When you dig into the statistics behind dyslexia, several strange insights emerge. Not only do rates of dyslexia seem to vary massively between different languages, but it’s also evident that some bilingual people can be dyslexic in English but not their mother tongue. How does that make sense?
Dyslexia is a condition that causes difficulties with spelling, reading, and writing. People with the condition will often have problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, making it difficult to communicate through written language.
It’s thought to be a condition people are born with and often appears to run in families. However, the language you speak also appears to have an unusual influence on the condition.
Among English speakers, 10 percent of the population is believed to be dyslexic, according to the British Dyslexia Association.
Amidst speakers of other languages, dyslexia is significantly less common. When Japanese speakers were tested on the syllabic Kana writing system, the estimated prevalence was 2 to 3 percent. Meanwhile, when tested on the logographic system, Kanji, it was 5 to 6 percent. Similar rates of dyslexia are also seen in Chinese speakers, where the prevalence is around 3.9 percent.
Relative to English, lower rates of the condition can also be found in other European languages that are in the same family as English, known as the Indo-European Language family. Studies have suggested that Italian speakers are only half as likely to show signs of dyslexia compared to English speakers (and French speakers).
The explanation may partially lie in the way we test for dyslexia and how other cultures perceive certain learning difficulties. It might even reflect some educational differences between countries.
Alternatively, it may have something to do with the innate qualities of the language. English and French are both languages that have an “irregular orthography”. In other words, it can be very unpredictable and inconsistent. The sounds of the language don't match clearly to letter combinations, plus there are more irregularities in pronunciation and spelling.
As a wise meme once said: If you ever think English isn't a weird language, "just remember that read and lead rhyme and read and lead rhyme, but read and lead don't rhyme and neither do read and lead.”
In English, there are 1,120 ways of representing 40 sounds (phonemes) using different letter combinations (graphemes). Meanwhile, Italian has 33 graphemes that are sufficient to represent the 25 phonemes, making it simpler to process.
This is potentially why native Italian speakers can have no problem with their mother tongue, but experience dyslexia when they learn English as a second language.
“The English writing system is so irregular – print to sound or sound to print translation is not always one to one,” Professor Taeko Wydell, Brunel University London’s Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, told BBC radio documentary Dyslexia: Language and Childhood in 2020.
“This irregularity or inconsistency makes it especially difficult for dyslexic individuals to master reading and writing in English.”
“This kind of irregularity doesn’t happen in other languages such as Italian, Spanish, or Finnish,” said Prof Wydell.
There are a bunch of other strands of evidence that back up this theory. A study in 2013 compared the reading skills of children learning English, Spanish, and Czech, concluding that kids took significantly longer to get a solid grasp of English compared to the other two languages.
This difficulty follows English speakers into adulthood. Research in 2015 used eye-tracking technology to show that English adults' eyes linger more on each word when reading, compared to a German speaker. This implied that more cognitive power was needed for the readers to process English.
So, if you’re part of the 10 percent of people who experience dyslexia, do not be scared to try learning another language - you might find it easier than you think.