Learning Japanese or Chinese can help students with dyslexia, the neurologically-based learning disability: That might sound counter-logical, given that dyslexics have difficulties with language-based tasks. But because both Japanese and Chinese use character-based writing systems instead of an alphabet (though Japanese also has another writing system, kana, which is based on phonetic sounds and more similar to an alphabet), they can be more easy for some dyslexics to grasp.
Adding to the observations of parents and educators is recent brain-imaging research, as the Wall Street Journal notes:
A study of school-age children published last year in Psychological Science compared how good readers and dyslexic readers learn language. Using brain-imaging technology, researchers at the Yale Center found that when people with dyslexia read in English they rely on the same region of the brain as do readers of kanji, a character-based language in Japan.
By contrast, a somewhat different region of the brain is used by good English readers as well as by children reading kana, another Japanese language, but one in which each character represents a sound, as in English
“People with dyslexia have difficulty splitting words into their component sounds,” a skill known as decoding, says Claudia Koochek, the head of the Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, Calif., which specializes in teaching children with language-based disabilities.
Educators and researchers aren’t, the Wall Street Journal emphasizes, suggesting that dyslexics should be taught Japanese or Chinese to help them read English. Rather, “improved understanding of the way dyslexics absorb character-based languages may help educators fashion curricula.”
I would also suggest that learning a language with a different writing system, and perhaps all the more for someone who has found language, reading and writing especially challenging, can simply be an affirmative experience. Japanese and Chinese remain languages that seem hard yet also intriguing to many Westerners: Knowing that you know them means you’ve got some sort of secret knowledge that many don’t.
Further, being given the challenge of learning a foreign language that is “hard and intriguing” can be a motivation to learn in and of itself. Years ago, I had a student, M., who had signed up for my ancient Greek class. After the second week, M. was still struggling to learn and write the first few letters of the Greek alphabet. He came to speak to me in my office and told me that he was severely dyslexic; that he’d spent his high-school years in the back of Spanish class; that he could take Spanish for his college language requirement and get a B; that he wanted to challenge himself and learn Greek.
It would take M. all semester to master the alphabet. In retrospect, I can see how Japanese and Chinese might indeed have been easier for him to learn as studying Greek means you have to learn a different alphabet, with letters that look sort of like those in English. Further, some Greek letters look exactly some English letters, but stand for different sounds: For instance, the Greek letter ν (ni, for the “n” sound) looks a lot like the English v.
So yes, I’m all for teaching students with dyslexia languages like Japanese and Chinese and maybe Greek; I do think learning Chinese, which only uses characters, might be especially helpful. In Chinese, words are formed sometimes from a single character, sometimes from more, but each character does have a meaning on its own. Further, as each character has only one sound associated with, some have suggested the Chinese speakers have an advantage over English speakers in learning numbers and hence in doing math, according to French neurologist and mathematician Stanislas Dehaene on NPR:
The Chinese words for the first nine numbers are all short, concise and bullet-like: “yi,” “er,” “san,” “si,” “wu,” “liu,” “qi,” “ba,” “jiu.” He timed them and they average about a quarter of a second each.
In English we start with “one”, “two”, but “three” can stretch out a bit and “seven” is a real slower-downer, being two syllables long, so the English number-words take a little longer, a third of a second each.
Collectively, says Dehaene, the difference matters. Chinese speakers can download nine numbers in two seconds, English speakers only seven. Dehaene thinks our brains scoop up information in two-second gulps, or loops, so the Chinese are regularly getting a number-retention advantage just because their number words are shorter.
Perhaps studying Chinese wouldn’t help all students who struggle with math and those with dyscalculia. But again, learning some Chinese (even just the numbers) might be a way to introduce students to other ways of writing and thinking about numbers.
Foreign language classes, and teachers, often end up on the chopping block as school districts trim their budgets. But taking such classes out of the curriculum might be hurting students’ learning more than we know.
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Photo by Joseph S. Huang