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Published: Sunday August 4, 2013 MYT 8:06:00 AM
Updated: Sunday August 4, 2013 MYT 8:07:25 AM

How I learnt to cope with dyslexia

THE word “dyslexia” comes from Greek: “dys” meaning “bad, abnormal, difficult” and “lexis” meaning “word”.

Medically, dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that impairs one’s ability to read. In its subtle form, a dyslexic may have no apparent difficulty in reading but his spelling will be almost always defective.

I am dyslexic, though I coped well academically. I discovered I was dyslexic only at the age of 28 as I watched a psychologist testing a Grade 10 schoolgirl in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The simple words she had difficulty spelling, I too was uncertain about.

My education was somewhat unusual. I attended a Chinese-medium school for nine years, from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 (I skipped a year since I was given a double promotion from Primary 1 to Primary 3).

At home, I spoke English with my mother, and together we would read English nursery rhymes and storybooks. At school, I studied English as a second language, which was way too simple for me and so I always aced the subject without much effort.

Later I noticed that I had to make an extra effort to get my spelling perfect. I blamed it on the English spelling system. After all, the fault cannot be mine as I had no difficulty reading or writing or spelling in Chinese, Malay or even Jawi which uses the aesthetically pleasing Arabic alphabet.

In Chinese, each character is one syllable and is usually pronounced in one way. There are Chinese characters that can be pronounced in more than one way depending on the context, but these are rare.

Spelling of words in both Malay and Jawi follows consistent rules as does their pronunciation. That is the case with Latin and Italian too. Alas, not so with English.

English words originate from multiple sources and different languages. Hence for every major grapheme-phoneme rule (pronunciation of a cluster of letters) in the language, there are exceptions to the rule for words of foreign origin.

Why is “committee” spelt the way it is, with so many “m’s”, “t’s” and “e’s”? Why does “relevant” have an “a” that is pronounced the same way as the preceding “e”?

I discovered, as so many others before me have, that there was no point arguing with the dictionary or the teacher about these matters, so I just memorised the illogical spelling of English words.

Later, when I was in medical school, I had to do this particularly with the names of drugs. I was grateful for the memorisation I had to do in Chinese – for example, in moxie, or the practice of replicating in writing an entire article or poem.

I have always been a slow reader. I had first attributed my slow reading to my obsessive-compulsive need to understand and remember everything I read. In retrospect, I think my slow reading speed was probably due to my dyslexia.

Ironically, my dyslexia caused me the most problems later in life, when hanyu pinyin was introduced to help children learn to read Chinese. Since I normally do not see Chinese characters and words spelt out in the Roman alphabet, hanyu pinyin became a test of whether I could distinguish and categorise phonemes, the most basic element of sound in a spoken word.

Phonemes are unnatural. How many sounds are there in “cat”? Most people would answer one. But that one syllable is made up of three phonemes - “ke”, “a”, “te”. To analyse a word at the phoneme level is unnatural and, among those who have a phonological disability, it is a tremendous challenge.

To this day, I cannot decide whether jiejie (which means “older sister” in Mandarin) should be represented by “j” or “ch”. I decide by pronouncing jiejie and holding my hand in front of my mouth. If I feel no air blowing out, it should be “j” – which, of course, happens to be the correct answer.

Incidentally, there is a condition that is the reverse of dyslexia – hyperlexia. Some individuals can decode any sequence of phonemes, pronounce them correctly, and yet not understand what they are reading. This condition is fairly common among autistic individuals.

My dyslexia causes me fewer problems now than it did before. Thank goodness for word processors and spellcheckers!

Nonetheless, I say this to my fellow dyslexics: You are not dumb. You just lack the talent for analysing and categorising speech sounds.

An inability to play tennis or piano won’t hamper your progress in life. Unfortunately, a lack of talent for reading and spelling will.

The remedy is special education, which the Dyslexia Association of Singapore provides, plus hard work.

There is no alternative to hard work. Anything in life that is worth achieving needs effort. So know that you are not alone with your learning problem, and believe that you can overcome it. — The Sunday Times/Asia News Network

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute, Singapore

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