Linguists crack puzzle of Chinese and English

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2005, 12:00am

The English and Chinese languages in their written forms not only look dissimilar, they are also processed and learned very differently, University of Hong Kong researchers have found.

The team of linguists' landmark findings on how children learn Chinese may influence classroom practice, and the identification and treatment of dyslexia.

Their study, published yesterday in the scientific journal Proceedings of National Academy of Science of the United States of America, challenges the theory that learning to read is based on listening skills and understanding the phonetic structure of a language.

The team found writing skills heavily contributed to reading ability, while sound awareness was minor. Artistic talents were also associated with success in reading Chinese.

Tan Li-hai, researcher and associate professor of linguistics, said because so many Chinese characters sounded the same or similar, aural learning was insufficient. Instead, children remembered the characters by writing them repeatedly.

'Rote learning definitely helps; picture drawing also helps, because writing and drawing involve visual motor skills,' Dr Tan said.

In contrast, the English language is made up of distinct phonetic units, which implied the best approach was phonological.

The study builds on the team's previous research, which found written Chinese is processed in an area of the brain close to the motor-skills control area, while reading English is handled nearer the area that processes listening.

Siok Wai-ting, assistant research professor of linguistics, said the treatment of children with dyslexia should be focused on their writing rather than listening and phonetic skills. They should also be encouraged to draw.

The findings may also help identify dyslexia in children much earlier, from as young as age two.