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The Effect of Language on Learning to Read and the Implications of Cultural Differences in the Brain

Sam Beebout's picture
Sam Beebout
Web Paper 1

The Effect of Language on Learning to Read,
and the Implications of Language Differences on Experiencing and Storytelling

In an NPR story I was listening to a few weeks ago, two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis were releasing their findings from a new experiement about the process of reading in the brain (1).  Jeff Zacks and Nicole Speer used fMRI (function magnetic resonance imaging) as people are lying in the scanner while reading a short story. The researchers found that the areas of the brain that were the most activated, with the most electromagnetic activity, while these people were reading significantly overlapped the parts of the brain a person uses when they are actually experiencing a similar event. In other words, reading about riding your bike activates the same non-motor neurons in the brain as riding your bike. Drawing first from our discussions in class this works and doesn’t necessarily lead me anywhere new.
So far we have talked about Emily Dickinson, how everything we know our brain constructs, and we have connected her philosophy to a recognition that our behaviors are dependent on the architecture of our nervous system. Furthermore, we have recently began to discuss action potentials and the idea that inputs can be miswired or even intentionally rewired in order to change the way we perceive the input. After reviewing this in class, my first “so what?” question in regards to the NPR story was whether the process of comprehending, or visualizing, language was any different, within the brain when a person was listening than when they were reading.
However, what struck me after thinking about the story more was the larger take away that Zacks hit on at the end of the interview. He said that the importance of the study was that “when we tell eachother stories, we can control the conceptual processes that are going on in one another’s brains”. I began to wonder about a broader question of the way that language and culture effects the brain and the way we tell stories and process information. In asking me to revisit our ability to construct reality, and to understand that this is our dominant process, Zacks sparked the question in my mind whether language itself has an effect on the way we create these visualizations.
There is a significant amount of current research that is looking to uncover differences in the brain across cultures. Speer’s and Zacks’ study was only observing English language speakers and readers, and importantly when they were doing so it was with the same story about a boy named Raymond growing up in the Midwest. I wondered whether, first of all, the type of story was limiting on the response the brain would have, but beyond this I wondered if there were differences across individuals based on language and syntactical structures that can subtly determine the way stories are told.
One dominant area of new research is reexamining dyslexia, moving forward with the idea that dyslexia is something created with the creation of language. Li-Hai Tan, a professor of linguistics and brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Hong Kong, lead a study that looked at the brain effects of dyslexia on native readers of Chinese and English (2). Before beginning the study, the authors, and the body of research on dyslexia assumed no cultural difference between what inhibited reading for these groups. Indeed, previous research on how the brain learns to read has only looked at languages whose alphabets were variations of a similar Latin based character set, but this is only representative of one type out of 60 different writing and language systems that exist in the world (3). Tan’s study came to the conclusion that the tasks involved in learning to read an alphabetic language like English were different than the tasks for reading a symbol system like Chinese. Alphabetic languages like English rely on sound representation that is, simplistically speaking, more directly linked to the spoken sounds. Without this emphasis on phonetics, Chinese characters rely on more of a connection between verbal and spatial working memory.
Thinking about which “boxes” are part of this process, it is helpful to take a step backward and gain a better understanding about which parts of the brain are activated, generally, for language and reading. This enters the debate about whether or not there are innate processes in the brain, in terms of language, that all brains share, and if so on what level of boxes (4).  One group of researchers takes up this question in their analysis of “single-word reading”.  Using fMRI as Zacks and Speers did in their research of individuals reading groups of words, Simos et al. found that learning to read is a process that happens on two pathways, one along vental circuits and one in the dorsal system, and that a combination of the two circuits leads to “skilled, automatic reading” (5).  The vental circuits, in the tempoparietal region of the brain, are used for word analysis, a slower process that seeks understanding, and the dorsal system, in the occipito-temporal region, is a much faster process that uses the whole word form as an automatic, recognizable symbol. The emphasis is that reading is a learned, automatic process, which seems to imply that the types of constructed realities people “imagine” while reading, particularly those descriptive passages, are perhaps more similar to the automatic process of perceiving one’s surroundings. A downside of this study is that it is, again, limiting itself to English language speakers without taking into account the different brain regions that are activated through different types of language systems.
In discovering the different types of dyslexia for Chinese and English language speakers, Tan et al. found that dyslexics had a deficit in a different area of the brain, the left middle frontal gyrus, that the researchers identify as the most central to Chinese fluent reading because of its aid in creating a spatial working memory (2). Studies of English language speaking dyslexics found that deficits existed generally in the left hemisphere, and early studies of brain lesions found that reading and language use occupy the left hemisphere, broadly, and the primary motor, auditory, supamarginal gyrus, angular gyrus specifically. Studies of English/alphabet language speaking dyslexics indentify two major inhibited portions of this left hemisphere of the brain as the Broca region and the Weirnecke region, identified for their discoverers who narrowed dyslexia to two dominant types, the first being a disconnect between the letters and word and speech and the latter between this input and comprehension (6).
However, I want to move away from this limited study. A more convincing study between English language speakers and readers and Japanese asked whether the organization of language in the brain differed by which language people speak. To do this, they looked at neuro patients whose brains had been damaged in similar regions and found that the large principles of language organization in the brain did not differ (7). This large umbrella similarity may not contradict that brains have different processes for learning to read, for making reading a learned, automatic process.  In addition to the contrast between Chinese and English forms of dyslexia another study has used looked at the regions of the brain activated by Arabic numerals and found that although both Chinese and English cultures use Arabic numerals, depending on which language a person learned first, different brain regions are activated (3). Nonetheless, if the study of English and Japanese speakers found no organizational differences in language organization, is it possible that the link Zacks and Speers identify between automatic perception/experience and the automatic “virtual reality” created through reading has a universal application?
In my attempt to push on the extent to which language differences change processes in the brain, I want to think about two studies that both seemed to be thinking more outside the box. The first was a study done last year that looked at how time travel language in literature left readers less able to access the information they are reading about. The study found that behaviorally, people continually tracked and integrated the story based on temporal information.  If the story made too many leaps forward or jumps around, people became less able to access pieces of the story that came before (8). However this study was, again, focused on English language speakers and readers and therefore would be interesting if applied more generally to other cultures. It would be valuable to determine whether this barrier to reading comprehension that come from jumps away from a linear progression are problematic for the way the brain functions universally, or just to how it functions because of cultural influences.  Does the automatic process of experiencing reality (in the brain) while reading depend on things like linear, perceivable temporal progression?
Finally, another study again compared European-American and East Asian people and found that they not only had different patterns of brain activation when learning to read, but also different patterns of brain activation when making snap judgments about visual patterns (3). How might this, too, effect Zacks’ and Speers’ observations about what happens to a brain when it is reading?

