Dyslexia Effects on Chinese Characters


Branching Associations

I am doing research on Dyscalculia for my research assignment for one of the units that I am taking for this semester. As I am trying to associate and discern dyscalculia learning curve with dyslexia, I have another branching association (among so much more!) about dyslexia in different languages.

It’s no surprise that if you start thinking like a researcher and trying to cover as many (questionable) areas as possible to build a more solid argument, you will find that many other published researchers would have thought of the same.

Cold Topics

I realize that I am very fond of ‘cold’ topics. Many people assumed that I would be researching in Autism, which is still a hot topic across many disciplines. I have never fancied crowds since there are so many people doing that, I am sure they will do an excellent job there. I am interested in the roads less traveled. Yup, I am most likely the type of researcher who will never get funding because of the lack of demand.

I am interested in dyscalculia, exactly because there is a lack of in-depth research in this topic, and this group of people (including myself) is being ‘abandoned’ in the dumpster, so to speak. As for dyslexia, there has been an abundance of studies, but when I ran a search on the database for dyslexia effects on different languages, I don’t see as many studies. It is possible that I am not searching for the right keywords.

Alphabetic and Graphic Mapping

I have found one study by Siok & colleagues (2008) especially interesting, as it used the same methodology that I had proposed in my research topic – fMRI brain scans to study the learning effects of the languages. Of course, I can’t use fMRI scans for my level of studies (bummer!), so I generalized the proposed topic a little more to use more ‘feasible’ methods instead.

The findings of the study showed that learning Chinese, which is so structurally different from languages that depend on alphabetic sounding, has a different effect on the dyslexics learning that language. Chinese characters, unlike English or most European languages, have little or no dependence on sounding just by looking at the strokes. Each Chinese character is made up of strokes, not alphabets, and for bilinguals like myself, we used to try to guess the pronunciation of the Chinese characters based on how we would with English words. Of course, that rarely worked. With just a difference in a stroke, the Chinese character sounds completely different and has completely different meaning.

Some Chinese Lesson


Take the characters in the image for example. (The two pairs on the top are in simplified Chinese, the lower pairs are in traditional Chinese.) The first character 鸟(鳥)means bird; the second character 乌(烏)is more complicated, it means differently when paired with different characters. Therefore, I paired them up to illuminate the difference.

小鸟 (小鳥)xiao3 niao3 – Little Bird

乌有 (烏有)wu1 you3 – None

See that they look very similar? They sound very different. The alphanumeric combo (hanyu pinyin) that I included is the transliteration system used in China, Singapore, and Taiwan, transcribing as standard Chinese with the Latin alphabet. The numbers are a representation of the accurate sounding. There are four soundings for all Chinese characters – that means, for the same alphabetical combination say, ‘wu’, it has wu1 wu2 wu3 wu4, each has a different meaning, and even within each class, there are so many Chinese characters that fit into that class of combo sound.

Just a sample of ‘wu’ with different soundings:


If you look carefully, the character of bird, and none only differs in a missing ‘dot’ (we call it a stroke), yet it has such a big difference. However, if 乌(烏) and 鸦 (鴉)come together, it means ‘crow,’ then it has something to do with the bird, but 乌(烏)literally means ‘black’ or ‘none’, and the crow is a ‘black bird,’ hence the association to the bird.

That is what lead me to think how dyslexia affects Chinese learners. Most literature are based on English learners, so I wonder if there is a difference, and this finding would open another door to deeper investigation into the effects of learning disability, and may eventually lead to more effective learning strategies and techniques for people who have learning challenges.

Abstract (summary of vital points) of the Study

Developmental dyslexia is a neurobiologically based disorder that affects ≈5–17% of school children and is characterized by a severe impairment in reading skill acquisition. For readers of alphabetic (e.g., English) languages, recent neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that dyslexia is associated with weak reading-related activity in left temporoparietal and occipitotemporal regions, and this activity difference may reflect reductions in gray matter volume in these areas. Here, we find different structural and functional abnormalities in dyslexic readers of Chinese, a nonalphabetic language. Compared with normally developing controls, children with impaired reading in logographic Chinese exhibited reduced gray matter volume in a left middle frontal gyrus region previously shown to be important for Chinese reading and writing. Using functional MRI to study language-related activation of cortical regions in dyslexics, we found reduced activation in this same left middle frontal gyrus region in Chinese dyslexics versus controls, and there was a significant correlation between gray matter volume and activation in the language task in this same area. By contrast, Chinese dyslexics did not show functional or structural (i.e., volumetric gray matter) differences from normal subjects in the more posterior brain systems that have been shown to be abnormal in alphabetic-language dyslexics. The results suggest that the structural and functional basis for dyslexia varies between alphabetic and nonalphabetic languages.

Sharpen Your Inferential Skills

When reading any studies, do exercise your critical thinking skills which help with better inferential outcomes. The results show that there is a difference between alphabetic and non-alphabetic language learners, be prudent in inferring this. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese learners have it easier, it means that Chinese learners may still have problems with the ‘hanyu pinyin’ transliteration system as it uses Latin alphabets too, and also, it may also mean that Chinese dyslexics may also have trouble learning English or any other languages involving alphabets.

There have been other studies done, another one that involves neuroplasticity and working memory caught my attention too (also in my proposed research areas, but it’s considered too ‘advanced’ for my level – I understand it’s necessary to build a strong foundation, but really, why slow the running horse?).


So, instead of researching and staring on my research assignment, I got distracted and printed a bunch of journals for personal reading. Seriously, I mean, even I think it’s crazy, I have so many readings to do already! When I was introduced to the Uni’s eLibrary and databases, I was in heaven! I have access to COUNTLESS of studies on all disciplines!!! It is almost the same as giving me the private key to access the largest library at night (when no one will be there making chatterings!).

I. Am. A. Nerd.!



Luo, Y., Wang, J., Wu, H., Zhu, D., & Zhang, Y. (2013). Working-memory training improves developmental dyslexia in chinese children. 中国神经再生研究:英文版, 8(5), 452-460. doi:10.3969/j.issn.1673-5374.2013.05.009

Siok, W. T., Niu, Z., Jin, Z., Perfetti, C. A., & Tan, L. H. (2008). A structural-functional basis for dyslexia in the cortex of chinese readers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(14), 5561-5566. doi:10.1073/pnas.0801750105


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