The history of Dzongkha Braille

I. The Need:

The saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention” is apt here in the history of the development of Dzongkha Braille writing system for visually impaired learners of Bhutan. It was back in early 1980s when I began my teaching career in the then School for the Blind in Khaling (now it is the National Institute for Visually Impaired-NIVI). Writing in Braille in English was quite established throughout the world. Similarly all the subjects namely English, History, Geography, Mathematics, and Science were taught in English that had written script. But Dzongkha became a uniquely odd subject with no writing system. I was teaching Dzongkha to visually impaired students. It was done orally: explaining, questioning, answering, recapitulating, etc. The most difficult (funny too) task was during examinations. I would prepare question papers, used to ask them one by one, orally. My student would give me answers verbatim which I used to write down onto the papers and assess them. This process of teaching, learning and assessment continued for some years. I began to ponder over this method and challenged myself and constantly asked, “There must be a way out”.

 

II. Development:

It was in 1984 and by then I had been teaching Dzongkha for four years. I also had good skills of English Braille, their keys, and operating system of the machine. There was an absolute necessity and I began to plan to invent writing for Dzongkha Braille by devising and adapting keys from English Braille. Firstly a brief description of what is Braille and how it works is important.

The machine called the Braille (name associated with the inventor: Louis Braille) has six keys (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), also called a Cell. Keys 1, 3, 5 are on the left hand side called Left Bar; Keys 2, 4, 6 are on the right hand side called Right Bar. The functioning of the machine is pretty much similar to the erstwhile manual type writer with Space bar, Reverse bar, Line change bar, Paper release bar, Paragraph setting knob, etc. When you press or type one or all of the keys on a special paper that has to be inserted dot/dots get embossed which a blind student reads by feeling with finger(s). We sighted teachers teaching visually impaired students were encouraged to also read Braille by feeling in order to make ourselves more effective. All alphabets, punctuations, mathematical signs, scientific conventions are written using these six keys. They are used singly, combined, contracted, etc. They are also called Grade I (writing with full spellings) and Grade II (writing by using contracted forms, symbols, short forms. Example single alphabet “b” for “but”, two letters “ac” for “according”, dot/key no 5+f for father, so on).

I sat for hours, days and perhaps months firstly developing a manual of keys and instructions to writing Dzongkha in Braille.  I listed all alphabets, vowels, characters, symbols, that are possibly used in writing Dzongkha including Selje Sumchu, Yangzhi, Go-chen, Dog-chen, Go-Yig, Tshag, Chig Shey, Nyi-Shey, Log-Yig, etc. Then I listed all characters, symbols used in writing English Braille. Next was to analyse the comparative and compatibility nature of those characters and symbols in English with ones in Dzongkha. I followed two criteria to decide the compatibility: Sound and Function with minimum repetition. I began with devising alphabets in Dzongkha called Selje Sumchu.  Table A below shows a sample of the use of English alphabet and symbols to devise Dzongkha alphabet and its associated characters.

 

(See Table A)

Table A: A sample of Dzongkha alphabets used in Braille (Selje Sumchu)

1 table

 

 

Next was to devise vowels (Yangzhi) and symbols for Go-chen and Dog-chen

(see Table B).

Table B: A sample of vowels and essential symbols and characters used in Dzongkha

2

 

 

The devising exercise continued for several months and by then I had possibly covered all basic and essential characters to write Dzongkha in Braille. However I had two main concerns, one was the space occupied by a Dzongkha word would be too large and difficult to read. A typical word in Dzongkha with all its elements would occupy seven spaces or cells. The assumption was that a young student with small and tender fingers would find it difficult to sense to read at a time. But I was proven wrong. The second concern was the characters in English would be inadequate and insufficient for Dzongkha as the latter has far too many symbols. This assumption was also addressed by using symbols and their combinations sparingly.

I remember using numerous rough papers, chalk boards, slates, note books to devise characters and symbols, scribbled, tried, and changed, many times.  Once they were more or less finalized I entered them into a notebook, a manual with letters/symbols/characters used in English Braille and their equivalence in Dzongkha. Each of them was followed by dotted word (s). By the end of the exercise I had a hand written manual of 40 pages notebook. More than two decades later (I left that school by 1987) for some reasons I wanted to refer the manuscript and desperately looked for it but in vain. To my pleasant surprise the notebook was retained in the school, now NIVI. It is in the possession of a Dzongkha teacher. My insistence in trying to get back the document failed. Understandably and with good intention he thinks the book should remain in the original place although I claim to have the Intellectual Property Right (IPR). I reciprocated my intention to keep the material there at the Institute if it serves a good cause. However, I managed to get a scanned copy (only in December, 2012) of the manual and some relevant pages are reproduced here as samples.

 

III. Trial, Standardization and Use:

Using the key just devised I transcribed Dzongkha Losar Lobdeb (Dzongkha Primary), Lopdeb Dangpa (Reader I) and so on. We organized an orientation with the students, explained what each symbol and character stood for.  Students were asked to write, read letters, words. The system worked well with the introductory texts and readers. Then, I shared this with other teachers of the school, especially who were teaching Dzongkha.

To ensure the newly developed system worked we took dictations with senior students how to use the keys and characters. We transcribed higher level textbooks, prayer books, songs. Later we also conducted written examinations in Dzongkha. To our pleasant surprise it was a “Eureka” in our own right.  Transcriptions of Dzongkha textbooks and other materials necessary for teaching learning became a norm like other subjects.

Approval from Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) was sought to formalize and establish the system to write the National Language, Dzongkha in Braille. Since then the students of NIVI has been writing national language in Braille. The system has not only enriched our heritage but also helped promote it. It has been a light to darkness in the life of visually impaired students in Bhutan.

Today, graduates of NIVI pursue their higher studies in Sherubtse College, Samtse College of Education, Paro College of Education and others. A number of students take Dzongkha as their electives.  Textbooks, reading materials are transcribed in Dzongkha Braille in colleges. Bhutan Board of Examinations (BBE) conduct their Class VI, VIII, X and XII Dzongkha Examinations using Braille. Colleges also conduct written Dzongkha exams using the same system.

Retrospectively, as I sit back and reflect it gives me a great sense of satisfaction in that the one initial thought of devising writing system for our national language should become an established tool of communication for differently-capable learners of Bhutan. With this system in place for almost three decades one also pleasantly wonders how many visually impaired students would have become literate in Dzongkha and related literature, and how the subject would have widened the employment scope of graduates.

 

Note: The Dzongkha Braille writing system has been in place for almost three decades and is being used by visually impaired students in schools, institutions where this group of learners study. The purpose of writing this story is to inform the readers (interested and concerned) on the history and procedures of developing the system. This is also intended to encourage young teachers to come up with innovative contribution in our education system as we celebrate Sherig Century.

 

The writer is Dr Singye Namgyel, Director General, Sherubtse College

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