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Do People Read Different Writing Systems Differently?

A reader recently told me my posts are “a bit academic.” It was stated kindly enough, but I took it as “a bit” of negative criticism. I can’t argue, though, my posts are sort of academic – for good reasons. The first is that I am not a gifted writer. Eloquence doesn’t flow from my pen, err, keyboard. A plodding academic style suits me. Another reason is that I am not an expert on the things I write about. My role is to present other-people’s research. It is important that I give references so readers can find the information for themselves. One of the articles I cite today, for example, claims a brain scan “shows robust convergence of brain activation from the different orthographies in: (1) mid-anterior aspect of the left superior temporal lobe; (2) left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG); and (3) left occipito-temporal region.”


You can be sure that anything that sounds remotely like that is not original. It will have a citation so you can investigate for yourself.


Moving on, this post is obviously about how different parts of the brain are used when reading different writing systems. The quote above comes from Seidenberg (2011) and answers the questions: Do people read different writing systems differently, or the same?


Seidenberg ultimately says the answer is a bit of both. Readers’ brains are essentially the same, he points out, and reading involves the same capacities no matter what the writing system. So, there are obvious similarities across orthographies. But, writing systems are different, and our brains react to those differences differently. This is confirmed by Bushwitz et al. (2009), who used brain-imaging technology to compare the brain-behavior of Chinese and English readers. Pertinent to this blog, Bushwitz suggests that the differences across the two languages could only be detected in the role of phonological awareness. Specifically, phonological awareness was a stronger correlate of reading accuracy and fluency in English than in Chinese. This suggests that alphabetic readers rely on phonological transcoding, while reading Chinese characters relies on a lexico-semantic processing system. This is not really surprising. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.


More interesting is the case of Japanese with its multiple writing systems. The dual-coding model (Yamadori, 2000) proposes that different cognitive processes are involved in processing kanji and kana (katakana and hiragana) with kana being more similar to English. That is, according to the model, the processing of kanji requires that readers access a word’s semantics first, while reading kana requires that readers access the phonology of the words first, as in English. And, they showed this with brain-imaging technology.


This is good news for Japanese students, right? It seems they will have a head start in acquiring the linguistic skills needed for reading in English. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. It turns out that different alphabetic systems use different areas of the brain depending on the depth of the orthography. English orthography is characteristically irregular in its mapping of print to sound. Because some letters have more than one sound, because words have silent letters, and because of other well-known irregularities, English is considered a deep orthography. In a brain imaging study of European languages, Paulesu et al. (2000) found differences in brain activation associated with the regularity of Italian and the irregularity of English. Kana, it turns out, is more regular than English and Koyama (2013) claims students whose L1 has a more regular orthography (kana and Italian, etc.), need reading programs designed to improve phonological skills just as those students whose L1 has a different orthography do.

Getting back to Seidenberg, our brains are essentially the same; writing systems are different. Does it matter? Well, two frameworks need to be considered. One is the universal framework that claims the cognitive skills crucial for reading are the same for all of us. The other framework, which I have touched on, focuses on the different orthographies and the way our brains process different writing systems.


I’ll do some more reading and have more to say about this in my next post.




Buchweitz, A., Mason, R., Hasagawa, M., & Just M. (2009). Japanese and English sentence
reading comprehension and writing systems: An fMRI study of first and second language effects on brain activation. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. doi:10.1017/S1366728908003970


Koyama, M., Stein F. S., Stoodley, C., & Hansen, P. (2013) Cerebral mechanisms for
different second language writing systems. Neuropsychologia. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.08.002


Paulesu, E., McCrory, F., Fazio, F., Menoncello, L., Brunswick, N., Cappa, S. F., Cotelli, M., Cossu, G., Corte, F., Lorusso, M., Pesenti, S., Gallagher, A., Price, C., Frith, C.D.& Frith, U. (2000). A cultural effect on brain activation. Nature Neuroscience.


Seidenberg, M. S. (2011) Reading in different writing systems: One architecture, multiple
solutions. In Dyslexia Across Languages.


Yamadori, A. (2000). Neuropsychological model of reading based on Japanese experiences. Psychologia 43.

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  • Thanks very much for this research, Jim. It's really informative and certainly right up my keenest area of interest. I hope I get the chance soon (HaHaHa) to check out the references.  I distinctly recall hearing on a science podcast that different parts of the brain are used when reading English (letter-based languages) and Japanese (character-based languages). I made a quick search of the pdfs for the BSP (brainsciencepodcast), but couldn't find anything quickly. I could have been the Guardian science podcast or Science podcast, etc. etc..  I listened to the podcast several times, but think it was at least a year or more ago. I'll try to find it.Certainly the research that I've followed strongly indicates that reading is really very helpful for learning languages. Again, I'll need to dig up that research, but it's mostly from podcasts (Oops.)Yes, it would be splendid if you could continue to let us know what your reading shows.Thanks very much again - Louise
  • Thanks for this post Jim. I'm looking forward to the next one. So essentially teaching Japanese students English without teaching them the deep orthography of the English language through phonics is not a good idea. Is that what you're getting at? What does this mean practically for English teachers? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.
    • author
      Hi Ryan, Thanks for the comment. The question of how important this is has not been answered. It is a "glass half full, half empty" situation. It is well established that brain activation while reading has both universal and script specific characteristics. Some think the universal parts are more important to cognitive processing than the script specific ones are. Some people think the opposite. My take should be taken with caution. I am not an expert and I am coming from a certain perspective. I am interested in phonemic awareness - not necessarily phonics, although they are linked. I hope my next post will be informative. Any questions are welcome. I'll do my best to answer.