Articles on the difficulties of learning Chinese writing, activation of different parts of brain for learning Chinese vs. English, implications for dyslexic learners

Dyslexics excel at Japanese | Guardian Feb 12, 2006

When it comes to learning Japanese, the highest achievers could be dyslexic children. Research at a school in Somerset shows dyslexics find the language easier to learn than French, Spanish or German.
After a series of papers that showed how well children could do at Japanese, Millfield school added the language to its curriculum. Bill Penty, head of modern languages, said: ‘Japanese is written syllabically, so that what you read is what you hear. Grammatically it is exceedingly straightforward up to a certain point. It is also elliptical, which means that if it doesn’t need to say something it won’t say it.’ He said that at a basic level all the verbs except one ended in the same sound. Dyslexic children performed particularly well in exams, he added.

His school moved to promote the language after research by Michiko Harwood, a teacher there, showed dyslexics found Japanese equally or more accessible than European languages. It also helped to give children a lot of ‘kudos’, because they could do something others found baffling. ‘Japanese is also thought to be cool because of its links with martial arts,’ said Penty. Young children were more attuned to Japanese than their parents because of computer games and TV cartoons made in Japan.


From NPO EDGE’s website:

“In Japan dyslexia is considered as one of main symptoms of LD (learning disabilities). It was not until 10 years ago that the true movement towards recognition of LD started under the leadership of *Professor Kazuhiko Ueno. Parentsユ groups were formed to gather information and to investigate the possibilities. The notion of LD is still confused although the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Ministry of Education have come up with the definition respectively in 1997 and 1999. Many other symptoms such as ADHD, autism, and mentally retarded are still included at the level of LD Gakkai (Japanese Academy of Learning Disabilities) or Parentsユ Association.

Recently in October 2002, the Ministry of Education has undertaken a comprehensive survey on the incidence of dyslexia and other learning difficulties, and announced that there could be 6.3% incidence of children in the ordinary elementary schools having severe difficulties in learning despite of their level of intelligence. Unfortunately the survey was based on questionnaires which were answered by classroom teachers who are not necessarily aware of dyslexia or learning difficulties.
Lack of information and knowledge, the complex structure of Japanese language with Kana letters and Kanji, social environment where it is difficult be different from others, and educational system which forces you to learn things through rote repetition, and above all lack of assessment designed to identify dyslexia, all these combined together contributes in making it difficult to detect dyslexia in Japan.
The Japanese written language structure is not as clear as many researchers believe it to be. It is true that Kana is very clear form of sound letter correspondence where as when Kanji comes into play the situation becomes more complex. Origin of Kanji is from China so we have both Japanese way and Chinese way of reading for the same Kanji. For some Kanji you can figure out what is means from the shape but is impossible to learn how it is pronounced unless you are really good at guessing. And you are supposed to learn how to read and write about 1000 Kanji by the time you finish the elementary school.” Read more about ongoing research in Japan on dyslexia here.

Dyslexic people spread awareness about the disorder | Jun 14, 2012 Asahi

By TAKAKO ISHIDA/ Staff Writer
Satoru Inoue was finally able to write his name in hiragana around the time he finished second grade.

Although he understood what was being taught in class, Satoru always flunked his tests because he could not write. Labeled a “no-good kid,” he dropped out after only three months of high school.

Now 49, Satoru has written a book, “Yomenakutemo, Kakenakutemo, Benkyo Shitai” (I can’t read or write but I want to learn), published by Budosha. His wife, Shoko, 45, compiled the text from what Satoru has written and said.

Satoru and other people in Japan with dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes reading and writing difficult, have begun speaking out about their experiences by writing books and appearing in documentary films.

“I’d like teachers to know that children have the right to learn,” Satoru said, explaining why he wrote the book. “I want to do what I can so that there are fewer people like me.”

Awareness of the disorder has been slow to develop in Japan, while support has been lagging that of Western countries. Since the support is limited, many only become aware that they have dyslexia after reaching adulthood.

A functional disorder of the central nervous system is believed to cause dyslexia. Although it poses no problems with conversation skills, some with dyslexia have poor communication skills.

In his mid-20s, Satoru learned how to read on his own by repeatedly studying the subtitles on Western movies. To hide his inability to write, he wrapped his hand in bandages and said he was injured.

Satoru, who was born in Osaka, moved to Tottori Prefecture about 10 years ago after working in construction and as a temporary worker. He is now a carpenter.

