Dyslexia in alphabetical languages "evaporates" when learning Chinese for some people

A paper by the University of Hong Kong's Li-Hai Tan and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that people who are dyslexic in one language may not have problems with other languages -- particularily if the dyslexia is in a alphabetically written language as opposed to a symbolically written one:
People suffering from dyslexia may find that their problems evaporate when they learn a new language, especially one that works with symbols very different from their native one. A study released yesterday reveals that brain abnormalities in English-speakers with dyslexia are quite different from those in people who speak Chinese. So it's very possible that a person who is dyslexic in Chinese wouldn't be in English, and vice versa.
Link (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. And, interestingly, in the title of this very post the word “dyslexia” is misspelled.

  2. Argh, I was going to make that humourous statement! I thought I had a good chance of getting in with it too since there was only one comment…these things are sent to try us.

  3. I understand that dyslexia is less of a problem in for example Italy as Italian is completely logical and consistent in terms of spelling and pronunciation, in comparison with English (rough, through, thorough, ought etc.)

  4. Who knows exactly which side of the brain works with drawing and which side works best with letters? And why? I have no clue but I always heard about it. Also, your mother tongue, the one a dislexic is dislexic about, is using the left (or rigt) side while a language learned as an adult is on the other side. And so on…
    Then there is a more general query: is it that the brain imagery shows he result of a more general learning process and that genes might not be so much involved as might be a general behavioural pattern or a social hability?

  5. IAN_MXYZ is right: a very similar finding to this one was published in Science several years ago, showing that the probability of diagnosing dyslexia was related to the complexity of the orthography-to-phonology mapping in a language (bad for English speakers; good for Italians):

    Science 16 March 2001:
    Vol. 291. no. 5511, pp. 2165 – 2167
    Dyslexia: Cultural Diversity and Biological Unity

    E. Paulesu, J.-F. Démonet, F. Fazio, E. McCrory, V. Chanoine, N. Brunswick, S. F. Cappa, G. Cossu, M. Habib, C. D. Frith, U. Frith

    The recognition of dyslexia as a neurodevelopmental disorder has been hampered by the belief that it is not a specific diagnostic entity because it has variable and culture-specific manifestations. In line with this belief, we found that Italian dyslexics, using a shallow orthography which facilitates reading, performed better on reading tasks than did English and French dyslexics. However, all dyslexics were equally impaired relative to their controls on reading and phonological tasks. Positron emission tomography scans during explicit and implicit reading showed the same reduced activity in a region of the left hemisphere in dyslexics from all three countries, with the maximum peak in the middle temporal gyrus and additional peaks in the inferior and superior temporal gyri and middle occipital gyrus. We conclude that there is a universal neurocognitive basis for dyslexia and that differences in reading performance among dyslexics of different countries are due to different orthographies.

  6. Regas, almost everybody (close to 100% of right handers, and about 95% of left-handers) has language mainly lateralized in the left hemisphere. No one really knows exactly why: there are some (weak) anatomical differences between the hemispheres, and also some neuronal differences that may be part of the explanation. We know they aren’t the whole explanation because language can (and routinely does) switch hemispheres in infants who suffer major left-hemisphere brain damage. Some language functions (especially have to do with holding two meanings in mind: as in understanding sarcasm, irony, humour) are usually right-lateralized. Drawing isn’t lateralized. It is not true that your second (or Nth; N => 2] language switches hemispheres; there is lots of evidence showing that all languages are left-lateralized and rely on roughly, although not exactly, the same tissue. It is possible to lose one language and not another following brain damage like stroke.

  7. Somehow I suspect that learning Chinese, from zero to the point of fluency, would present much more of a challenge to a dyslexic than simply dealing with dyslexia in their native language(s). Might present an argument for a natively e.g. English/Chinese bilingual kids to preferentially use one language over another in a given context, though? Though there are plenty of other reasons for that already, I suppose.

  8. The article is a bit confused on the relation between writing and speaking a language. It’s not a one-to-one relation; if you speak English you don’t de facto read English, and if you speak “chinese” (i.e. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc.) you don’t automatically read “Chinese.” You can write Chinese with “english” spelling (Pinyin, etc.) and you could, theoretically, write English with “chinese” spelling. Writing systems are just a recent technical innovation for recording spoken language… Sort of a proto-tape recorder.

    Also, note that a Chinese character is often directional – left-to-right, top-to-bottom, etc. Also, there is some phonological mapping with Chinese characters (the sounds of the spoken language do sometimes have a relation to the writing system).

    The finding is interesting, it’s just the interpretation that can be tricky. The devil is always in the details, yes?

  9. Written Chinese is more than just Chinese characters, though. What I mean to say is that substituting 26 Chinese characters at random for our English alphabet would hardly make written English meaningfully different — it would just make it considerably more difficult to write by hand.

  10. Shouldn’t we also be dropping the stupid label of “brain abnormalities”? A difference is not necessarily an abnormality.

  11. This is something that I have personally experienced. I have a mild form of dyslexia and have struggled with foreign languages all my life.

    When I entered college I knew that I had to take 2 years of a foreign language and that terrified me. I knew that I wasn’t going to do well considering that I had almost flunked out of Spanish and French in High School. I told a teacher my fears and she suggested that I take Chinese because studies suggested that problems wouldn’t transfer over.

    I started Chinese and excelled at it. I learned to speak and write without a whole lot of difficulty. It was amazing to finally understand another language so easily. As a result, I passed two years of foreign language.

  12. I’d hate to be the one to say this, but OLD, OLD, OLD, OLD. My 5 year old psych survey textbook mentions this, and so did my linguistics book. Reading Chinese and alphabetic languages uses completely different sections of the brain; it’s as simple as that.

