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No. 105: May-Jun 1996

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English Muddles The Brain

"A boy who struggles to read English primary-school storybooks yet has no trouble with university physics textbooks in Japanese is challenging current thinking on dyslexia. The 17year-old boy, known as AS, is the first person shown to be dyslexic in one language but not another."

AS has English-speaking parents but lives in Japan, where he attends Japanese primary school. He scores poorly in reading English, even lagging behind his Japanese schoolmates, but he understands English like a native. AS is also taught to read the Japanese form of writing called "kanji", in which the symbols carry meaning but have no phonetic value - unlike written English. Curiously, AS reads kanji easily, exhibiting no problems in his visual processing skills. He also does well with the other type of Japanese writing called "kana", where symbols do correspond to certain sounds. Written English is the problem!

AS presents psychologists with two enigmas:

  1. If, as currently believed, a specific part of the brain is reserved for reading, and a person has trouble with one language, it seems logical that he should have difficulties with all languages.

  2. The conventional theory of dyslexia asserts that it is associated with visual processing. If so, AS should find kanji even more troublesome than English.

(Motluk, Alison; "Why English Is So Hard on the Brain," New Scientist, p. 14, January 20, 1996)

From Science Frontiers #105, MAY-JUN 1996. 1996-2000 William R. Corliss