Dyslexia Differs by Language: Think Again!

A recent study of dyslexia, and how it affects different parts of the brains of children reading in English or Chinese, is gaining a lot of attention and being posed as another example of the "neurbiological clues" of dyslexia.


Here's the url for the Associated Press article by Randolph E. Schmid,"Dyslexia Differs by Language." http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/04/08/dyslexia-language.html

Studies of differential dyslexic rates and definitions have gone on for decades. The issue of this particular research study isn't just neurobiological, as the author of this article wants to stress, but the intertwined relationship of neurobiology, culture, and linguistics. Yet once again, the research is reported as if it is all about hard-wiring; once again, brain-determiism gets us in trouble.  We'll come closer to unraveling mysteries of phenomenon like dyslexia if we keep a better balance of mind, brain, and culture, each contributing in different ways to so-called learning disabilities (and learning abilities).


Given the discrepancy between the actual research study and the generalizations being made based on that study, we need to ask why scientists (or popular science writers) of our era are hard-wired not to understand how little in thehuman brain is actually hard-wired? Or, to be more accurate, how much of the brain's hardwiring is actually from what it does and how much of what it does is cultural, is based on what it/we learn.


That is, and I'll repeat this later, what we learn actually changes what the brain is and how it works. As many dyslexia (and stroke) studies have shown for at least two or three decades, Chinese-language-learning brains distribute linguistic and even motor functions differently than alphabetic-language-learning brains. Surprise! Brains don't exist independently of the people who possess them and people don't exist independently of their culture. Brain determinism forgets this crucial fact and wants to reduce neurobiology to genetics. That actually doesn't tell us very much in the end about brain function.


Take dyslexia. You cannot really understand dyslexia without knowing some historical and comparative linguistics. We've known for a long time that one form of dyslexia (the most classic form) is about the linkage is between speech and reading functions which, in character-based languages, are disaggregated. It is the impartial mapping of speech onto writing, sound and visual processing of semi-phonetic processes, that causes confusion, at least in some forms of classic dyslexia. This is also one reason why English-speakers have among the highest reported rates of dyslexia. English is among the least regular phonetic languages, with more radical variation than almost any other language. Historically, English is a confluence of different languages with radically different relationships between the grouping of letters and the pronounciation of sounds represented by those groupings. You have to keep switching "rules" to be able to read modern English.


Modern English blends Old English, French and German. The rules of those three languages are already conflicting, but modern English spelling wasn't firmed up until the 16th century, with the advent of mass printing. The first printers tended to be Dutch and tended not to know the English language they printed. They often put a Dutch cast and Dutch rules onto the manuscripts they received where, previously, there was no standard of consistency in spelling. The child who learns to read English "phonetically" today is having to filter out a lot of irregularity and even more dissonance between the written and the spoken language. "Sound it out!" the teacher says. Right. Think about it. Look at this short paragraph and think about consistent rules for sounding out just about anything here. (Or is it hear?)


There are some interesting studies in Chinese of how the regularizing of kanji characters in Communist China influenced dyslexia rates, not consistently but it definitely had an impact positively and negatively. In Japanese, there are studies of dyslexia and reading katakana and hiragana (the regular phonetic rendering scripts). The dyslexia rates for these phonetically rendered systems are very low. There are also some Japanese linguistic studies about the age of language acquisition and dyslexia. In Japan, you are about 13-14, in high school, before you are considered to know enough kanji to read a newspaper (the equivalent of functional literacy in Japan). And you are spending many hours a day, four or five even, learning to read and write than kids in the U.S. Additionally, learning to read and learning to write are highly integrated activities in Japan and China. You learn to read on a motor level as you learn to write.


The motor element is extremely important for dyslexia. If a Japanese or Chinese person is at loss for a word in conversation, they draw it in the air. And stroke patients lose different language and motor functions in Japan and China than they do in the U.S. when the stroke occurs in the same part of the brain.


The time involved in learning a character-based language systems like Chinese and Japanese used to be considered a bad thing, all that wasted time, all that practice, so inefficient, but now people think. Some recent theories of language acquisition and dyslexia are revising that idea and now suggest that the slower learning process, and the integration of motor and perceptual abilities, may be the foundation for all later kinds of thinking and also may result in fewer LD kids. In the US, we want kids to be reading at age 5-6, just as they are making the most traumatic transition of their young lives, into full-time schooling. In primary school, a Japanese child begins by learning how to address the writing implement. Really. The process is slower and more integrated into other social rules.


In the US, we expect a functional literacy at around 10-11. And we don't devote nearly as much time to reading/writing and we almost never acknowledge to kids that phonetics is problematic. So you have kids learning the authority of school at exactly the same time they're being told rules for pronunciation and reading that don't make sense. Maybe it's hard to explain to a kid that the rules are inconsistent because of the history of linguistics and mass printing in English. But you can emphasize that the rules are contradictory and point to places where memorization is pretty much the only way to get them right.


That fidgety first-grader who "doesn't get" the phonetics rules? He's right! He should not have to be told to suppress his alert, critical instincts. He or she should be applauded for good observational skills, praised for not accepting rules blindly when they don't make sense, and helped with other methods. He shouldn't be branded LD. (I keep using "he" because the majority of dyslexic kids in the US are male--and that may well be as much about authority as it is about brains, too.)


My ideal form of teaching never reduces kids to labels. It is inquisitive about those kids who are not seeing what we tell them they are supposed to be seeing--especially when we are not being realistic about what it is they are supposed to be seeing. But these are extremely complicated issues that are all about social forms, gender norms, institutional rules, and the ways literacy embodies those practices.


There is excellent research (including this study) on dyslexia, relative to different languages and language systems. But clearly we're not just talking about "brain." Mind and culture have a major role. So why demote such an important and interesting study to "genes" (which makes no sense at all) and "neurobiology." This is the malady of too much science in our age. Brain-determinism may well be the "phonics" of our age. Here, the narrative of neurobiology makes this exciting research less valuable than it should be.


In fact, this study underscores how the language we learn and how we learn it actually changes the brain. That's the mantra. The brain changes with learning--and learns from change. This study of dyslexia, in English and Chinese, is crucially important for many reasons: linguistically, culturally, historically, socially, institutionally, cognitively--and neurobiologically.

Mechelle DeCraene-Gilford


Cathy Davidson

Trickle Down Educational Funding?

I had no idea about the economic "trickle down" of special ed. I have had a friend who is a teacher of special needs students compare public education today to the war in Iraq in the sense that enormous amounts of public money are actually funding private firms that do testing, standards, and other services . . . our taxes are not going to the public schools and teachers and our kids. Tragic.


fascinating stuff

This is really interesting stuff for me.  Thanks for writing this article.  I have always felt that there is great value in the Chinese language.  I find myself teaching Chinese Mandarin and English as a second language these days.  It is hard to justify still teaching my children the traditional Chinese Mandarin versus simplified, but it is part of my cultural upbringing that is very compelling.  There is a sense of history that is intrinsically part of this language, which I hope people will not throw out, simply due to politics.  The way I understand it from my aunt, is that traditional Chinese is slower evolving as well, and this super conservative language has historical value in that we can go back thousands of years and still understand the old scripts, whereas mere centuries of the quick-changing latin scripts lead quickly to undecipherable texts that take scholars much work to understand.