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September 4, 2004

BehindTheMedspeak: Got Dyslexia? Learn Chinese


Robert McGough's story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal caught my eye.

It seems that brain scans of Chinese children reading light up differently than those of Western children reading Western languages.

The study, published this week as a letter to the journal Nature,


suggests that specific brain miswiring leading to dyslexia in an English reader might not do so in a Chinese one.

Here's the Wall Street Journal story.


Dyslexia Manifests Differently For Chinese Readers

Scientists scanning the brains of Chinese children as they read have found that the Chinese writing system puts demands on some different parts of the brain than Western alphabetical writing systems.

The study by Chinese and U.S. scientists, published as a letter to the journal Nature, was said by the researchers to be the first to scan the brains of dyslexic Chinese readers.

It suggests that helping dyslexics in China will require different methods than those used in the West.

The study also lends tentative support to the possibility that specific brain miswiring leading to dyslexia for an English reader might not lead to dyslexia for a Chinese reader.

Dyslexia is a severe reading disability in people of normal schooling and intelligence.

Li-Hai Tan, senior author of the study, and an associate professor of Linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, said an estimated 2% to 7% of the Chinese population is dyslexic.

Estimates of dyslexia in the U.S. usually run from 5% to 12%.

The lead author on the study was Wai Ting Siok, also at the University of Hong Kong.

In the study, MRI scans were done of 16 Chinese children from 10 to 12 years old, including eight normal readers of Chinese and eight with reading difficulties.

The researchers found differences in the functioning of brains of the normal and dyslexic readers, just as differences have been found in brain scans of English-speaking readers.

However, the regions used by the normal and dyslexic Chinese readers were in some instances distinct from the brain areas used by readers of Western, alphabetic languages.

Brain-imaging studies of dyslexic Western readers have found deficits in the left temporoparietal region of the brain, located toward the middle and upper part of the brain on the left.

That is where the brain maps alphabetical symbols to phonemes, or the sounds that letters represent.

The dyslexic Chinese readers ran into trouble in a different part of the brain known as the left middle frontal gyrus, located toward the front of the brain on the left.

That area of the brain is known to map written symbols to meaning, and written symbols to syllables.

The researchers said differences in Chinese writing from Western writing account for the different work done by the reading brains.

Chinese characters contain elements indicating both symbolic meaning and pronunciation of syllables, which are larger and more complex sounds than the sounds indicated by letters in an alphabet.

Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, in Washington, called the study "important and innovative."

She added: "Reading is not a skill that is innate, and hence the mechanisms that the brain will draw upon to accomplish this task are likely to differ depending on the demands of a particular writing system."

In Hong Kong, Dr. Tan said, intervention programs for dyslexic children "all follow Western traditions, emphasizing phonological awareness of spoken words."

The new study suggests shifting the emphasis to teaching "effective links among visual shape, sound and meaning of characters."

He also said that some dyslexics in English and other alphabetic languages might fare better through a "whole word" approach to reading, a technique that has declined in favor in recent years compared with phonetic teaching methods.

Dr. Tan said one prior study had found that some dyslexic English-reading children were able to quickly master "the English equivalents of Chinese characters."

He said the differences in demands on the brain found in the current study could account for that intriguing ability.

September 4, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


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I actually did a degree in Oriental languages, and somewhere in the middle of it realised I had Dyslexia and Asfedia.
I had, long before coming across this study, been using my Chinese and Japanese dictionaries almost instinctively to help me understand words that seemed vague and that had rambling and unspecific definitions in English dictionaries.
Now, as an engineering degree student I use my Chinese technical dictionary as a matter of course for mnemonicising concepts in Physics and Engineering, even formulas.
I have now begun compiling my own experience to write some unique books and a website on Maths and Physics for GCSE and A-Level up to university level, since such resources simply don't exist.

(York, Great Britain)

Links of use:

Posted by: jack macdaddy | Jun 28, 2006 9:54:06 AM

A lot of tools to learn chinese:

Posted by: SKii | Feb 22, 2005 11:31:44 AM

I think this research is invaluable in helping to change the way children are taught in school. My daughter has had mild learning difficulties for years, undiagnosed. These challenges were highlighted every time she was required to take foreign language classes. She has now been taking Chinese (Mandarin) for the last year and is excelling. As parents we were very surprised, as both French and Malay were extremely difficult for her. Chinese is considered very difficult to learn, but unlike other subject areas, it is picture based and just makes incredible sense to my daughter.

Posted by: F M | Feb 15, 2005 6:58:12 AM

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