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HomeApril 2023Issue 484The bilingual boy who showed us how language links to dyslexia

The bilingual boy who showed us how language links to dyslexia

Alex has been interviewed by the BBC,” a friend e-mailed me, sending a link to an article. Which Alex? As I clicked on the link it became clear – this is the boy I first heard of in the early 200Os. The one who showed us that dyslexia can be language specific. And who led us to discover Eng lish is among the hardest languages to read and spell in, especially if you have, as he does, the form of dyslexia related to phonemic awareness.

Alex, who does not want his surname revealed, is the son of two native English speakers. He grew up in Japan and attended Japanese schools. Fluent in his home language English, he was tested for dyslexia at the age of 13 and was found to have the reading level of a six-year-old.

“This test came along and they were like, actually, your writing is horrible,” Alex told the BBC in an article published this March. “I thought I was doing ok….in fact, the numbers that came out were quite devastating…”

Researcher were even more surprised, however when, three years later, they tested his Japanese. It was excellent. One of the original researchers told the BBC that his reading level at 16 was as good as that of a 20-yearold Japanese university student. Alex was not surprised but still worried about his English. “I could not spell to save my life.”

The research on Alex revealed, perhaps for the first time, that the manifestation of dyslexia varies according to the orthography, or writing system, used to encode the language. Alex’s form of dyslexia is related to phonological awareness – the ability to break up words into their constituent phonemes: to discriminate, for example, the sound in ‘hot’ which differs from the one in “hat”. To this day, he told the BBC, he has problems with similar-looking words like ‘spear’ and ‘spare.’

Learning to write in Japanese

Japanese has relatively few phonemes, just 20 compared to around 44 in some variants of English. So, there were fewer Japanese sounds for Alex to confuse. Another advantage of Japanese is its written forms are not alphabetic; they do not allocate a phoneme to a given letter.

Japanese uses three writing systems. The most familiar is made up of Chinese characters or Kanji which are not related to sound at all. Each character denotes a meaning and the word with that meaning can be composed of entirely different sounds even when spoken in different dialects of Chinese. So, phonemic awareness is not necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, reading difficulties in Chinese, we now know, are related to visual spatial awareness – an area in which Alex excels. Reading Kanji is easier for him because he can “recognise the meaning of a character before reading it.”

The other two systems of Japanese writing are related not to individual phonemes, but to syllables – or mora which is the Japanese equivalent. This kind of orthography is called a syllabary and Japanese has two: Hiragana which is used in children’s book, and Katagana, which is used to transliterate common loan words from other languages. Alex found both easy. It was the Roman alphabet he struggled with.

Writing systems which have one character for one syllable pose fewer problems to “phonemic dyslexics”. However, they can’t be used for languages with thousands of syllables. English has 15,00, there are only 100 mora in Japanese.

The case of Alex made researchers realise that different writing systems required different skills when it comes to reading. But surely that is not the case for languages which shared the same orthography.

Further research has found that even among languages which use the same, Roman, alphabet the reading process varies. In languages where a single morpheme is represented by a single grapheme, as is the case with for example, Spanish, Finnish and Welsh, children learn to read more quickly and far fewer children with phonemic awareness problems will show up as dyslexic. These are known as transparent languages and children learn to read in them by using a single ‘bottom up’ mental process: decoding.

Other languages like English. French and Danish, where there is not a one to one relationship between one letter of the roman alphabet and one sound, are known as opaque. The difference in complexity is stark: According to neuroscientist Sarah Jane Blakemore an Italian child uses just one process in reading, decoding, an English childuses up to seven!

As for Alex, he is living in Japan and still speaks both languages on a daily basis. He uses spellcheckers when he writes in English and, though he finds reading in English more tiring, he is an avid reader in both languages. Asked, 20 years on from his diagnosis, whether he regrets being diagnosed with dyslexia so late he says ‘no’. “I didn’t recognise the struggle until I had good, healthy self-esteem that I could tackle it with.”

Images courtesy of COPYRIGHT PEXELS.COM and Library
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