In 2004, past his 40th birthday, Satoru became aware of his dyslexia after reading a book about learning disorders. Shoko, who taught a classroom for children with special needs at a public elementary school, placed the book on a table in their home.

Later, Satoru passed two multiple-choice tests for construction-related certifications and became convinced he “wasn’t dumb.” Bitterness welled in his heart when he reflected back on his childhood.

Thinking that “understanding is fun” and “knowing things is interesting,” Satoru said he believes he could study forever if he can find a method that suits him.

Like Satoru, Hiroko Sunanaga reached adulthood not knowing that she had dyslexia.

Her daily life is now featured in “DX (Dyslexia) na Hibi: Bin-chan no Baai” (DX days: The case of Bin-chan), an 81-minute documentary.

Sunanaga, whose nickname is Bin-chan, is now in her 30s.

A professor at an art university in London, where Sunanaga was studying in her early 20s, was the first person to suggest she had dyslexia.

Upon returning to Japan, Sunanaga changed jobs 12 times in 10 years because she kept making mistakes filling out forms and performing other tasks. She concealed her disability “because I wouldn’t get hired if I mentioned it.”

Four years ago, Sunanaga contacted Edge, a nonprofit organization in Tokyo that supports people with dyslexia. She met others who shared her anguish, and then she stopped hiding her disorder.

Movie director Akira Tanimitsu, 66, suggested that Sunanaga appear in one of his films. She accepted the offer because “if nobody does it, then nobody’s going to help us.”

In one of the scenes in the film, Sunanaga is the runner-up in a business contest to help people with special needs start their own companies.

She used the prize money and her cooking skills to open Eurodeli, a fusion delicatessen, in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district in February last year. Her fervent hope is for the employees to “help each other out on what they’re not good at.”

“DX na Hibi” is being screened only at the Shiritsu Shimin Hall, a city-run facility, in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, on July 7 starting at 1:30 p.m.


A 2006 revision of the Enforcement Regulations to the School Education Law added special needs education for students with learning disorders, such as dyslexia, as well as developmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The education ministry prepared a budget to pay for assistants to help these students at school. It also asked schools to set up “in-school committees” and assign teachers to serve as coordinators working at the heart of the committees.

The ministry’s arrangements have special-needs students take classes with others in their grade, while also receiving special instruction and assistance in other classes, so that they can move to the next grade.

The exact number of children with dyslexia is unknown. A 2002 education ministry survey of around 40,000 public elementary and junior high school students found that about 2.5 percent (roughly 1,000) exhibited difficulty reading and writing despite not being mentally disabled.

Yuka Shinagawa, an expert adviser on the Central Education Council, a consultative organ of the education ministry, estimates there are 350,000 to 500,000 elementary, junior high and high school students across Japan who struggle to read and write.

“Early detection and support are needed, but only a few local governments are providing such instruction,” she said.

Keiichi Takeda, professor emeritus of special needs education at Osaka Kyoiku University, says, “We should train teachers who can accurately identify children with dyslexia.”