  13. This reminded me about someone my father met years ago. This person was a native Spanish speaker who stuttered, so he went to England for treatment; after finishing it, he was able to speak normally in English, but he still stuttered while talking in Spanish.

  14. Dyslexic agnostics aren’t sure whether or not to believe in Dog.

    My children love that joke so much, they say “Oh my Dog” to show surprise instead of “Oh my God”.

  15. Chinese is written top-to-bottom; most (all?) alphabetic languages left-to-right. I wonder whether these studies have figured out to what extent that (rather than the different symbols) accounts for the difference.

  16. Actually, this isn’t that new; in addition to Chinese characters (Hanja), written Korean (Hangul) has been considered as well since it combines the characteristics of an alphabet as well as the graphic characteristics of a syllabary (like Chinese). See the following articles (from a college paper done on this back in 1990):

    Park, Sonja and Tannis Arbuckle (1977). “Ideograms versus Alphabets: Effects of Script on Memory in ‘Biscriptural’ Korean subjects.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3 (6), 631-642.

    Biederman, Irving and Yao-Chung Tsao (1979). “On Processing Chinese Ideographs and English Words: some implications from Stroop-Test Results.” Cognitive Psychology 11, 125-132.

    Tzeng, Ovid J.L., Daisy L. Hung, and William S.Y. Wang (1977). Speech Recoding in Reading Chinese Characters. Journal of Experimental Psychology 3(6), 631-642.

    Tzeng, O.L. & Wang, W. S.-Y. (1985). The First Two Rs: the way different languages reduce speech to script affects how visual information is processed in the brain. In H. Singer and R.B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (3rd ed.) (209-225). Newark: International Reading Association.

  17. As a dyslexic…

    I read in symbols … I do not sound out words most of the time when I read … unless the word is new to me … I kind of memorize the shape of words i.e S-T-O-P is “STOP” the shape…

    Hand writing is a total pain … My spelling completely sucks .. but thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for spellcheck …. changed my life.

    Figured out how to teach myself at an early age …. the school system diagnosed it after I moved to a new school when I was in the 10th grade (I did not figure out I was any different till 7th grade myself, but really had no idea what was up till they told me later) … as a 10th grader I had to take both 9th grade English and 10th grade English both at the same time … same with History (I knew what happened in history … just screwed by essay questions before mass spellcheck) …. On the Flip ….at math I completed the highest level available that very same year. Half the teachers saw me as a prodigy the other half as an idiot.

    Some see it as weakness, I count it as a blessing.

    I get other skills…
    Like spotting an error in a block of code faster than anyone I know …
    I am a great reverse engineer I seem to naturally approach things backwards.
    I can play almost any song on the guitar while I hear it for the first time(most of the time anyway… some songs are like 25,000 piece jigsaw puzzles… the is force-fed Clear Channel crap is more like an 8andUnder puzzle.) My friends joke it is guitar hero master level…that is along with all the other joeks and fnu at my expense ;)

    My friends have fun with the right – left jokes when I am driving (WATCH OUT ON THE LEFT!) always cracks them up … though somehow I always know my North, South, East, West while they are lost …. its a different crutch I guess … some sort of natural or subconsciously learned compensation. I do not mean to imply that you could drop me off blind folded in the middle of the woods and I could point North either … it is just how I roll.

    I have to start to sign my name for about 1 sec (hand starts a barely noticeable flinch) to determine what side some one is referring to when they say “on your right”. If they say “on your left” I need to start by identifying my right… then go with the opposite … ask me again 2mins later I will have to start all over … its kind of like a short circuit … the easiest way to get me frazzled is to bark left right commands at me … seriously I get like a deer caught in headlights… that then starts trying to guess.

    I am excited to try Chinese … and as mentioned in posts above reading, writing, and verbalizing are all separate cans of worms. I need to find and online course and try.

    Dyslexics of the world untie under one DOG!

    P.S. How do you retrieve your “username” at BoingBoing?

  18. I think more study is needed if this was the overly simplistic conclusion they got.

    Alphanumeric alphabets are series’ of symbols that work in sequential combinations to form words, where what is described as *symbolically written languages* use each symbol as a word which is then used in sequence with others to form sentences.

    Or is my understanding overly simplistic?

    My reference is Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ and his telling of the history of drawing & how drawings became writing.

  19. I actually looked this up tonight and it answered my question in one post. Mostly it sounds pretty correct.
    I moved to Korea a month ago (as a English teacher) and am trying to learn Hangul. Being illiterate in any language royally stinks, I decided to see if I couldn’t teach myself Korean. And promptly embarassed myself at work two days ago when the Korean staff caught me sounding out the labels of food products in the breakroom. And also discovered that I was flipping the symbol for ‘k’ and ‘n’ ~20% of the time (flipping changes a ‘k’ to an ‘n’ and vice versa). I also occasionally flip the ‘o’ and the ‘u’ symbols. However it was the only thing that has caused my dyslexia act up in Korean. So it really does vary from alpha languages to symbolic languages. It just isn’t always a 100% fix.
    How I wish they had spell check for white boards. As an English teacher in Korea I would pay a fortune for one. You would not believe how quickly my Korean students spot a spelling mistake (but not a verb tense problem). And as you know dyslexia gets worse when you are tired and have to write fast.

  20. Hi everyone. I’m doing a research about how learning difficulty in first language(English) affect foreign language learning. As a language teacher, I want to find the best ways to teach this group of students. Please take your time and participate in the short survey. It will take only a few minutes to complete all the questions. You can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NDYJCJF. (available from April 1, 2011 to April 30, 2011) I truly appreciate your help!

Comments are closed.