1) “Reading Creates ‘Simulations’ In Minds”.  National Public Radio. All Things Considered: Science Out of the Box. 31 January, 2009.

2) Associated Press. “Dyslexia’s Brain Effects Differ Between Readers of Chinese and English; ‘A Structural-Functional Basis for Dyslexia in the Cortex of Chinese Readers”. Education Week. Bethesda, Apr 16. 27:33, 4.

3) Hotz, Robert Lee. “How the Brain Learns to Read Can Depend on the Language”. Wall Street Journal. May 1, 2008.

4) Snyder, Brom. “Language and the Brain”. Serendip. Biology 202, Web Paper 3, 2006.

5) Simos, Panagiotis G., Rebecca Billingsley-Marshall, Shirin Sarkari, and Andrew C. Papanicolaou.  “Single-World Reading: Perspectives from Magnetic Source Imaging”. Single-word Reading: Behavioral and Biological Perspectives. CRC Press, 2008.

6) Xiong, Josheph. “Aphasia: A Language Disorder”. Serendip. Biology 202, Web Paper 1, 1999.

7) Patterson, Karalyn, Takao Fushimi. “Organisation of Language in the Brain: Does it Matter Which Language You Speak?”. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. London, Sep 2006. 31:3, 201.

8) Ditman, Tali, Philliip J Holcomb, and Gina R Kuperberg. “Time Travel through Language: Temporal Shifts Rapidly Decrease Information Accessibility During Reading”. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Austin, Aug 2008. 15:4, 750-57.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Language, brain, understanding

A whole host of interesting issues here. Is language organization similar or different in brains of people who speak different languages? Does language and/or culture and/or genes affect how one people think? For more on the latter, see East vs West: A Book Commentary on The Geography of Thought and The Georgraphy of Thought-Book Commentary. And the book itself, by Richard E. Nisbett.