novel ฟ้าจรดทราย by โสภาค สุวรรณ, because we have tickets to see the musical adapted from it that opens later this month. While I'm not crazy about the book, this will help my comprehension at the play, naturally.

This technique is the same technique I use for reading aloud in English. I had a brief stint as a DJ at a rock radio station, and one of my favorite things to do was to read the live on-air advertisements. In the studio we had a binder full of typed-up ads, and the schedule said to read ad X at X o'clock. I especially remember one ad for a local ice cream parlor, which entailed reading a list of their more bizarre flavors on the air (it changed periodically). It was a lot of fun. So by all means, you can practice in your native language, too.

1 comment:

  1. My gut feeling is that the letter-switching doesn't work for Thai, but I can't quite pinpoint why. At any rate, the spaces have a great deal to do with the ability to speedread a language. Instead of parsing one continuous stream, the reader is able to digest individual chunks, breaking up a large task into several small ones. When the spaces are removed, it all globs together into one big unit (though of course there are spaces at higher levels -- clauses and sentences and such), and because it's hard to chunk within a single unit (hard to do it fast, at least), speedreading Thai is substantially more difficult. But not impossible. :)