Chinese: Easy to read, hard to write” by Lee Wei Ling (Source: Straits Times) was really interesting – the article is posted below for an elucidating the difficulties faced by students in learning the Chinese (=kanji) character system:
In my last Think-Tank column, I wrote about Chinese being an easier language to learn than English. That is true of spoken Chinese, whether it be Mandarin or one of the many other Chinese dialects. In this article, I will try to explain why written Chinese is easy to read but difficult to write.
First, it is a very common misconception about Chinese characters should be dispelled: They are not pictograms. They evolved to become logograms many centuries ago. A loggram is like the McDonald’s sign: it does not look like a burger, but it represents that concept.
As in all languages, being able to read or write Chinese is dependent on linguistic skills. Language ability resides in the left brain in almost all right-handed people and more than half of those who are left-handed. Pattern recognition and purely spatial skills reside in the right brain. They do not contribute to reading Chinese.
Chinese words can be made up of a single character or several characters. Each character has one pronunciation – a syllable — and one meaning. Rarely, the same character can be pronounced differently and convey a different meaning in different contexts.
Most characters are made up of radicals, usually two radicals. One termed the xingpang, indicates the category to which the character belongs. There are radicals representing water, fire, human, female, vegetation, wood, mouth and so on. The second radical is the yinpang, the phonological radical. It hints at how the character is to be pronounced.
Over the centuries, the pronunciation of characters changed, and changed differently in different parts of China. Hence, depending on the local dialect, the yinpang is not always pronounced the same way when it occurs in different characters.
Over the centuries the pronunciation of characters changed, and changed differently in different parts of China. Hence, depending on the local dialect, the yinpang is not always pronounced the same way when it occurs in different characters.
Using the word “oil” or 油  as an example, the yinpang 由  is pronounced “you” tells us precisely how the character is to be pronounced in Mandarin. The three dots on the left make up the xinpgang representing liquid. The combination of the two radicals enables a reader who has never encountered the character before to be ale to pronounce it and also to guess its meaning accurately, for a liquid substance pronounced “you” must be “you” meaning oil.
But the yinpang can be inconsistent so 笛  or “di” is pronounced very differently from “you”. The “bamboo” radical forming the upper part of the character tells us that it is this thing is made of bamboo. I recognize the word and know its meaning – a musical instrument resembling a recorder, an end blown flute. But I had to check the dictionary to find its pronunciation.
There is a set of rules to determine the location of each radical in the character. The liquid, human, hand and leg xingpang are always on the left; the vegetarian radical is always at the top of the character. The location of the yinpang is less strictly determined.
When encountering an unfamiliar character, a reader can guess the category to which it belongs. Then to guess its pronunciation he would look at the other radical on the opposite side, below or above the xingpang.
Through the changes in pronunciation over time – not to mention across geographical locations – the written characters remained the same. This is the major strength of written Chinese. No matter what dialect people speak, all can understand the same written symbols. This characteristic kept the Han Chinese united and distinct from the other inhabitants of China.
About 100 years ago, the Chinese government decided that the many strokes in each character made writing too tedious. So the characters were simplified. But rules governing how a character was to be constructed remained the same….
A knowledge of a fairly limited number of characters can help us accurately guess the meaning of the words formed by a number of characters. A tricycle, for example, is termed a “three wheel vehicle”, a computer an “electric brain”, and an astronaut a “space man”. So if a student of Chinese learns 1,500 to 2,000 characters, he can easily read a Chinese newspaper.
The current Chinese curriculum in Singapore requires a Primary 6 student to know 1,500 to 2,000 characters.
Sometimes a reader may be able to understand what he reads even he cannot pronounce some of the component characters. This happens to me often as I was taught the complex characters. When I encounter a simplified character I do not know, I can guess its meaning from the context of the entire sentence.
I have tested more than 1,000 Chinese/English bilingual students from our primary and secondary schools. The ability to read Chinese, I found was heavily dependent on the command of spoken Chinese. The latter was tested by requiring the student to point to one of four pictures in response to a Chinese word spoken by the tester.
My finding is hardly surprising. If you don’t known a word when you hear it, you are unlikely to know it when you see it. And this is where context will help you.
In my research, I found that memory for aurally presented stories is an important predictor of Chinese reading ability. To be able to guess the meaning of one unknown word or character in a sentence or paragraph, one must retain in memory an instance of its context to be able to fill in the blanks.
But beside the command of spoken Chinese and verbal memory, there are other factors that help you read Chinese, for I found a significant amount of variations in reading ability that could not be explained by the known factors.
I hypothesize that reading Chinese is a bit like fuzzy logic. There are many factors contributing to the ability to read Chinese, and in different contexts, each factor would carry a different weight.
In addition to one’s knowledge of spoken Chinese and aural memory of Chinese sentences or paragraphs, the xingpang and yinpang would also cue the reader to the meaning of an unknown character. Words made up of several characters are easy to guess because the Chinese try to be logical when creating new words. For example, “aeroplane” is made up of the characters “fly” and “machine”, and “helicopter” is “straight rise machine”.
One area where the Chinese script can cause difficulties is in the translation of foreign names of Chinese. In this case, characters that sound similar to the syllables of the foreign name are combined.
For example, “Obama” is written as 奥巴馬  (aobama), and “Volvo” is  沃尓沃  (woewo). Neither Chinese name resembles closely the correct English pronunciation.
As Chinese has no word boundary, there is no space between the first and last characters of the name and the preceding and following characters. It takes considerable mental effort to keep in mind that 沃尓沃 is one word and recognize the pattern of those three characters whenever they occur.
Writing Chinese characters is very difficult compared to reading the characters. This is because when we want to write a character, we usually think of how the character, we usually think of how the character is pronounced, but that seldom gives us enough clues as to how to write that character.
Though hanyu pinyin and word processors have made writing Chinese characters easier than in the past when we depended on our memory and our hands, typing in Chinese is still tedious. This is because Chinese has many homophones. In addition, Mandarin has four tones and some dialects have many more than four tones. The tones are not usually represented in hanyu pinyin. Hence for each input of hanyu pinyin we make on a word processor, we can be presented with many possible characters. For example, “jing” has 41  characters corresponding to it with widely varying meanings.
For a dyslexic like me, who has difficulty analyzing the sounds (phonemes) in a character, I often spell the hanyu pinyin wrongly. Only after much trial and error do I find the correct Chinese character. Sometimes, I cannot find the correct character despite systematically going through all the possible hanyu pinyin spellings that I can think for a particular character .Fortunately, 95 per cent of students are not dyslexic and have an easier time typing in hanyu pinyin than I do.
The irony is that students cannot use word processors in examinations and are required to write the characters. Hanyu pinyin and word processors are allowed in lessons and projects, but to be denied their use in exams makes the exams even more difficult. The Ministry of Education says it will take five or more years to revamp the Chinese curriculum. How many days does it take to change an illogical exam requirement?
It is obvious that the burden of learning how to write in Chinese is overwhelming for many. At the end of Primary 6, the children are expected to be able to read about 1,600 words and write 1,000-1,100 words. For an average pupil especially one from an English-speaking home, the target is unrealistic.
Little wonder then that some families that can emigrate do so just to allow the children to escape the torture of having to learn Chinese up to the standard curriculum demands. What we teach  how we test our students in Chinese needs to change and to be changed soon.”
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore’s tertiary and research institutions. Her father was former PM and then Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew had said, as a reference to the many mistakes made in the country’s bilingualism policies:
‘A language is first listened to, heard and then spoken. It’s not read or written – that follows later. (But) we started the wrong way. We insisted on spelling and dictation (in Chinese).’

