How dyslexia is changing in other languages (2023)

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How dyslexia is changing in other languages (1)

By Sophie HardachMarch 10, 2023

Writing in English can be challenging, even if it's your first language.


Alex loved books and languages. His parents were native English speakers and the family lived in Japan, so Alex spoke English at home and Japanese at school. However, at age 13, Alex was diagnosed with dyslexia, alearning difficultiesthis affects reading and writing. According to the test results, her reading level in English was that of a six-year-old.

The results were a shock. “The test came and they said that, in fact, your writing sucks”, remembers Alex. “I thought it was going well. Yes, there was a bit of a struggle, but I assumed everyone was struggling. In fact, the numbers that came out were pretty devastating from my point of view.”

The even bigger surprise for the researchers was his performance in the other language he used. When he was tested in Japanese at age 16, his literacy was not very good. It was excellent.

"We compared their Japanese test scores with those of 20-year-old Japanese university students," says Taeko Wydell, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Brunel University London and one of the researchers studying thestudied alexs fall in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I was often equal and sometimes better than these college students. So he was a good Japanese reader.” His writing style was also very good.

Alex himself was not particularly surprised by the results of the Japanese test, after all, he liked to read a lot. What confused him the most was the fight with the Englishman. As he showed on the test: “I spoke very well and my vocabulary was large, but I couldn't write to save my life. It was a blow to my confidence, but also intriguing."

How was this dramatic contrast possible when you consider that dyslexia is generally thought of as an innate problem,lifetime condition?

The answer lies in how our brain processes writing and how different languages ​​are written.

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How dyslexia is changing in other languages (2)

A boy practices Japanese calligraphy (Credit: Getty Images)

For those of us who read with ease, it may come as a surprise to hear how hard our brains have to work to understand the marks on a page. Reading requires good thingsverbal memory, For example. In English, readers also need to know what sounds different letters represent and how those sounds form words, a skill known as phonological awareness.

Children with dyslexia often have problems with this. You may not be able to tell whichthe sounds make up the word "hot",how they differ from "hat" and what word you get if you change the "h" to a "p". To this day, Alex (who prefers not to give his full name for privacy reasons) says he has trouble telling similar words like "spear" and "spare" apart. He also finds reading aloud particularly difficult as it involves an additional layer of phonological processing.

This phonological difficulty is evident in scripts with more image-based characters, such as B. Japanese writing is less problematic.

But that is not all. First of all, Japanese also has written words. And yet those words are still easier to spell than they are in English, and not just for Alex. That's because Alex's story is a dramatic example of a much broader phenomenon that affects people of all abilities: how well you read and write can depend on the language you use.

Children who speak languages ​​as diverse as Welsh, Spanish, Czech, Finnish and many others learn to read faster than English speakers.

For example, consider how long it takes children to learn to read in different languages, more specifically in different spellings (spelling systems).

"There's a lot of evidence that learning to read in English simply takes longer because it's more difficult than other spellings," says Karin Landerl, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Graz in Austria.

Children who speak languages ​​as diverse as Welsh, Spanish, Czech, Finnish and many others tend to learn to read faster than English speakers.

welsh childrenhe canread more wordsin Welsh than English children of the same age in English. In Finland, most children cana few monthsuntil enrolling in school, while English-speaking children take much longer. A study comparing learning to read in childrenEnglish, Spanish and Czechfound that reading skills in the latter two languages ​​increased significantly shortly after school started, while English-speaking children progressed more slowly.

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How dyslexia is changing in other languages (3)

Bank in Bogota, Colombia, with Spanish and English embassies inviting passers-by for coffee (Credit: Getty Images)

One of the reasons is that English is written in a confusing way. While the English pronunciation of many words has changed over time, the spelling remains the same, says Landerl. "And English has always been very tolerant of other languages ​​and tends to adopt foreign words along with their original spellings."

As a result, the way a word appears on the page may not match the pronunciation. The same sound can be written in different ways (like the "ite" sound in light and kite), and the same letters can be read with a completely different sound (like the "ea" in steak, meat, learn, bread). Wydell points out that "ink" is always consistent: think, sink, pink, etc. But "int" seems to be consistent... even to say: mint, fuzz, hue, but then: ink. There are words like yacht that you simply have to remember, but also words like cat that you can read letter by letter.

"If you're trying to learn to read in English and you don't have good phonological awareness, an awareness of spoken language sounds, it can cause enormous difficulties," says Landerl. "Because you don't understand how letters and sounds fit together."

In languages ​​such as Finnish, Hungarian, Basque,welsh, albanian, Spanish, Czech, Italian and German, the letters and sounds are combined much more consistently. They are called transparent spellings. For example, let's take the Spanish word monte, which means mountain, it's m-o-n-t-e, and you can read it letter by letter and get a correct, predictable result.

Because they are so consistent, there is little phonological awareness.less obstructivein these languages, suggests the research by Landerl and his team. Children who are not so good at recognizing sounds can still learn to read in them. For example, German-speaking children with dyslexia can "readrelatively high accuracy. They are very slow to read, but they can understand," says Landerl.

