“My belabored relationship with words”: dyslexia in different languages

posted by Sandeep

I willed myself into being him. I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined being able to sound out the words by putting the letters together into units of rhythmic sound and the words into sentences that made sense. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.

In a beautiful piece in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz writes about his struggle with dyslexia and how the utter difficulty of parsing and pronouncing words instilled within him a deep appreciation of the power of language.

Dyslexia — an umbrella term for a host of reading disabilities, but most commonly understood in English to be the struggle to pair letters to their sounds and form words — has been the subject of quite a lot of recent research. A lot of famous people have struggled with dyslexia. Many famous authors have struggled with the disorder. A lot more not-so-famous people are dyslexic, too — some have estimated that up to 15% of Americans are dyslexic.

The complexity of dyslexia belies its popular understanding. And because it can be difficult to properly diagnose, many dyslexics go through life thinking that they are simply unintelligent, rather than the bearers of a disorder.

Philip Schultz writes:

We know now that dyslexia is about so much more than just mixing up letters — that many dyslexics have difficulty with rhythm and meter and word retrieval, that they struggle to recognize voices and sounds. It’s my profound hope that our schools can use findings like these to better teach children who struggle to read, to help them overcome their limitations, and to help them understand that it’s not their fault.

There’s plenty of research on dyslexia in English (of course), but I’ve been curious — in a language that doesn’t use an alphabet — like Chinese, which uses logograms, or my native Kannada, which uses an alphasyllabary — how does dyslexia manifest itself?

Chinese is really different from English.

The character for Biáng-Biáng Noodles is one of the most complex Chinese characters. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most delicious Chinese characters.

In Chinese, the sheer complexity of characters, coupled with the fact that each character represents a morpheme (a language unit that has meaning–a word or part of a word) rather than a phoneme (a singular sound, not necessarily with meaning) creates unique problems for dyslexics. And because Chinese doesn’t use letters, a dyslexic can’t scramble letters the way an English dyslexic might.

In a study published in Nature in 2004, researchers suspected that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may be fundamentally different because the main skill in English reading is putting letters into sounds (phonics, of Hooked on Phonics fame) and the main skill in Chinese is the rote memorization of characters and their meaning. They found that different areas of the brain were activated in English dyslexics versus Chinese dyslexics. Furthermore, they found that the left middle frontal gyrus (previously implicated in Chinese character recognition) in Chinese dyslexics was smaller than Chinese non-dyslexics.

These researchers suggested that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may in fact be two different disorders because reading each language demands different things of the brain.

In a 2009 paper in Current Biology, researchers expressed a hunch that because Chinese requires the rote memorization of characters and their meanings, those who had trouble understanding particular characters might have trouble with visual-spatial processing as well as phonological processing. English dyslexics typically only show deficiencies in phonological processing.

During an fMRI activity, Chinese dyslexics showed less activation in a brain region associated with visual-spatial processing during a test in which subjects judged the relative size of objects, confirming that phonological and visual-spatial deficiencies may be uniquely coupled in Chinese dyslexics.

The logical next point is: If English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia are two fundamentally different disorders, can you be dyslexic in one language and not the other? The research says, probably. Understanding the differences between the two (or more?) types of dyslexia could be critical in developing language-specific therapies for dyslexics.

Spanish is pretty different from English, too.

This clean dichotomy of “two dyslexias” gets muddier when you consider the differences between dyslexia in English versus a language like Spanish or Italian, which use the same alphabet for different ends.

English and French are two languages whose pronunciation is not always intuited from the spelling of a word. As I explained in my previous post on Moammar Qaddafi, figuring out English pronunciation is pretty damn hard. French is notoriously hard, too. This is called deep orthography — pronunciation rules are highly varied. It requires more (social, contextual, memorized) knowledge to pronounce a word in deep orthographic languages.

Spanish and Italian, on the other hand, use a standardized system of pronunciation that varies very little within a dialect. Non-speakers of these languages can usually suss out pronunciations if they are given a set of rules, even if they don’t actually know the language. These are languages with shallow orthography.

A survey of studies (click for PDF) on the effect of shallow versus deep orthographies on developmental dyslexia has suggested that dyslexics who speak a shallow orthography language as their mother tongue have an advantage in overcoming dyslexia over deep orthography speakers.

What about other writing systems?

This Kannada character, /m/, has an inherent vowel, /a/, so it is pronounced /ma/.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much research done on dyslexia in other writing systems, such as alphasyllabaries (e.g., all Indian writing systems, such as Hindi [Devanagari script] and my native Kannada). In Indian alphasyllabaries, each consonant is written with an inherent vowel, and vowels are written separately, so one letter usually corresponds to one syllable in a word (with some exceptions).

My hunch is that dyslexics in alphasyllabary languages would have similar developmental issues to dyslexics of shallow orthography languages. In Indian languages, spelling-to-pronunciation is nearly one-to-one, similar to Spanish or Italian. In addition, although Indian writing systems are not alphabets, they are more similar to alphabets (in that they use letters to represent phonemes, not morphemes) than logogram systems. So, in the absence of research on the subject, I would guess that dyslexia therapy programs used in shallow orthography languages would translate well to Indian languages.

— — —

Philip Schultz writes that his [English] dyslexia inspired his love for language and poetry. I wonder if the same love can be developed by dyslexics in other languages, too.

… the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music …

I hope so. Schultz’s poetry is awesome.