Imagine what it’s like being dyslexic with thousands of Chinese characters to remember

An estimated 10 per cent of Chinese people suffer from the learning disorder, but in China they get very little help. A Hong Kong charity and filmmaker James Redford hope to change that

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 11:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 2:20pm

There are altogether more than 50,000 Chinese characters. The average educated Chinese person is said to know about 8,000, while reading a Chinese newspaper requires knowledge of about 2,000 to 3,000 of these characters. Based largely on memory, learning Chinese can be daunting, and even native speakers forget words now and then.

But for about 10 per cent of the Chinese population, daunting is an understatement – their mother tongue is almost entirely Greek to them. This group of people – the estimated population affected by dyslexia in China and Hong Kong – struggle with recognising, reading and dictating Chinese characters despite their normal intelligence, adequate schooling and conscientious study.

Fortunately, in Hong Kong there is a strong infrastructure for identifying, diagnosing and supporting dyslexic children – initiatives that have been developed since the late 1990s when public awareness of the condition grew and parents demanded more support.

In China, however, support for dyslexia – let alone awareness of the condition – is lacking. The recently launched charity China Dyslexia Foundation hopes to change that.

“It’s estimated there are some 15 million students affected by dyslexia in China, but unlike in Hong Kong and the rest of the developed world, in the mainland there is essentially no government support, a handful of service providers, and tremendous ignorance amongst parents and teachers resulting in few children receiving help,” says social entrepreneur Yvonne Li, founder and chairperson of the foundation.

“There is almost zero awareness of dyslexia among the general public in the mainland. All this creates prejudice against children with dyslexia, and in an academically driven society, dyslexic students are seen as lazy or having a bad attitude.”

Li says the foundation’s primary focus is to raise awareness, build capacity for a service industry (by training teachers and social workers), and support pilot training programmes for dyslexia in greater China. For a start, the foundation is working with dyslexia training centres in Shenzhen and Beijing.

China will be the focus for now, says Li, with Hong Kong serving as a “success model” as well as the foundation’s base. Fundraising for the foundation’s programmes will also take place in Hong Kong; currently Sino Group’s Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation is a main supporter.

Professor Connie Ho Suk-han of Hong Kong University’s department of psychology, an expert in developmental dyslexia and learning disabilities, says the incidence rate of dyslexia is increasing in Hong Kong – but this is because more students are being identified as dyslexic due to better public awareness and more educational psychologists available.

Ho, a consultant to the China Dyslexia Foundation, founded the Hong Kong specific learning difficulties research team in 1998. In 2000, the team launched the Hong Kong test for specific learning difficulties in reading and writing, an observation checklist teachers use with early primary pupils. As a result, more and more children became identified as dyslexic, thereby becoming eligible for support and accommodation in the education system.

Dyslexia can be diagnosed as early as six years old, says Ho. “When students are highlighted by this checklist, educational psychologists follow up with a standardised assessment test.”

Early intervention is key and can enhance a child’s ability to read and write, and minimise resistance to learning words. But dyslexia has no cure, Ho says; the associated cognitive deficits are lifelong.

Research suggests dyslexia runs in families and the condition has been linked to certain genes that control how the brain develops. In particular, the brain regions concerned with language are affected, interfering with the ability to convert written letters and words into speech.

“But Chinese dyslexics may exhibit different cognitive difficulties,” says Ho.

Chinese-speaking children with dyslexia have a disorder that is distinctly different, and perhaps more complicated and severe, than that of English speakers, according to a 2009 study by Hong Kong University researchers Siok Wai-ting and Tan Li-hai published in the journal Current Biology.

Analysing brain scans of Chinese children – both with and without dyslexia – performing visual and oral language tasks, the researchers found that developmental dyslexia in Chinese is really two disorders: a combination of problems of sound and visual perception.

In contrast, English people with dyslexia usually don’t have trouble recognising letters visually, but struggle with mapping speech sounds onto letters.

This means that intervention methods for Chinese and English dyslexics may be different, Ho says. “For instance, the former may focus more on orthographic [or spelling and writing] training, while the latter may focus on phonological [or sound] training.”

That said, contrary to popular belief, being dyslexic should not and does not limit one’s potential – a message that director James Redford aims to spread through his documentary The Big Picture: Redefining Dyslexia, which premiered in Hong Kong at the launch of the China Dyslexia Foundation on March 21.

The film follows the stories of several dyslexics of different ages and examines how people with the condition cope from a young age through to adulthood. Among the interviewees are successful lawyers, bankers and businessmen, including Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson.

Redford, 53, son of Hollywood legend Robert, once worried that his 25-year-old dyslexic son Dylan – who also appears in the documentary – had been handed an “academic death sentence”.

“At age seven, Dylan’s handwriting looked like something found in a cave in Egypt,” Redford recalls, “and yet he could keep up a conversation at any level with adults. He is uncommonly bright, has high intellectual skill, is an amazing artist and is very ambitious. It made no sense to me and my wife, and it was a hard time.”

Once Dylan was officially diagnosed, he started to thrive and won a place to study at Middlebury College, a prestigious liberal arts university in Vermont.

“We’ve emerged from the experience of raising a child with dyslexia realising that more people have to understand that it really doesn’t limit kids if they get the proper resources behind them,” says Redford. “It doesn’t limit what they want to do and what their passionate about. It just takes extra effort from the child, family and educators.”

jeanette.wang@scmp.com