Osaka – Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, but not if you’re dyslexic.
I had been studying Japanese for eight years when I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 25. This was during my master’s degree in translation. A dyslexic translator, who would have thought! My case, however, is not as rare as you might think.
There are many myths surrounding dyslexia in Japan and the West: dyslexic people don’t read and can’t write, only children can be dyslexic, smart people can’t be dyslexic, etc. None of this is true, of course, and many successful people have been diagnosed with the condition including Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and author Max Brooks.
[Dyslexia is sometimes known in Japanese as 読字障害 (dokuji shōgai) or 識字障害 (shikiji shōgai), but these terms are not widely known and are considered problematic as 障害 (shōgai) implies a severe disability. The katakana ディスレクシア (disurekushia) is sometimes used, but not widely known. If someone wanted to say “I’m dyslexic” in Japanese, they might say something like, 文字を読むのが苦手です (Moji o yomu no ga nigate desu, Reading the characters is a weak point).]
So, what is dyslexia? It is a learning disability that impacts the interpretation of words and letters, but manifests in myriad ways and depends on the person. Some might struggle to read certain fonts, while others might miss words that are formatted in bold or italics. Some may have poor working memory and find it difficult to decode complicated sentences, pronounce words, or confuse the readings or meaning of words. Spelling is almost always an issue (thank goodness for spell check).
You might be mistaken in thinking, then, that learning Japanese would be nigh on impossible for a dyslexic person. However, many dyslexic language learners, including myself, have found Japanese easier to learn compared to Indo-European languages.
Maryanne Wolf directs the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, UCLA, and is the editor of “Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain.” She says that the brain works differently when reading pictorial or Latin alphabets, and that because dyslexic people think visually and analyze patterns, they have an easier time learning Japanese.
One of the best things about learning Japanese is the phonetic syllabary of kana. Rules for spelling and pronouncing English vocabulary often go out the window due to an amalgamation of roots in Germanic and Latin languages — “ough” in English has at least six different pronunciations depending on the word! (Try saying “tough,” “through,” “plough,” “cough,” “dough” and “fought” in a row.)
In Japanese, however, each kana represents a sound and a syllable: あ (a) is always pronounced “ah” and か (ka) is always pronounced “ka,” for example. This makes it a lot easier to write a word correctly just from hearing it, and to read a word out loud with the correct pronunciation.
Kanji must still prove a challenge for dyslexic learners though, right? Actually, Japanese sentences become even easier to understand once kanji is introduced. Instead of a long string of kana, which can take a while to read, sentences become more compact with distinct symbols that represent different meanings.
The use of radicals also aids in making kanji and their meanings distinct. 持つ (motsu, to hold) and 待つ (matsu, to wait), for example, might seem confusing at first, but the difference between them is clear once you know 持つ uses the 扌(tehen) “hand” radical and 待つ uses the 彳(gyōninben) “going person” radical. Kanji radicals are actually easier for dyslexic brains to parse, since they tend to be visually creative and associate meaning with the images.
Japanese grammar is also less complicated compared to European languages. French, Italian, German and Spanish all have gendered language and multiple conjugations that impact the structure of a sentence, and the rules for why and how often feel arbitrary to dyslexic learners.
Japanese, however, is a systematic language with clearly defined grammar rules. It has a logical structure, similar to math or programming languages, where [object が (ga) adjective です(desu)] is similar to [A + B = C]. Even verb conjugations are based on three distinct groups, and a lot of grammatical possibilities open up once you learn the trick to which verbs are in which group.
This isn’t to say dyslexic people don’t struggle with Japanese. There seems to be a myth that dyslexia doesn’t exist in Japan, but that’s really not the case. There are now a lot more studies on native and non-native Japanese speakers with dyslexia, and non-natives often report that, although Japanese is easier for them compared to studying European languages, their dyslexia still impacts their learning at times. Dyslexia exists in Japan, it just manifests in different ways.
Dyslexic people can often get sounds and kanji compounds mixed up. So instead of reading 経験 as “keiken” (experience), they might accidentally say “kenkei” without even realizing it. Or, instead of writing “transportation” as 交通 (kōtsū), they might write 通交 (tsūkō), which means “friendly relations.” In cases like these, though, it just takes a little extra effort to get the brain to latch onto the correct reading or kanji order.
Certain grammatical points that are conceptually different from English or are a little more abstract can also be a struggle for dyslexic people to wrap their heads around. Particles, counters, transitive and intransitive verbs, the causative and passive forms, and the rules around giving and receiving can be particularly difficult hurdles to overcome, but they’re not impossible.
One reason Japanese has been historically considered “impossible” for a dyslexic person is because study methods for neurotypical people don’t always work for neurodivergent learners. As such, dyslexic learners can struggle with what is often thought to be the “right” or “normal” way to study Japanese. Rote drilling and reading explanations from books are often not effective, but interactive and audio-visual learning can be.
Mnemonics, such as the ones used in James Heisig’s book “Remembering the Kanji,” are particularly great for dyslexic people to distinguish between similar kanji, vocabulary and grammar, because they engage the creative part of the brain. A clever mnemonic associating a word with imagery and meaning is a great tool for dyslexic learners.
Many dyslexic people also have a weaker working memory, which holds and processes information temporarily. This means dyslexic learners often have to go over the same information multiple times before it’s processed into short-term, and then long-term, memory, so it often takes longer to remember Japanese vocabulary compared to our neurotypical peers. Knowing language learning isn’t a race, and that it can take extra effort, is important for the mental well-being and long-term learning of dyslexic people.
Language learning is difficult for dyslexic people, and on first glance Japanese can appear to be rather daunting. However, take heart in the knowledge that it’s actually one of the easiest languages for us to learn.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.