Dyslexia Across Languages
One in ten people reading this will have difficulty doing so. But the most common learning disability remains an enigma in most languages.
In 2008, a Dutch graphic designer created Dyslexie, an English font for dyslexics. As time has progressed, more and more websites and programs are including dyslexic-friendly fonts in a movement to make technology more accessible to all.
You likely grew up knowing someone who was dyslexic, or maybe you yourself are dyslexic. As the most prevalent learning disability subtype, affecting 5-10% of the US population, dyslexia is relatively well known to the average American. But what about those who are multilingual?
The exigence behind this article came from a conversation I’d had with my own mother—a bilingual who had learned English in her late teens—in which she mentioned her tendency to mix up English letters and word order when reading. While this sounded like dyslexia, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was truly dyslexia or if it was simply the result of the struggles of learning another language. But the even bigger question it prompted was: Does dyslexia even exist in languages besides English?
The short answer: yes. But going deeper into the research reveals some interesting insight on how dyslexia presents itself in different languages with different writing systems.
First, however, a little background on how exactly dyslexia works. As the International Dyslexia Association describes, dyslexia is a “neurodevelopmental, often heritable, condition in which learning to read is disrupted by problems with the phonological components of reading." Dyslexia affects the brain’s ability to process visual information, but it does not affect vision itself.
Because dyslexia affects processing and not sight, those who use languages that are not reliant on visuals, like braille, can also be dyslexic.
Dyslexia also affects an individual’s ability in all languages they may speak, though the type of struggle faced in each language differs in form and scope. And those with dyslexia who are trying to learn a new language may find that they are struggling more than those who are not dyslexic.
However, whether or not learning another language can worsen a dyslexic individual’s language processing is uncertain. While the effect of bilingualism on dyslexia is contested—some argue that speaking multiple languages is beneficial to dyslexics while others claim it only hinders learning—one thing is for certain: dyslexia is not caused by bilingualism nor does being bilingual increase the risk for dyslexia. Unfortunately, however, many dyslexic children who are also bilingual do not get diagnosed until later on, as their struggles with language are often misinterpreted as difficulties with learning multiple languages at once.
Dyslexia can exist in any language system, but its presentation and its prevalence varies. The English language’s history of being an amalgamation of many different languages makes it inconsistent in spelling and pronunciation, earning its reputation as one of the harder languages to read and learn compared to other European orthographies.
It’s estimated that more than 1 in 10 people who grew up with English as their first language are dyslexic.
Languages with different writing systems, like Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, use different regions of the brains to read and write compared to English. These languages both use logographic systems; each word is its own individual character and is not comprised of individual letters that can be sounded out phonetically. Reading and writing in these languages is taught much differently than phonetic languages and rely heavily on verbal and muscular memory. As a result, it is possible for dyslexics who use these writing systems to go undiagnosed until picking up a different language like English or Spanish.
That is not to say, however, that Chinese or Japanese dyslexics do not experience struggles in reading and writing. However, their struggles are different than those experienced by English-speakers. Because Chinese is not phonetic, it requires a greater visuospatial ability to read and write in. Characters contain multiple compact strokes that readers must be able to distinguish fully in order to understand what word they are looking at. A study by the University of Hong Kong revealed that Chinese dyslexics exhibited both visuospatial and phonological processing disorders. This was critical. Prior to this, dyslexia was thought to only have been linked to a single root cause, visuospatial disorders. But by studying a different language system it was revealed that dyslexia could affect multiple neural regions depending on the language.
Later studies showed, however, that while dyslexia could vary between languages, the fundamental basis of dyslexia was the same across all languages, whether phonetic, syllabic, logographic, or otherwise. So while reading in different languages may look and feel different, the cognitive pathways for reading comprehension are all essentially the same.
Ultimately, the true value of this research lies in its ability to help us understand how to diagnose dyslexia and provide better assistance to those who are dyslexic. With dyslexic fonts and other visual accommodations for dyslexics becoming gradually more and more popular for English speakers, it seems to be only a matter of time before similar aids are developed for other writing systems as well.
Cover: Esther Domgalski/The Finch Media Group