Also on this page: 2001 reports. See full 2001 report: Dyslexia: Cultural Diversity and Biological Unity, dyslexia articles and extracts from books about dyslexia and languages.

English teases the brain and twists the tongue.

Tim Radford, Science Editor, The Guardian. 21 december 1999.

Scientists have shown that a language creates its own geography within the human brain in a discovery which could have promising implications for dyslexia research.

Uta Frith of University College, London, reveals in Nature Neuroscience today that differences in the structure of languages lead to different strategies for pronouncing words, which may explain why dyslexia is a common problem in English-reading nations, but relatively unknown in Italy. Italian is simple and beautiful to sing, not just because of the alternation of consonants and vowels but because the rules for pronunciation and stress are consistent.

English, on the other hand is notorious for its inconsistencies - words such as cough, bough, dough and tough are classic examples - and George Bernard Shaw remarked bitterly that a word like "ghoti" could just as easily be pronounced as "fish": gh as in tough, o as in women, and ti as in nation. Brain scans taken while Italian and English-speaking volunteers looked at and read out words in their own language showed subtle differences in activity in precise locations in the brain.

Prof Frith found that when asked to read words and pronounceable non-words, English speakers took longer to begin reading each word, and were even slower when they had to apply a pronunciation to a made-up word. The fact that the native Italian speakers were quicker on the draw was consistent with the idea that Italians could rely on a sure set of rules for translating letters into sounds, whereas the English-speaking volunteers had to work out what the meaning might be before they could settle on a pronunciation.

Prof Frith believes, because of such differences, Italians use the left superior temporal region to read both words and experimental "nonwords", English speakers use the same hemisphere but slightly different areas. The difference may be to do with how the language is learned, she said. "Children learning to read and write in English do take a long time. I was involved in some earlier work comparing German-speaking and English-speaking children and the difference is very marked in the speed with which they can acquire their code for their language.

"The second phenomenon has to do with dyslexia: this is quite a noticeable phenomenon in English-speaking countries but it is hardly thought of as a handicap in Italy."

Simpler spellings 'would make life easier for dyslexics'.

Daily Telegraph 16 march 2001. Roger Highfield Science Editor.

A STUDY of dyslexic adults has shown that simplifying English spellings could be one way to help sufferers.

It also confirmed that the cause of the reading difficulty was a brain disorder. Experiments show for the first time that the neurological cause of dyslexia is the same in sufferers across Europe. But the disorder appears to be twice as common in England as in Italy because English has a more complex writing system, or orthography, than Italian, which is more phonetic.

French, English and Italian adult dyslexics all did equally poorly in tests that involved short-term memory, whereas Italian dyslexics did better in reading tests.

The head of the team, Prof Eraldo Paulesu, of the University of Milan Bicocca and the Institute San Raffale, said: "There is an argument for reforming complex orthographies to improve literacy problems in these languages. English dyslexics would have an easier life if their writing system was more regular, with more unique correspondences between sounds and print."

Study: English a Factor in Dyslexia

By PAUL RECER, The Associated Press. WASHINGTON 15 march 2001.

When English-speaking children with dyslexia begin to read, they face the awesome task of learning more than 1,100 ways that letters in the written language are used to symbolize the 40 sounds in the spoken language.

This may explain why there are twice as many identified dyslexics in English-speaking cultures as in countries with less complex languages, according to a study appearing Friday in the journal Science.

The study by an international team compared the brain scan images and reading skills of dyslexic university students in Italy, France and England.

The researchers found virtually no difference in the neurological signature for dyslexia, but there was an immense difference in how well the students learned to read their native languages.

"It is much easier for dyslexics to learn to read in languages where there is a one-to-one relationship between a letters and the sounds," said Chris D. Frith, a researcher at the University College London and a co-author of the study. "In English, there are more than a thousand ways to spell the sounds."

In Italian, dyslexic students have a far easier time. The 33 sounds in Italian are spelled with only 25 letters or letter combinations.

The researchers noted that identified dyslexics are rare in Italy because the language helps learning readers to quickly overcome problems caused by the disorder. To find dyslexics among Italian university students, the researcher had to conduct special tests to identify those with the neurological signature for the disorder.

Experts have estimated that between 5 percent and 15 percent of Americans have some degree of dyslexia.

Dyslexia involves a brain structure that makes it difficult for a learning reader to connect verbal sounds with the letters or symbols that "spell" that sound. Such connections are essential to learn to read.

In the study, researchers found that English, French and Italian dyslexics did equally poorly in tests based on the short-term memory of verbal sounds, a key measure for the disorder. Yet the Italians were far better at reading their native language than were the English and French students.

The students were then put through a series of reading exams using positron emission tomography to measure and image blood flow in specific parts of the brain, an indication of neurological activity. All of the students had the same deficits in the left temporal lobe of the brain while performing reading tasks.

"Although Italian dyslexics read more accurately than French or English dyslexics, they showed the same degree of impairment" in the brain image, the study found.

This suggests, the researchers said, that it is the language difference alone that makes it more difficult for English-speaking dyslexics to learn how to read.

"The complexity of the English and French written languages stems from historical events that have introduced spellings from other languages, while, in comparison, Italian has remained quite pure," said Eraldo Paulesu of the University of Milan Bicocca, the lead author of the study.

In English, many words share the same letter combinations, but involve different sounds when spoken. For example: mint and pint; cough and bough, and clove and love. In French, the complexity stems from different letter combinations that "spell" the same or similar sound, such as "au temps" (at the time) and "autant" (as much, or so much).

Frith said that Spanish, Finnish and Czech are "dyslexia friendly" languages because they lack the sound-spelling complexity of English and French. Japanese, he said, is also easier for children learning to read because of its consistency of sounds and symbols.

"One study found an Australian boy in Japan who was dyslexic in English, but not in Japanese," said Frith. "That is the sort of thing that you would expect" if language was a significant factor in the severity of the reading disorder.

Dr. Thomas Zeffiro, co-director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, said the study by the European researchers was "an exciting result" for researchers studying dyslexia.

But Zeffiro said the study, with only 72 subjects in three countries, was too small to draw final conclusions about how common dyslexia is among the peoples of the world.

He said that brain imaging studies with small numbers are notorious for sampling errors - statistical flukes that distort conclusions.

"For these results to be generalized (for all humans) you would need four or five times more subjects," said Zeffiro. "This lays the groundwork to make it worthwhile to do a much larger study."

....Dyslexia more evident in countries with complex writing systems.

Dyslexia More Difficult in English, French by Willow Lawson ABCNEWS 15 march 2001. [excerpts]

The United States has twice as many dyslexics as Italy. A new study says complicated English spelling is to blame.

A new study of the brain disorder that causes difficulty in reading and writing shows that simple languages, like Italian, are easier for dyslexics to decode than English and French. That's because Italian words are spelled the way they are pronounced, unlike many words in English and French.

Need for Language Change?

Eraldo Paulesu, a professor at the University of Milan Bicocca who directed the study, says there is an argument for making spelling more uniform in complex languages.

"Languages with complex [writing] are difficult for both dyslexics and non-dyslexics to read," he says.

The American Association For The Advancement Of Science issued a similar account on 16 march 2001, and added:

This research was funded by the Gatsby Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the U.K. Medical Research Council.

Back to the top.