End of Quote

For further reading about bilingualism in Singapore’s schools, see Singapore’s Bilingualism Journey

Dyslexia affects English Chinese readers differently

WASHINGTON – Dyslexia affects different parts of children’s brains depending on whether they are raised reading English or Chinese. That finding, reported in Monday’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, means that therapists may need to seek different methods of assisting dyslexic children from different cultures…

See also Chinese dyslexics have problems of their own : Nature News

It’s all Chinese to me: Dyslexia has big differences in English and Chinese (Oct 12, 2009, SciAm)

“…according to a new paper published online today in Current Biology. English speakers who have developmental dyslexia usually don’t have trouble recognizing letters visually, but rather just have a hard time connecting them to their sounds.

What about languages based on full-word characters rather than sound-carrying letters? Researchers looking at the brains of dyslexic Chinese children have discovered that the disorder in that language often stems from two separate, independent problems: sound and visual perception.

The pronunciation of detailed and complex Chinese characters must be memorized, rather than sounded out like words in alphabet-based languages. That requirement led researchers to suspect that disabilities in the visual realm might come into play in dyslexia in that language. “A fine-grained visuospatial analysis must be preformed by the visual system in order to activate the characters’ phonological and semantic information,” said lead author Wai Ting Siok of the University of Hong Kong,  in a prepared statement.

To see whether Chinese dyslexics had trouble comprehending visual details, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 12 Chinese children with dyslexia. When asked to complete a task that involved visually judging size, the dyslexic children had less activation in an area of the brain that is charged with visual-spatial processing (the left intraparietal sulcus) than did Chinese children with normal reading levels. Previous research had also shown that the dyslexic group had weak activation in areas that process phonological information (the left middle frontal gyrus) when tested with a rhyming task.

Because of the two processes—aural and visual—that must come together for Chinese literacy, Siok concluded in the statement: “Disordered phonological processing may commonly coexist with abnormal visuospatial processing in Chinese dyslexia.” “

Other related readings:

Dyslexia has a language barrier The Guardian, 23 Sep 2004

Readers of Chinese use different parts of the brain from readers of English, write Brian Butterworth and Joey Tang…

Alan’s parents are English, but he was born and grew up in Japan. He would pass as a native speaker of either language. What brought Alan to the notice of Taeko Wydell, an expert on Japanese reading, and Brian Butterworth, was that he was severely dyslexic, but only in one language. In the other, he was probably in the top 10% of readers of his age.

New research by US and Chinese scientists challenges our interpretation of how it is possible to be dyslexic in one language but not another. It shows that readers of Chinese use a different part of their brains to readers of English.

The study, led by Li Hai Tan and reported in Nature, may unexpectedly tell us some key things about how dyslexia affects the brain. Brain functioning, and indeed structure, is moulded by experience. Learning a regular spelling system such as Italian creates differences in brain organisation compared to learning highly irregular English. Italian has 26 rules to learn, which takes about six months; English takes longer because there are many irregularities (and several hundred rules). In Chinese 3,500 characters are needed to read the equivalent of the Daily Mail and about 6,000 characters to read books.

