If you’re dyslexic in English, are you dyslexic in Chinese? The answer could depend on what we know about these languages—and our brains.
Dyslexia is a learning disorder. The reader has difficulty linking a language’s proper speech sounds to letters and words. The brain struggles to learn how to automatically connect a word’s pronunciation with what it looks like on the page.
While scientists are still researching dyslexia’s exact causes, the general agreement is that a dyslexic brain has trouble combining visual and sensory information. Consider the process that our brain has to go through to read: break down the visual word into its individual letters, convert those letters to sounds, then blend the sounds to create the whole spoken word. This process of breaking down and blending can take a long time for someone with dyslexia.
But if you’re dyslexic in English, you might not have that trouble in Chinese. That’s because while English is an alphabetic language, using letters as the building blocks of words, Chinese is a logographic language. A logographic language uses written characters, instead of a combination of letters, to represent words. In order to know how a Chinese character is pronounced and what it means, you have to memorize the image of that character.
What effect does this have on dyslexia? In English, dyslexic children often struggle with the phonics approach to reading, whereas their ability to read logographically may well be unimpaired. Since logographic Chinese requires its readers to know the whole word at once, the difficulties for a dyslexic English speaker might not be as severe if they try to read in Chinese.