WSJ article | Unlocking Dyslexia in Japanese

By LINDA HIMELSTEIN

After her 12-year-old son spent two years at a specialized school for children with learning disabilities, Lisa Lunday decided he was ready for a more challenging, mainstream environment. The school she chose, however, required all students to study Japanese as part of its academically rigorous curriculum. Ms. Lunday was unsure how her son, who is dyslexic, would cope.

The result surprised her. The boy, now 13, excelled in his Japanese studies. His lettering of Japanese characters was sharp and distinct. That was in stark contrast to his writing in English, which appeared to be the work of a kindergartner. Sometimes his English letters were so poorly composed that they were hard to read, a common problem among dyslexics.

“I looked at his Japanese binder and was amazed at how perfectly formed everything was,” says Ms. Lunday, of San Mateo, Calif. “Just comparing two pieces of paper tells the story.”

Experiences like that of the Lundays are providing scientists and educators with clues about how people with dyslexia learn and how best to teach them. Researchers have long observed that some dyslexics have an easier time with languages like Japanese and Chinese, in which characters represent complete words or ideas, than they do with languages like English, which use separate letters and sounds to form words.

A 12-year-old dyslexic boy in San Mateo, Calif., has difficulty writing in English, his native language. But in his Japanese studies class he is able to compose characters sharply and distinctly. Scientists say Japanese symbols are more like pictures than letters, which can be easier for many dyslexics to reproduce.

DYSLEXIA

A 12-year-old dyslexic boy’s English assignment, where he defines the idiom ‘an eye for an eye.’

In the English assignment, the boy defines the idiom “an eye for an eye” as: Revenge or punishment exactly like the original crime or offense. He also writes a scenario: Bob traded an eye for an eye when he took his sister’s [the next word is unreadable] and she threw it at him.

DYSLEXIA

The boy’s Japanese characters are neatly formed.

The boy’s Japanese characters, left bottom, are neatly formed, as he practices symbols that represent syllable sounds, like ka and shi.

Now, recent brain-imaging studies are identifying possible reasons for the differences, and education experts say such research could point the way to improved teaching techniques.

“There are very real differences in the brain’s reading circuit for an alphabet as opposed to a language like Chinese,” says Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Dyslexics “think visually. They analyze patterns,” she says.

Character-based languages are mastered through memorization, a skill that dyslexics tend to rely on more than do typical language learners, says Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity in New Haven, Conn. And language characters are more like pictures than letters, which can be easier for many dyslexics to reproduce, she says.

Dyslexia, the most common of all learning disabilities, is a neurologically based disorder that causes difficulties in language-related tasks. It occurs regardless of a person’s intelligence or level of education. As many as one in five people have dyslexia to some degree, according to the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, a long-term study of about 450 school-age children that concluded in the early 2000s.

A study of school-age children published last year in Psychological Science compared how good readers and dyslexic readers learn language. Using brain-imaging technology, researchers at the Yale Center found that when people with dyslexia read in English they rely on the same region of the brain as do readers of kanji, a character-based language in Japan.

By contrast, a somewhat different region of the brain is used by good English readers as well as by children reading kana, another Japanese language, but one in which each character represents a sound, as in English.

“People with dyslexia have difficulty splitting words into their component sounds,” a skill known as decoding, says Claudia Koochek, the head of the Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, Calif., which specializes in teaching children with language-based disabilities.

Learning experts don’t suggest that studying Chinese or Japanese will help dyslexics learn to read English; there’s no getting around the fact that reading English well requires being able to identify and blend sounds. But improved understanding of the way dyslexics absorb character-based languages may help educators fashion curricula.

The Arrowsmith School, a Toronto-based school for children with learning disabilities, says it asks students as part of its reading program to memorize words and characters in a variety of languages, including Chinese.

Annette Goodman, Arrowsmith’s chief education officer, says the exercise is aimed at strengthening visual memory, one part of the brain dyslexics rely on for language tasks. That, in turn, can help them overcome some specific reading challenges, such as learning irregular English words that don’t follow typical letter patterns, like ‘school’ or ‘laugh,’ she says.

“The purpose is not to teach language. It is to treat dyslexia,” Ms.Goodman says.

Dr. Wolf, whose research center also teaches children with dyslexia, says that understanding the different ways in which dyslexics’ brains are wired has helped her adapt teaching programs for their needs. Repetition is important, she says, to help dyslexic kids memorize visual patterns of words and letters. Dyslexics may need 10 times as much exposure to the language patterns as do traditional learners, she says.

In dyslexics, some essential connections between the right and left sides of the brain are weaker or slower than in typical learners, Dr. Wolf says. To get around this, she says she attempts to simulate these connections by engaging the kids in a wide range of simultaneous exercises, including teaching letters, sounds, words and their meanings.

Dyslexics exhibit a wide range of problems with reading and writing language, and future research will be aimed at enabling teachers to tailor their approaches to each dyslexic learner, Dr. Wolf says. Through a combination of brain imaging, genetics, linguistics and educational know-how, she expects interventions will increasingly become early and personalized.

***

Dyslexia has a language barrier | Education | The Guardian

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

***

See also:

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

Japan Dyslexia Research Association | Kato Clinic | Japan – The International Dyslexia Association