The second main difference is that in English each linguistically distinct sound, or phoneme, maps to a single letter. For example, the three phonemes in “bat” map on to three letters. If one letter is changed it makes a new word. A Chinese character maps to a whole syllable. In Putonghua, the national language of China, there are about 1,800 distinguishable syllables; each syllable can have several meanings and each meaning is typically represented by a distinct character.

How will these differences be reflected in brain organisation? Learning Chinese creates specific demands on the areas for remembering visual patterns. English readers make more use of areas for phoneme processing.

This ability to analyse syllables into phonemes is the key problem in dyslexia. Dyslexics have difficulty segmenting the word “that” into three separate sounds – so fare much worse in learning English than Chinese.

Reported prevalence of dyslexia is much higher in English (about 5-6%) than Chinese. I surveyed 8,000 schoolchildren in the Beijing region, with Yin Wengang of the Chinese Academy of Science, and found that about 1.5% were dyslexic.

This kind of evidence suggests that a single underlying deficit of the ability to analyse words into phonemes can cause dyslexia for any reader, but will be more severe where phonemes are involved. A European team led by Uta Frith of UCL reported in Science a few years ago that English, French and Italian dyslexics all showed the same abnormal activity involving the brain system underlying phonemic analysis.

In Alan, this theory predicts accurately that the affected language will be English, since Japanese does not require analysis into phonemes.

Research by Frith’s team shows that small variations in brain organisation are due to orthography, with Italian making more demands on the phonemic system, because it is regular, and English making more demands on the naming system because words cannot be read correctly using phonic rules and have to be named – for example: colonel, yacht, pint. We assume the part of Alan’s brain that deals with phonemic analysis is not working efficiently, which causes a problem reading English, compared to Japanese.

The first surprise in Tan’s study was that a key peak in brain activity in Chinese readers fell outside the network typically used by European readers. The second surprise was that dyslexics showed lower activation in several key reading areas compared with normal Chinese readers, but this was in a very different brain area from Frith’s European dyslexics.

Both Frith and I have argued that dyslexia has a universal basis in the brain that affects phonemic analysis. Tan and his colleagues, by contrast, conclude that “the biological abnormality of impaired reading is dependent on culture”. If we are right, Alan uses the same brain network for English and Japanese, and the malfunction only affects English reading. If Tan is right, Alan has separate networks for English and Japanese, and only the former is affected.

A lot will turn on which of us is right. Dyslexia frequently runs in families, and there has been much research trying to identify the genes responsible. If dyslexia is governed by culture, then Chinese dyslexia may be caused by a different genetic anomaly than English dyslexia.

· Brian Butterworth and Joey Tang are in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London

Previous studies have suggested that the effect of developmental dyslexia on brain activation is different in Chinese and English, but see a 2010 study “Developmental dyslexia in Chinese and English populations…” Brain (2010) 133 (6): 1694-1706.doi: 10.1093/brain/awq106 for a different conclusion (see below).

Abstract: By investigating the effects of dyslexia and language in one study, we show common activation in Chinese and English dyslexics despite different activation in Chinese versus English normal readers. The effect of dyslexia in both languages was observed as less than normal activation in the left angular gyrus and in left middle frontal, posterior temporal and occipitotemporal regions. Differences in Chinese and English normal reading were observed as increased activation for Chinese relative to English in the left inferior frontal sulcus; and increased activation for English relative to Chinese in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus. These cultural differences were not observed in dyslexics who activated both left inferior frontal sulcus and left posterior superior temporal sulcus, consistent with the use of culturally independent strategies when reading is less efficient. By dissociating the effect of dyslexia from differences in Chinese and English normal reading, our results reconcile brain activation results with a substantial body of behavioural studies showing commonalities in the cognitive manifestation of dyslexia in Chinese and English populations. They also demonstrate the influence of cognitive ability and learning environment on a common neural system for reading.

The study was:

“… able to show for the first time that LIFS activation is not specific to normal Chinese reading and LpSTS activation is not specific to normal English reading. Instead, dyslexics from both cultures activated both LIFS and LpSTS, consistent with the use of culturally independent strategies when reading is less efficient. This illustrates that reading activation is determined by the interaction of cognitive abilities and learning environment.”

