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Part 2: Do People Read Different Writing Systems Differently?

This is the second post regarding the question: Do People Read Different Writing Systems Differently?


In my last post, I pointed out that there are two ways to look at the question of whether people read different writing systems differently. Of course, there are more nuanced ways, but these seem to be the two major frameworks within which researchers are looking to answer the question. One is what I called the universal framework. According to this framework, readers’ brains are essentially the same so readers use the same cognitive and linguistic skills to read. That is to say, there are commonalities among the readers of different orthographies in terms of basic processing mechanisms.


The other major framework focuses on orthographical differences. The claim is that while all writing systems seem to engage the same regions of the brain, certain parts of the brain are specifically involved with different writing systems. The much-studied differences between Chinese and English, (Zhao et al.) show a neural “division of labor” between phonology and semantics when comparing the brain’s activation while reading alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems. Similar findings have been shown with Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi.


This has implications for L2 readers’ because readers transfer the strategies already established in their L1 to L2 reading (Yoshikawa). Of particular relevance to this post is the finding that L2 readers’ use of phonological information may be affected by the orthographic properties of their L1. Readers with alphabetic L1 backgrounds draw on phonemic information, whereas those with logographic L1 backgrounds tend to be less capable of using phonemic information and rely more on holistic visual cues. And for those teaching English, it is important to note that numerous studies have shown the fundamental role phonemic awareness plays in reading alphabetic languages (Yoshikawa).


Koyama et al. compared cerebral activity of L1 Japanese readers reading English (J1/E2) and L1 English readers (E1/J2), reading Japanese kana, a syllabary, a script that represents language on the level of the syllable. During L2 word reading, each L2 group recruited the same brain regions as those employed by the corresponding L1 group. Importantly, however, they found different patterns associated with the L2 groups depending on the writing system being learned as L2. Specifically, the J1/E2 group exhibited stronger activation in a part of the brain involved in phonological processing. This, they say, is because the L1 readers of kana, had to adjust to the very irregular orthography of English, which operates at the level of the phoneme.


I emailed Dr. Koyama to ask what this implies for teaching reading, and she referred me to the work of Ulsa Goswami the Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University.


A quote from Dr. Goswami:
…the way in which the brain represents the sound-structure of spoken language –
phonology – is critical for the future development of literacy. The brain develops
phonological ‘representations’ in response to spoken language exposure and learning to
speak, and the quality of these phonological representations determines literacy
acquisition (Goswani).


I had failed to tell Dr. Koyama that I teach EFL, I just said I teach English, and she referred me to Dr. Goswami whose research is with L1 children who have learning disorders. Her work, though, turns out to be very important for how we understand phonics. It also points to why this blog is called b4.


More in my next post.


Goswami, U. (2010) Phonology, reading and reading difficulty. In Interdisciplinary
Perspectives on Learning to Read.


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


Yoshikawa, L. & Yamashita, J. (2014) Phonemic awareness and reading comprehension among Japanese adult learners of English. Open Journal of Modern Linguistics,
Published Online October 2014 in SciRes.


Zhao, J., Wang, X., Frost, J, Sun, Mencl, W., Pugh, K., Shu, H., Rueckl, J. (2013) Neural division of labor in reading is constrained by culture. Science Direct. Retrieved from:

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