Biology of Dyslexia Varies With Culture, Study Finds

Ronald Kephart rkephart at
Tue Sep 7 22:57:29 UTC 2004

At 6:05 PM -0400 9/7/04, Harold F. Schiffman wrote:
>NYTimes,  September 7, 2004
>Biology of Dyslexia Varies With Culture, Study Finds

My comments, which may or may not be entirely fair, but what the
heck, I'm already pissed off by spending what seems like a month
being battered by Hurricane Frances....

>Reading may be a uniquely human talent, but it is not an innate
>skill. Writing systems differ vastly from one culture to the next.
>Chinese, for example, is composed of thousands of logographic
>symbols, while English has a mere 26 alphabetical building blocks.

OK so far.

>A new study suggests that the biology underlying reading disorders
>may also vary by culture. Chinese speakers who suffer from dyslexia,
>the study found, have different brain abnormalities than English
>speakers who are dyslexic....


>  ...The results suggest that the treatments for English speakers
>with dyslexia might not be effective for those who speak other
>languages and have the disability.

Also, maybe... But suddenly they've used the word "speak" when they
really (I think) mean "speak other languages *that use different
kinds of writing systems*." And then...

>"...But the Chinese language is so different from English and other
>alphabetical languages  that we assumed that the neurobiological
>basis could not be the same."

Huh?!~?##!!? There's so such thing as an "alphabetic" language.
Furthermore, the Chinese *language* (or rather, the languages lumped
together ideologically as "Chinese") is no more different from
English than it is from any other human language.

>...But those studies looked only at dyslexics who spoke
>alphabet-based languages, like English, German and French. Learning
>to speak Chinese is a different mental task, Dr. Tan said, requiring
>the memorization of about 5,000 to 6,000 characters, each
>corresponding to a different word.

Again, the confusion between *speaking* a language and *reading* it. Aaarrgh!

>As a result, dyslexic Chinese speakers have trouble converting
>symbols into meanings, not letters into sounds.

Fluent readers of English and other alphabetic writing systems do NOT
"convert letters into sounds." They treat words, and even larger
blocks, as meaning-bearing units.

>... "If you think about Chinese, it requires much more visual
>processing than English, which relies more on stringing sounds
>together," said Dr. Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the
>Study of Learning at Georgetown University...

Again, a misunderstanding of what fluent readers actually do (could
this be one reason why "learning" is in such bad shape in the US?).

Anyway, I can't go on with this. I will say that it seems perfectly
plausible that different kinds of dyslexia (if indeed there are such)
might underlie reading problems in English and Chinese. Or, that the
*same* underlying dyslexia would produce different kinds of observed
problems between the two systems in terms of reading. But to confuse
knowledge of language, which is universal, with ability to read, as
these people seem to do, is something even my intro students learn
not to do.


PS: An interesting study, done years ago, gave some African-American
kids who were poor readers the opportunity to read English using
Chinese characters (English is a relatively isolating language, not
as much so as "Chinese" (of course we all know there's no such
"thing" as "Chinese," right?), but enough that it worked. If I recall
correctly, the kids rapidly surpassed their previous reading scores,
suggesting that it was the English writing system, rather than any
inherent problem in the children, that had caused their difficulties.
I can look up the ref if anyone wants it.

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