“First, we found that Chinese normal readers and both groups of dyslexics activate LIFS during perceptual as well as semantic tasks, irrespective of the stimuli tested (Fig. 3). Second, we found that LIFS activation was greater during semantic and perceptual tasks than naming and reading tasks. This is consistent with the involvement of visuospatial working memory function that holds semantic or perceptual representations in memory while a common theme is determined. Third, we found that English normal readers had low LIFS activation relative to all other groups during perceptual as well as semantic tasks, even when the task and stimuli were held constant (i.e. perceptual decisions on non-objects) (Fig. 3). The absence of LIFS activation in the English normal readers during either semantic or perceptual tasks (Fig. 3) suggests that activation in this region is strategy dependent. In this case, the strategy appears to have been used for semantic and perceptual decisions in both Chinese groups and English dyslexics, but not English normal readers.

Our observation that LIFS activation was higher in Chinese normal readers than English normal readers during perceptual tasks further suggests that learning to read impacts upon the neural processing of perceptual information.”

How does the effect of dyslexia in Chinese and English compare to differences in Chinese versus English normal reading?

Consistent with previous studies, we found that LIFS activation was higher for Chinese than English normal readers and LpSTS activation was higher for English than Chinese normal readers. These differences in Chinese and English reading were not observed in the dyslexic groups. By investigating Chinese and English dyslexics and normal readers in the same study, we were able to show that LIFS activation was higher in English dyslexics than English normal readers and LpSTS activation was higher in Chinese dyslexics than Chinese normal readers (Table 3). Thus, both Chinese and English dyslexics activate both LIFS and LpSTS even though normal readers activate either LIFS (in Chinese) or LpSTS (in English).

The finding that both Chinese and English dyslexics activate LIFS and LpSTS demonstrates that activation in these regions reflects the cognitive ability of the participants as well as the processing demands of the orthography. Specifically, LIFS activation in English dyslexics suggests that activation in this area is not specific to Chinese reading. It may therefore be recruited to support word recognition in the context of weak links between orthography and phonology, regardless of whether these weak links are the result of the type of orthography (Chinese versus English) or reading ability (dyslexic versus normal).

With respect to the functional role of LIFS, the expectation from cognitive models is that reading Chinese will increase the reliance on visuospatial working memory in order to maintain the visual representation while perceptual, semantic or phonological information is retrieved (Li et al.2009). LIFS activation in our paradigm may therefore reflect visuospatial working memory. Indeed, the inclusion of a range of tasks and stimuli in our paradigm provided three novel observations that are consistent with an explanation of LIFS activation in terms of the demands on visuospatial working memory.

Likewise, LpSTS activation was not specific to English reading because it is also activated in Chinese dyslexics during semantic decisions and all Chinese participants during reading and naming. It may therefore be activated to support word recognition in the context of weak links between orthography and semantics, irrespective of whether these weak links are the result of the type of orthography (English versus Chinese) or reading ability (dyslexic versus normal).

With respect to the functional role of LpSTS, the expectation from cognitive models of reading is that activation that is higher for English than Chinese will reflect phonemic decoding strategies (Tan et al.2005). However, our findings were not entirely consistent with this conclusion because we observed LpSTS activation for Chinese dyslexics performing semantic matching on Chinese words that have no phonemic cues. We also observed LpSTS activation when Chinese normal readers were naming pictures that have no phonemic cues. It is therefore more likely that LpSTS activation is involved in phonological processing in general rather than being specific to phonemic decoding (Price et al.2006). Higher LpSTS activation for English than Chinese normal readers may reflect the use of a phonological strategy to facilitate semantic access. Alternatively, there might be greater phonological processing in English because implicit phonology (that is incidental to the task) is available at the phonemic as well as syllabic and whole word levels. Likewise, higher LpSTS activation for Chinese dyslexics than Chinese normal readers during semantic word matching may reflect a phonological processing strategy that facilitates semantic access, or may reflect increased phonological processing (relative to Chinese normal readers) because of the additional time spent attending to the stimulus when semantic access is delayed.

