Chinese and English brains

January 30, 2009 at 1:44 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , )


This stuff is not in my brain.

For years, philosophers and linguists such as Benjamin Whorf and Walter Benjamin have discussed whether the minds of readers of speakers and readers could be influenced by the language that they speak.  I have wondered this quite a bit myself as each language uses features that cause the mind to orient itself or manifest itself in different ways.  I recently finished the great book Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.  During her exploration of how the mind learns to read, she references research which uses modern brain imaging technology to answer the question of whether or not the mind of a Chinese speaker (logographic) could be different from that of an English speaker (alphabet).

Unlike other writing systems (such as alphabets), Sumerian and Chinese show considerable involvement of the right hemisphere area, known to contribute to the many spatial analysis requirements in logographic symbols and also to more global types of processing.  The numerous, visually demanding logographic characters characters require much of the visual areas, as well as the important occiptal-temporal region called area 37, which is involved in object recognition and which Dehaene hypothesizes is the major seat of “neuronal recycling” in literacy.

Although all reading makes use of some portions of the frontal and temporal lobs for planning and for analyzing sounds and meanings in words, logographic systems appear to activate very distinctive parts of the frontal and temporal areas, particularly regions involved in motoric memory skills.  The cognitive neuro-scientists Li-Hai Tan and Charles Perfetti and their research group at the University of Pittsburgh make the important point that these motoric memory areas are far more activated in reading Chinese than in reading other languages, because that is how Chinese symbols are learned by young readers — by writing, over and over.


I am pretty sure that my pre-motor regions do not activate when I read English, but it's hard to tell from the inside.

So at least for the case of reading, we now know that there are different brain regions working when we compare a Chinese reader to say, an English reader.  Does this make one brain better than another?  No, it does not.  It simply means that they are different with different means of processing.  They differ in how they learn to be efficient (nearly automatic) in reading.

Also interesting are studies about Japanese whose two different writing systems result in a kind of ‘hybrid’ brain.  Recent brain imagine studies have actually shown that the results is like a merging of the Chinese and English brain :

Japanese readers offer a particularly interesting example because each reader’s brain must learn two very different writing systems : one of these is a very efficient syllabary (kana) used for foreign words, names of cities, names of persons, and newer words in Japanese; and the second is an older Chinese-influenced logographic script (kanji).  When reading kanji, the Japanese readers use pathways similar to those of Chinese;  when reading kana, they use pathways much more similar to alphabet readers.  In other words, not only are different pathways utilized by readers of Chinese and English, but different routes can be used within the same brain for reading different types of scripts.

The idea of these different routes becomes much more intriguing when Wolf moves on to talk about dyslexia.  As a mother of a dyslexic son and a researcher of reading research, Wolf is uniquely suited to this topic and shows how complex dyslexia is.  It is not simple, and dyslexia does not “map” itself onto other speakers of languages the way other conditions might.  Since the brain in a way configures itself to read the target language, its networks can be very different.

One quote I cannot stop thinking about is from Steven Pinker who says “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”  Over time, we have learned to “re-arrange” our brains given existing hardware so that we can communicate on paper or wax tablets.  As part of her conclusion, Wolf explains how these different “arrangements” may actual result in amazing human beings capable of doing great things that great readers could not accomplish :

Dyslexia is our best, most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read.  I look at dyslexia as a daily evolutionary reminder that very different organizations of the brain are possible.  Some organizations may not work well for reading, yet are critical for the creation of buildings and art and the recognition of patterns — whether on the ancient battlefields or in biopsy slides.  Some of these variations of the brain’s organization may lend themselves to the requirements of modes of communication just on the horizon.

So think to yourself, how is your brain different from your neighbors?  From your cousin’s?  From an old man writing Chinese characters on parchment?  While none of these are greater than the other, the possibilities open up for some interesting discussion….

A Warhol piece I thought of during the reading

A few other interesting links on the subject :

Mandarin uses more of the brain

How the brain learns depends on the language :

Images taken from this presentation on dyslexia from the University of Hong Kong :


  1. John Hayes said,

    There should indeed be differences in how different languages are processed by the brain with different strengths needed for English and Chinese. I would expect Chinese to show more problems with visual dyslexia than English readers. You might want to look at a few videos used to represent visual dyslexia in English at

  2. Sandy said,

    Interesting read. Never thought of it really. But it does make sense.

    Growing up speaking/reading/writing Chinese, I could tell you I read much faster in Chinese. I could glance through a paragraph fairly fast, pick out the important words and know the summary of that paragraph. I believe it is because I could pick out logographic characters quickly by just glancing through. As your book mentioned, we had to repeat copying characters over and over again until each abstract form becomes second nature.

    According to your book, in English, readers of English turn letters they see into sounds, sounds into words, and words into meaning. No wonder I read much slower in English because I have problem turning letters into sounds since there are so many exceptions….. for example, “ou” pronounced so many different ways, round, thought, although, through, should, enough…. And that’s just one pronunciation example.

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