Why is Learning Written Chinese so Difficult?

This article attempts to explain why dyslexic students experience difficulties learning written Chinese. We do this by linking some of the inherent difficulties faced by dyslexic children with the nature of the Chinese script.

Nature of the Chinese Script

Each Chinese character is made up of different strokes. The visual complexity of a Chinese character can be measured by its number of strokes. The number of strokes can be arranged from just one to over 20. A stroke in a Chinese character is similar to a letter in an alphabetic writing system as a change of a stroke changes the meaning and the sound of a character.

For example:

Big Too Day

A stroke by itself does not carry any information on the meaning of sound of the character but different combination of strokes make up different stroke-patterns or radicals. The same radicals could appear in different sizes at different locations of different characters such as 今 in 岑 or 念. It is estimated that there are around 600 radicals. Radicals carry information on the meaning or sound of a character.

Chinese characters often contain a phonetic radical which provides the sound and a semantic radical which represents the meaning of the character. For instance, in the character 燈 [deng] or lamp, 火 or “fire” is the semantic radical providing a clue to the meaning of the character while 登 [deng] is a phonetic component which has the same pronunciation as the whole character. Similarly in the word 蚊 [wen], the radical on the left side of the character denote meaning (insect) whilst the right side of the character gives the sound of the word.

Difficulties with Written Chinese

Dyslexic children usually have difficulty processing sound/symbol relationships

There are a large number of visual symbols in Chinese. The Chinese language is also tonal. Although there are some script-sound regularities in Chinese, Chinese children need to learn a lot more symbol-sound association than in English (Ho and Lai, 1999).

Dyslexic children have memory problems

Research by Ho, Law and Ng (2000), suggests that Chinese with dyslexia have difficulties in keeping sounds in their short-term memory, especially unfamiliar sounds. This adds to the difficulty in learning symbol-sound associations.

Chinese characters are also similar in appearance and may differ by simply adding or deleting a single stroke. Dyslexic children may find it extremely difficult to remember the slight differences between Chinese characters.

The fact the Chinese radicals can occur in different sizes at different locations in different words makes the task of remembering characters even more complex.

Dyslexic children may become tired easily after reading for a short time

Reading Chinese characters requires the ability to identify the stroke pattern in different characters. The visual complexity of Chinese characters and differentiating between similar-looking characters may tax the processing powers of dyslexia.

Dyslexics may have word-retrieval problems

Ho and Lai (1999) have found in their research that Chinese dyslexic children seem to have some generalized deficits in the speed of access to their store of Chinese characters. This was demonstrated at the basic level of naming discrete items as well as at the complex level that required scanning and sequencing strategies. This deficit may also explain why reading Chinese characters is taxing for dyslexics.

Dyslexic children may have left/right confusion or directionality problems

It is likely that left/right confusion or directionality problems add to the difficulty of dyslexics in remembering Chinese characters. Dyslexic children may also transpose or reverse radicals when they write them.

This article only explains some of the reasons why dyslexic students feel so frustrated learning written Chinese. More extensive research needs to be undertaken to fully understand what happens when dyslexics process and learn second languages like Chinese and to discover what can be done to help them perform this task less painfully.



Ho, Connie S-H. & Bryant, B. (1999). Different Visual Skills are important in Learning to read English and Chinese. Educational and Child Psychology, Vol. 16(3).
Ho, Connie S-H. & Lai, Daphne Ngar-Chi (1999). Naming-Speed Deficits and Phonological Memory Deficits in Chinese Developmental Dyslexia. Learning and Individual Differences, Vol. 11 (2).
Ho, Connie S-H, Law, Teresa P-S & Ng, Penny Man. (2000). The phonological deficit hypothesis in Chinese developmental dyslexia. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13.

About the Author:
Liu Yimei
Assistant Director, SpLD Assessment Services
Rex House Learning Centre
Learn more about Yimei

This article was first published in FACETS