What is Chinese Dyslexia?

Thank god for trackbacks. A recent link from Harper’s Magazine (!) led us to their post, which in turn led us to this fascinating article about dyslexia among Chinese speakers.

For those who don’t know, dyslexia is actually a general term for a group of disorders “that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Most English-speakers are familiar with how this presents in English, but according to the article, the problem for English dyslexics is phonological. In essence, their brains have trouble “determining and manipulating the sound structure” of spoken language, which in turn affects their ability to map sounds onto written letters that are meant to correspond to spoken phonemes. In other words, English-speaker dyslexia isn’t simply scrambling letters around; it’s actually a disorder of sound assessment and manipulation that manifests itself through reading.

In Chinese, according to the latest research, this kind of phonological disorder coexists with a visuospatial disorder, i.e., the same problems with the processing of sounds exist but in addition there may also be problems processing the visual information that is conveyed in characters properly. How do we know this?

The researchers asked normal and dyslexic Chinese readers to judge the physical size of visual stimuli and found that normal readers performed significantly better than dyslexic readers. Brain scans showed that, compared with normal readers, dyslexics exhibited weaker activation in a portion of the brain known to mediate visuospatial processing. Crucially, Siok said, most Chinese dyslexics with the visuospatial problem also exhibited a phonological processing disorder, as demonstrated by their poor performance in a phonology-related rhyme judgment task, suggesting the coexistence of two disorders.

Apparently, this is something of a revelation, and it “presents a challenge to current theories to explain developmental dyslexia”, according to Li Hai Tan, one of the chief researchers. “Our results strongly indicate the need for a unifying theory of sufficient scope to accommodate the full complexity of the observed dysfunctions and interactions of the brain systems underlying reading impairments.”

Also interesting, and perhaps not surprising given the above, is a bit of Tan’s earlier research:

[Dyslexia] appears in a different region of the brain depending on whether someone is a native English or Chinese speaker.

In dyslexic Chinese children, less grey matter was detected in the area of the brain dedicated to identifying images and shapes. In the English-speaking children, the affected region is more closely associated with converting letters to sounds. The discovery was surprising to the researchers because like other common brain dysfunction, they had expected the problem areas to be the same across the board. It does seem to make logical sense, considering the strikingly different ways the two languages represent meaning. Asked if someone dyslexic in one language would necessarily be dyslexic in another, the lead researcher, Li-Han Tan, expressed doubt because “different genes may be involved in Chinese and English dyslexic readers.”

Fascinating, no? Moving for a moment to questions somewhat more fantastic, if the world develops as Joss Whedon predicts and English and Chinese become languages most people can speak both of fluently, can we look forward to a dyslexia-free future? Perhaps. Only one way to find out…

(Note: I can’t find a post on it but I’m sure Sinosplice has already done this, what with Mr. Pasden being a fancy linguist and all. If not, well then, consider yourself scooped, Mr. Pasden. You know, scooped by Harper’s Magazine. Pretty sure there’s no shame in that.)

0 thoughts on “What is Chinese Dyslexia?”

  1. “Our results strongly indicate the need for a unifying theory of sufficient scope to accommodate the full complexity of the observed dysfunctions and interactions of the brain systems underlying reading impairments.”

    There is such a unifying theory. The theory is that dyslexia is a syndrome.The basic description of a syndrome is first that there is a major or essential characteristic of this syndrome. For dyslexia the central characteristics are that there exist reading problems, perhaps as defined as slow and accurate reading with little fluency and poor comprehension.

    Part of what makes the idea of dyslexia as a syndrome appropriate is that it eliminates trying to put all of the characteristics into one complex bundle that is hard to evaluate.

    Once we’ve define the essential characteristics which basically states like dyslexia is this time to go on to the minor characteristics. The value of this is that minor characteristics may or may not exist in any individual. The identification of an individuals minor characteristics also identifies where the emphasis should be to help their particular problems.

    The difference between Chinese dyslexics and English dyslexics and the confusion about whether or not they are the same or different demonstrates the need of looking at dyslexia as a syndrome.

    English speakers who write about dyslexia often ignore the reality that a minority of dyslexics have visual problems that make reading difficult. If the specific visual problems that make reading difficult for some dyslexics were clearly indicated as minor problems that may or may not exist in the individual then they could be included in English speakers ideas about dyslexia.

    The reality of the fact that visual problems do not affect the majority of English-speaking dyslexics but do affect some would allow for a more comprehensive evaluation of the individual dyslexic.

    If Chinese dyslexics have a higher rate of visual problems that makes reading difficult for them, then using the concept that dyslexia is a syndrome with minor characteristics of visual problems that make reading difficult, no real differences would be seen between Chinese and English dyslexics as far as a diagnosis of dyslexia.

    The fact of the higher occurrence of visual problems in Chinese dyslexics compared to English-speaking dyslexics would, as it should, be easily explained by differences in the written languages.

    There would be no need to consider that dyslexia is different or more complex in Chinese readers rather than English readers. What would be noted is that visual problems are more common in languages that require more visual skills, such as Chinese and that phonological problems are more common in English dyslexics because English is more phonologically difficult.

    I don’t understand the dance around making sure that dyslexia is not considered as a syndrome. The fact that individual dyslexics do not have universal problems common to all dyslexics but rather very specific problems that are individually specific begs for the application of the concept of dyslexia being a syndrome.

    In my mind’s eye, I can imagine long laundry lists of minor dyslexia characteristics that after appropriate testing of those with the essential characteristics of dyslexia could be checked off as president or not present from the results of the tests of an individual dyslexic.

    Having the results of those tests by a parent or individual would form the basis of an individualized program for their reading problems that could be discussed with whoever is designing the program.

    My niche is visual dyslexia where I define having visual dyslexia as being able to describe visual problems that make reading difficult. Minor characteristics may be increased fluency with increasing text size or having some reading induced physical symptoms such as headaches were fatigued that occur with reading.

    I have designed universal visual dyslexia filters that […no ads in comments, if people are interested they can click on your name to visit your site -ed.]


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