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    Wired Science: Neural Insights on Dyslexia

    “The Wall Street Journal” had an interesting take on how we learn to read. Neuroscientists who have studied reading disorders are taking a stab at the relation between language and reading. Some novel concepts have emerged through the studies. For example, studies of school-aged children suffering from dyslexia, who were fluent in more than one alphabet, had no trouble in another language.

    Dyslexia is a disorder in which letters are mixed up, leading to trouble reading and writing. A “p” might look like a “q,” or it might be hard to differentiate between a “b” and a “d.” Several scientists contend that the prime area of trouble is the English language. In the United States, dyslexia is twice as prevalent as Italy, affecting over 10 million children.

    According to neuroimaging studies, demands of reading tapped on parts of the brain that were untouched by the English alphabet in children who had grown up reading and writing Chinese. Hong Kong Research University’s psychologist, Dr. Li Hai Tan, claims that the same is true in dyslexia, where the problematic areas are not involved in reading other alphabets.

    Other researchers found that when readers of English and Chinese looked at the same written characters, their brain activity differed. Even standard arithmetic Arabic numerals, used universally among both readers, activated different regions of the brain based on which of the two languages had first been learned.

    Tan was quoted as saying that “we may regard dyslexia in Chinese and English as two different brain disorders because completely different brain regions are disrupted. It’s very likely that a person who is dyslexic in Chinese would not be dyslexic in English.”

    The research is unique in that it sheds light on previous assertions. English, along with 218 other languages, shares somewhat of the same Latin characters. Although this is only one of the 60 different writing systems used by some 6,912 spoken languages worldwide, it was assumed that the neural response was universal to the written word. Tan’s research, of course, claims otherwise.

    The reason for this might be simpler than expected. Learning Chinese strains memory a lot more than learning English (just ask any second language learner). We make greater use of motor control and visual-perception circuits, which are located toward the front of the brain.

    The only way to master the 6,000 or so Mandarin and Cantonese characters is through rote memorization by copying them over and over again. Furthermore, each character is so much more intricate than its English counterpart that the process is painstakingly laborious and a Chinese alphabet song is not as easily possible.

    The incoming president of the International Dyslexia Association has summed it up well: “We have to recognize that the writing system in China is different, the demands on the brain are different and the characteristics of dyslexia are different.”

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