Thus, despite differences in the Chinese and English writing systems, learning to read in both languages requires good visual perceptual skills (Li et al.2009), phonological awareness at the syllable level (Ho and Bryant, 1997; Ho et al.,2000; Chung et al.2008; Cheung et al.2009) and verbal short-term memory (Mayringer and Wimmer, 2000; Siok and Fletcher, 2001; Ho et al.2006). Impairments at any of these levels can lead to difficulties in learning to read that will be most pronounced when the individual suffers from multiple deficits (Ho and Bryant, 1997; Ho et al.2002; Snowling, 2008). Cross-linguistic behavioural studies of dyslexia therefore predict commonalities in the neural markers for Chinese and English dyslexics. [Read the entire article here]

Dyslexia in Chinese readers vs. English readers (Greg Laden’s science blog)

Dyslexia affects brain according to language (CNN, 2008)

In their paper, the researchers noted that imaging studies of the brains of dyslexic children using alphabetic languages like English have
identified unusual function and structure in the left temporo-parietal areas, thought to be involved in letter-to-sound conversions in reading; left middle-superior temporal cortex, thought to be involved in speech sound analysis; and the left inferior temporo-occipital gyrus, which may function as a quick word-form recognition system.
When they performed similar imaging studies on dyslexic Chinese youngsters, on the other hand, they found disruption in a different area,
the left middle frontal gyrus region.

Associated Press article by Randolph E. Schmid,”Dyslexia Differs by Language.” Discovery News (retrievable also from Fox News)

Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press  (

Different Language, Different Dyslexia
April 8, 2008 — Dyslexia affects different parts of children’s brains depending on whether they are raised reading English or Chinese. That finding, reported in Monday’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, means that therapists may need to seek different methods of assisting dyslexic children from different cultures.
“This finding was very surprising to us. We had not ever thought that dyslexics’ brains are different for children who read in English and Chinese,” said lead author Li-Hai Tan, a professor of linguistics and brain and cognitive ( sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “Our finding yields neurobiological clues to the cause of dyslexia.”
Millions of children worldwide are affected by dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that can include problems in reading, spelling, writing and pronouncing words. The International Dyslexia Association ( says there is no consensus on the exact number because not all children are screened, but estimates range from 8 percent to 15 percent of students.
Reading an alphabetic language ( like English requires different skills than reading Chinese, which relies less on sound representation, instead using symbols to represent words.
Past studies have suggested that the brain may use different networks of neurons in different languages, but none has suggested a difference in the structural parts of the brain involved, Tan explained.
Tan’s research group studied the brains of students raised reading Chinese, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They then compared those findings with similar studies of the brains of students raised reading English.
Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning ( at Georgetown University in Washington, said the process of becoming a skilled reader changes the brain.
“Becoming a reader is a fairly dramatic process for the brain,” explained Eden, who was not part of Tan’s research team on this paper.
For children, learning to read is culturally important but is not really natural, Eden said, so when the brain orients toward a different writing system it copes with it differently.
For example, English-speaking children learn the sounds of letters and how to combine them into words, while Chinese youngsters memorize hundreds of symbols which represent words.
“The implication here is that when we see a reading disability, we see it in different parts of the brain depending on the writing system that the child is born into,” Eden said.
That means, “we cannot just assume that any dyslexic child is going to be helped by the same kind of intervention,” she said in a telephone interview.
Tan said the new findings suggest that treating Chinese speakers with dyslexia may use working memory tasks and tests relating to sensor-motor skills, while current treatments of English dyslexia focus on letter-sound conversions and sound awareness.
He said the underlying cause of brain structure abnormalities in dyslexia is currently unknown.
“Previous genetic studies suggest that malformations of brain development are associated with mutations of several genes and that developmental dyslexia has a genetic basis,” he said in an interview via e-mail.
“We speculate that different genes may be involved in dyslexia in Chinese and English readers. In this respect, our brain-mapping findings can assist in the search for candidate genes that cause dyslexia,” Tan said.
In their paper, the researchers noted that imaging studies of the brains of dyslexic children using alphabetic languages like English have identified unusual function and structure in the left temporo-parietal areas, thought to be involved in letter-to-sound conversions in reading; left middle-superior temporal cortex, thought to be involved in speech sound analysis, and the left inferior temporo-occipital gyrus, which may function as a quick word-form recognition system.
When they performed similar imaging studies on dyslexic Chinese youngsters, on the other hand, they found disruption in a different area, the left middle frontal gyrus region.
The study was funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the Hong Kong Research Grants Council and the University of Hong Kong.
In a separate paper, published two years ago, University of Michigan researchers reported that Asians and North Americans see the world differently.
Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene.  Other sources: see this link

Related:  Dyslexia Differs by Language: Think Again! HASTAC, commentary by Cathy Davidson (excerpts below)

“Given the discrepancy between the actual research study and the generalizations being made based on that study, we need to ask why scientists (or popular science writers) of our era are hard-wired not to understand how little in the human brain is actually hard-wired? Or, to be more accurate, how much of the brain’s hardwiring is actually from what it does and how much of what it does is cultural, is based on what it/we learn.

