08 April 2008

On dyslexia and the structure of language and learning

The linked article reports on neurological research on dyslexia among English and Chinese speakers, suggesting that its manifestations in brain activity are quite different.

That's not unexpected, given that the structure of alphabetic writing and that using Chinese idiographs (apologies if I got that term wrong) is so radically different. Chinese readers have to remember the shape of thousands of characters; alphabetic readers need to remember only about forty standard phonemes and a few wild variations (such as the notorious "-ough"), even in English.

Much of the work on cultural differences in approaches to learning, such as that of Biggs (1996)* comments on Chinese students' ability to (apparently) learn by rote, and their (apparent) adoption of surface learning approaches; but it goes on to suggest that this is deceptive. My own conversations with Chinese academics suggest that they do not recognise this account; indeed, the deep/surface distinction seems less than helpful to them.

Speculating wildly, but someone may even now be taking this up— might the difference in approach have little to do with "Confucian heritage", but more with orthography? Indeed, may both the Confucian heritage (do read Karen Armstrong's wonderful The Great Transformation [2007]) and the approach to learning stem from the "brain-training" associated with learning vast numbers of discrete items?
  • Indeed (do excuse me, I feel a geekish episode coming on; feel free to stop reading) Nakamura (1964)** suggests that Chinese thought tends towards the concrete (rather than speculative or spiritual), which might perhaps reflect their ability to handle large numbers of discrete items in working memory at a time...?
However, does this pose questions not only for teaching and assessment methods but also the construction of curricula for Chinese students (given their ever-greater importance in both the HE and FE sectors)?***

*Search for [Biggs "confucian heritage" student learning] for a range of useful references
** Nakamura H (1964) Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (tr. P Wiener) Honolulu; University of Hawaii Press [I knew I'd be able to cite that some day; it's earned its continuing place on my shelf!]
*** I'm not going down a Sapir/Whorf line on linguistic determinism, but the Chinese record on human rights, at home, in Tibet, and by neglect in Africa is very grim. It's just a little too tempting to speculate and generalise too much and sail close to the racist wind, though.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting work. I work with lots of people & children who have dyslexia and I have also noticed this.


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