Preschoolers whose native tongue is Mandarin Chinese — a tonal language — are better than their English-speaking counterparts at processing musical pitch, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of California (UC), San Diego.
In a tonal language, the tone in which a word is spoken not only conveys a different emphasis or emotional content, but an altogether different meaning. For example, the syllable “ma” in Mandarin can mean “mother,” “horse,” “hemp,” or “scold,” depending on the pitch pattern of how it’s spoken.
Mandarin-language speakers must quickly learn to identify the subtle changes in pitch that convey the intended meaning of the word. It’s the linguistic attention to pitch that gives young Mandarin speakers an advantage in perceiving pitch in music, the authors conclude.
The findings, published in the journal Developmental Science, show how brain skills learned in one area may affect learning in another.
“A big question in development, and also in cognition in general, is how separate our mental faculties actually are,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Creel of the Department of Cognitive Science in UC San Diego’s Division of Social Sciences.
“For instance, are there specialized brain mechanisms that just do language? Our research suggests the opposite — that there’s permeability and generalization across cognitive abilities.”
For the study, the researchers conducted two separate experiments with similar groups of young Mandarin Chinese learners and English learners. They tested a total of 180 children (ages three to five) on tasks involving pitch contour and timbre. While the English and Mandarin speakers performed similarly on the timbre task, the Mandarin speakers significantly outperformed on pitch, aka tone.
“Both language and music contain pitch changes, so if language is a separate mental faculty, then pitch processing in language should be separate from pitch processing in music,” Creel said. “On the other hand, if these seemingly different abilities are carried out by overlapping cognitive mechanisms or brain areas, then experience with musical pitch processing should affect language pitch processing, and vice versa.”
Tonal languages are common in parts of Africa, East Asia, and Central America, with estimates that as much as 70 percent of world languages may be considered tonal. Other tonal languages besides Mandarin include Thai, Yoruba, and Xhosa.
“Demonstrating that the language you speak affects how you perceive music — at such an early age and before formal training — supports the theory of cross-domain learning,” said co-author Dr. Gail Heyman, of UC San Diego’s Department of Psychology.
Creel and Heyman’s work follows on a hypothesis first put forth by Dr. Diana Deutsch, also of UC San Diego, that speaking a tonal language leads to enhanced pitch perception in music.
Deutsch studied skilled adult students of music and tested them on absolute or “perfect” pitch. Absolute pitch is the relatively rare ability to recognize a musical note without reference to any other notes.
The present study focused on relative pitch, which is an understanding of the pitch relationships between notes. Relative pitch allows you to sing in key and be in tune with other people around you.
Even so, don’t ditch your child’s music lessons for language, or language lessons for music, warn the researchers. It’s still true that to succeed at music, you need to study music. And learning an additional language is a demonstrably good thing in itself, too — whether or not it makes you a better musician.