A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it possible to be dyslexic in Chinese?

April 8, 2005

Dear Cecil:

Is it possible to be dyslexic in Chinese? Surely someone with dyslexia wouldn't be likely to misconstrue a word's meaning if that word were represented as a distinctive symbol as in Chinese, right? I mean, if you were to show a dyslexic a picture of a house, that person would still easily recognize it, even though he might have trouble deciphering the written word. Or am I totally in the dark about dyslexia?

PS: Is it true that the order of letters in a word is unimportant in reading, aside from the placement?

Cecil replies:

One thing at a time, bud. Your postscript refers to a bit of e-mail lore making the following contention: "Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm." This gave rise to a lively Internet debate, the upshot of which was that (a) the poeple at Cmabrigde had nveer haerd of tihs, and (b) the scrambling has to be done carefully if the text is to remain intelligible. (For one thing, you mix up key consonants at your peril.) To which I might add (c) none of this has jack to do with dyslexia--the fact that a normal reader can decode scrambled words tells you nothing about what a dyslexic would make of them. That said, (d) scrabmling ltteers wihle stlil pordcuing a radeable stneence is kidna fun.

OK, back to business. Your letter betrays a common misconception about dyslexia, namely that it boils down to scrambling letters. This leads some to reason: Chinese has no letters (one ideogram = one syllable = one concept); therefore, you can't be dyslexic in Chinese, right? No such luck. While it's true that letter reversal is common in English-speaking dyslexics, the term refers to any reading disability, and the Chinese have their share of folks who struggle to make sense of the written word. However, they seem to have fewer of them than we Anglophones. Some say 15 percent of English speakers are dyslexic, whereas only 7 percent of Chinese speakers are. (Others peg it at 5 to 6 percent English versus 1.5 percent Chinese, but same idea.) Why the difference? Not clear, but there are two schools of thought. School #1: It's because English dyslexia is totally different from Chinese dyslexia. School #2: It's because the two are the same.

For years the latter viewpoint had the upper hand. But last September a team of researchers led by Li Hai Tan published a paper in Nature saying: Not so fast. Li and friends performed brain scans of Chinese readers, both normal and dyslexic, who were taking reading tests. They found that normal Chinese readers show increased activity in the brain's left middle frontal gyrus, thought to specialize in remembering visual patterns (e.g., the thousands of Chinese characters), whereas Chinese dyslexics show less activity there. In contrast, readers of English show high activity in a different cranial district called the left temporoparietal regions, whereas English dyslexics show less.

The shrewd will now think: Jeez, sounds like you could be dyslexic in one language but not the other. Exactly. Commenting on Li's work in the Guardian, British neuroscientists Brian Butterworth and Joey Tang point to the case of Alan, who has English parents but was raised in Japan. Alan is severely dyslexic in English but has no problems reading Japanese. Naturally, say Butterworth and Tang. They think dyslexia is the same for everyone, and affects "phonemic analysis"--the ability to convert letters into sounds, which the reader then assembles into syllables, words, sentences, etc. Alan's problem presumably is that he's lousy at phonemic analysis but OK at the skills needed to decode Japanese. (Japanese, so we're clear, uses various scripts in addition to Chinese pictograms but still basically matches one symbol to one syllable.) Butterworth and Tang suggest that the dyslexia = sucks-at-phonemic-analysis theory also explains why there are fewer Chinese dyslexics: phonemic analysis is an extra step for which Chinese readers have less need.

Li's finding undercuts that idea, Butterworth and Tang concede--Chinese dyslexics seem to have a problem in an entirely different part of the brain from English dyslexics. You may say: So what? Here's so what. Given what we know about the brain (not much), anything that helps us get a handle on its inner workings has gttoa hlep.

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