That is, and I’ll repeat this later, what we learn actually changes what the brain is and how it works. As many dyslexia (and stroke) studies have shown for at least two or three decades, Chinese-language-learning brains distribute linguistic and even motor functions differently than alphabetic-language-learning brains. Surprise! Brains don’t exist independently of the people who possess them and people don’t exist independently of their culture. Brain determinism forgets this crucial fact and wants to reduce neurobiology to genetics. That actually doesn’t tell us very much in the end about brain function.

Take dyslexia. You cannot really understand dyslexia without knowing some historical and comparative linguistics. We’ve known for a long time that one form of dyslexia (the most classic form) is about the linkage is between speech and reading functions which, in character-based languages, are disaggregated. It is the impartial mapping of speech onto writing, sound and visual processing of semi-phonetic processes, that causes confusion, at least in some forms of classic dyslexia. This is also one reason why English-speakers have among the highest reported rates of dyslexia. English is among the least regular phonetic languages, with more radical variation than almost any other language. Historically, English is a confluence of different languages with radically different relationships between the grouping of letters and the pronunciation of sounds represented by those groupings. You have to keep switching “rules” to be able to read modern English.

Modern English blends Old English, French and German. The rules of those three languages are already conflicting, but modern English spelling wasn’t firmed up until the 16th century, with the advent of mass printing. The first printers tended to be Dutch and tended not to know the English language they printed. They often put a Dutch cast and Dutch rules onto the manuscripts they received where, previously, there was no standard of consistency in spelling. The child who learns to read English “phonetically” today is having to filter out a lot of irregularity and even more dissonance between the written and the spoken language. “Sound it out!” the teacher says. Right. Think about it. Look at this short paragraph and think about consistent rules for sounding out just about anything here. (Or is it hear?)

There are some interesting studies in Chinese of how the regularizing of kanji characters in Communist China influenced dyslexia rates, not consistently but it definitely had an impact positively and negatively. In Japanese, there are studies of dyslexia and reading katakana and hiragana (the regular phonetic rendering scripts). The dyslexia rates for these phonetically rendered systems are very low. There are also some Japanese linguistic studies about the age of language acquisition and dyslexia. In Japan, you are about 13-14, in high school, before you are considered to know enough kanji to read a newspaper (the equivalent of functional literacy in Japan). And you are spending many hours a day, four or five even, learning to read and write than kids in the U.S. Additionally, learning to read and learning to write are highly integrated activities in Japan and China. You learn to read on a motor level as you learn to write.

The motor element is extremely important for dyslexia. If a Japanese or Chinese person is at loss for a word in conversation, they draw it in the air. And stroke patients lose different language and motor functions in Japan and China than they do in the U.S. when the stroke occurs in the same part of the brain.

The time involved in learning a character-based language systems like Chinese and Japanese used to be considered a bad thing, all that wasted time, all that practice, so inefficient, but now people think. Some recent theories of language acquisition and dyslexia are revising that idea and now suggest that the slower learning process, and the integration of motor and perceptual abilities, may be the foundation for all later kinds of thinking and also may result in fewer LD kids. In the US, we want kids to be reading at age 5-6, just as they are making the most traumatic transition of their young lives, into full-time schooling. In primary school, a Japanese child begins by learning how to address the writing implement. Really. The process is slower and more integrated into other social rules.

In the US, we expect a functional literacy at around 10-11. And we don’t devote nearly as much time to reading/writing and we almost never acknowledge to kids that phonetics is problematic….

There is excellent research (including this study) on dyslexia, relative to different languages and language systems. But clearly we’re not just talking about “brain.” Mind and culture have a major role. So why demote such an important and interesting study to “genes” (which makes no sense at all) and “neurobiology.” This is the malady of too much science in our age. Brain-determinism may well be the “phonics” of our age. Here, the narrative of neurobiology makes this exciting research less valuable than it should be.

In fact, this study underscores how the language we learn and how we learn it actually changes the brain. That’s the mantra. The brain changes with learning–and learns from change. This study of dyslexia, in English and Chinese, is crucially important for many reasons: linguistically, culturally, historically, socially, institutionally, cognitively–and neurobiologically.”” read the entire article here.

Reading Acquisition, Developmental Dyslexia, and Skilled Reading Across Languages: A Psycholinguistic Grain Size Theory, Psychological Bulletin Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association, 2005, Vol. 131, No. 1, 3–29

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s