Los Angeles: Learning Mandarin may enhance your musical abilities, according to a new study which found that young children who are native speakers of the language are better than their English-speaking counterparts at processing musical pitch.
The implications of the findings go beyond determining who may have a head-start in music, the researchers said. The work shows that brain skills learned in one area affect learning in another. Researchers from University of California San Diego found that among preschoolers - or young children between the ages of three and five - native speakers of Mandarin Chinese are
better than their English-speaking counterparts at processing musical pitch.
"A big question in development, and also in cognition in general, is how separate our mental faculties actually are," said Sarah Creel from UC San Diego. "For instance, are there specialised brain mechanisms that just do language? Our research suggests the opposite - that there's permeability and generalization across cognitive abilities," said Creel.
The researchers conducted two separate experiments with similar groups of young Mandarin Chinese learners and English learners. They tested a total of 180 children on tasks involving pitch contour and timbre. Where the English and Mandarin speakers performed similarly on the timbre task, the Mandarin speakers significantly outperformed on tone.
Mandarin is a tone language. In a tone language, the tone in which a word is said not only conveys a different emphasis or emotional content, but an altogether different meaning. For instance, the syllable "ma" in Mandarin can mean "mother," "horse," "hemp" or "scold," depending on the pitch
pattern of how it is spoken.
Mandarin-language learners quickly learn to identify the subtle changes in pitch to convey the intended outcome, while "ma" in English can really only mean one thing: "mother." It is the linguistic attention to pitch that gives young Mandarin speakers an advantage in perceiving pitch in music, researchers said. "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," she said. "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 Gail Heyman, from UC San Diego.
Tone languages are common in parts of Africa, East Asia and Central America, with estimates that as much as 70 per cent of world languages may be considered tonal. Other tonal languages besides Mandarin include Thai, Yoruba and Xhosa. The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.