According to Landerl, this slow reading can be a serious handicap in itself, even preventing children from reading. But it's different from the hurdles faced by English-speaking children with dyslexia, who may not be able to identify a word. Research has shown that an inconsistent spelling system canworsen some symptoms of dyslexia.

Even those of us who think we read English well are still making a hidden effort.eye trackingResearch has shown that English adults' eyes linger longer on each word, as if they are really trying to decipher the whole unit. In transparent languages, the eyes simply follow the letters and slowly decipher the words.

English isn't the only language that places these special demands on the brain. Danish spelling is similarly inconsistent (as are Danish children).take longer to learn to read, compared to children in more uniformly written languages). French falls somewhere in the middle, with certain predictable patterns, but also words you just have to remember, like "monsieur".

The spelling chaos may help explain why Alex had such trouble with English. But why was he associated with the Japanese?

How dyslexia is changing in other languages (4)

A contestant writes Japanese calligraphy during a New Year's calligraphy contest in Tokyo (Credit: Getty Images)

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In some ways, Japanese has a more complicated writing system than English. It consists of three scripts: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

Kanji is written in characters originally imported from China. These characters usually have a Chinese and Japanese pronunciation. For example, the word for "mountain" is written as 山 and read as "san" (derived from Chinese) or "yama" (Japanese).

Alex says it's much easier for him to read kanji than English words, in part because "you can see the meaning of a character before you read it". That means you can see that a character is a mountain or a fish, or maybe he has a little fish to show he's dealing with fish. In contrast, in English you need to understand the whole word and its sound and then figure out the meaning.

Hiragana and katakana, on the other hand, are composed of characters that represent syllables. These scripts are very consistent: for example, the hiragana character ね is pronounced "ne". Hiragana is the first script taught to Japanese children, says Wydell: "It's no secret that childrenlearn to read hiragana, and then just katakana. By the end of the first year of school, 95% of children can read and write hiragana."

Alex doesn't even remember learning hiragana: "It just happened so naturally." He never struggled with it.

According to Wydell, it's not such a big hurdle in Japanese that it's difficult to process sounds like Alex's. But there can be other problems: "In Japanese, you have to be good at visuospatial processing because you have to fit all these characters into a little square," he says. "When Japanese children have problems with visuospatial processing, they are more likely to have difficulty reading and writing Japanese," particularly kanji characters.

In fact, a study of Cantonese-speaking dyslexic children found that some could readfluent english, and struggled with image-based Chinese writing.

However, children with deficits in phonological and visuospatial processing would find it difficult to write in both English and Japanese, says Wydell.

How dyslexia is changing in other languages (5)

Hong Kong neon signs with Chinese and English characters (Credit: Getty Images)

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Because of these differences between writing systems, learning to read two languages ​​can offer surprising benefits.

Marie Lallier is a Specialist in Educational Neuroscience at the Basque Center for Cognition, Brain and Language in San Sebastián, Spain. She and her team studied two groups ofbilingual children in the Basque Country: a French and Basque speaking group on the French side of the border and a Spanish and Basque speaking group on the Spanish side. The children learned to read in both languages.

The researchers tested their reading skills in Basque and with made-up words like 'umke', which the children couldn't read simply by memorizing them beforehand, but had to decipher them letter by letter. They found that children used different reading strategies depending on whether their second language was French or Spanish.

Learning a second language from an early age can be a huge help for children with reading difficulties - Marie Lallier

Essentially, the Franco-Basque children used a more 'French' reading style, considering the words as a whole, good for French words that cannot be deciphered letter by letter, and also good for familiar Basque words they already knew.

Hispanic Basque children tend to decipher words letter by letter, which works for Spanish and Basque as both are transparent.

Each style gave children a different benefit.

The French-influenced whole-word approach helped Franco-Basque children read a text containing familiar Basque words quickly and accurately. Although the text was in Basque rather than French, their basic word-memorizing skills helped them. "They made fewer mistakes when reading Basque [familiar] words compared to other groups," says Lallier. "But the other group made fewer mistakes when reading new [invented] words that require you to decipher them letter by letter."

A second reading strategy can also have other benefits. Another study by Lallier focused on thisWelsh-English bilingual adults with dyslexiaand monolingual English speakers with dyslexia. Welsh-English bilinguals were better at deciphering new words, because Welsh gave them more practice in this type of reading strategy.

“Learning a second language early on can be a huge help for kids with reading problems,” says Lallier, especially if that language is transparent and encourages their decoding skills.

When talking to Alex about his diagnosis of dyslexia as a teenager, he realizes another advantage of a second language: self-confidence.

"Having the Japanese to turn to was a loss of confidence, but it wasn't the end of the world," he says. His attitude was, "Well, I have problems, but at least I can speak the language [English] and I have another language [Japanese] that I can read comfortably."

Today he lives in Japan and speaks both English and Japanese on a daily basis. It uses technology like spell checkers to avoid English spelling mistakes. And although he finds it more tiring to read in English than Japanese, he enjoys reading books in both languages ​​and sometimes even comparing translations. On the one hand, the fact that his formal education was not in English and that his English dyslexia was diagnosed relatively late meant that he might have missed skills that would have helped him earlier. On the other hand, he also sees an advantage: “I only recognized the struggle when I had a good and healthy self-esteem with which I could face it”.


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