Musicality in Mandarin - sunday 2012-11-04 2142 last modified 2012-11-04 2144
Categories: Nerdy, Daily Grind
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For a month now, I've undertaken the considerable task of learning Mandarin (this, as a total aside, is the exact same amount of time as the age of my housemates' newborn child, an interesting companion for progress). Probably the hardest part at this juncture for me is recognizing and producing understandable tones. With your primary language, you can afford to lose a lot of auditory information while allowing your experience to interpolate correct meaning into the gaps; hearing a new language requires slow, highly enunciated speech, and, for Mandarin, well-pitched tones, a fairly unfamiliar vector for comprehension. Yet subjectively, it isn't as hard as I thought it would be. I ran across some research that makes for a compelling reason why.

In college, I sang bass in an a cappella group where much respect was given one of our sopranos, Julie, who had perfect pitch: the capacity to identify and produce the precise frequency associated with notes on the spot without the aid of any instruments (there were other reasons to respect her, not least her capacity to bend the wills of men to her voice - she cox'ed for crew). She would often note that this wasn't always a beneficial skill: performances that were relatively in tune to themselves were absolutely out of tune to her. I recall attempts at the time to test whether I could do the identifying and failed miserably.

However, that seems to have changed over the years. While I wouldn't claim perfect pitch - I don't subconsciously identify the pitch of the clock ticking or the tea kettle whistling, and I can enjoy a performance without rating the performers capacity to tune or select a tuned instrument - I can usually identify which note was just played, so long as it was in relative isolation in time (no chords, no preceding or following notes).

Perhaps it's because I started playing the piano again - I didn't for ten years starting with college - but more likely because my parents spoke Cantonese at home when I was an infant.

Prof. Diana Deutsch studies, amongst other things, the prevalence of perfect pitch in tonal language speakers; the occurrence is almost an order of magnitude more in the tonal populations she's studied than non-tonal language populations. She posits perfect pitch developed as a response to comprehend language tones, and some of her data came as quite a surprise to me: (some?) speakers tend to speak their tones consistently with the same pitches, all the time. Recordings weeks apart sound as if they were repeated immediately one after another.

Should her hypothesis prove to be true, it very neatly explains why many of my second-generation Chinese peers became such incredible piano players so young. It would be interesting to study the children born to those of my generation who did not ultimately become fluent in their immigrant parents' tongue - same genes, different household language environment, compared against those in tonal language households, compared against those with no language but a constancy of music. Why do Asian kids rightfully carry the stereotype of piano and violin playing nerds? The musical part at least seems to have an explanation (who knows about the nerd thing). Not only do their parents encourage musical skill, the very language they use to express themselves is music, or music enough to reach that part of the brain in its most fertile development.

It's been a long time since my home environment defaulted to a tonal language; we all ended up speaking English to each other at home after I entered public schooling. Yet with the advent of piano at about the same time and its eventual resumption a few years ago, there seems to be an intertwined thread of musicality weaved together, starting with Cantonese, shifting to the violin and the piano, then voice, and now into Mandarin. Yes, having been raised with a similar language with even more tones is undoubtedly directly related to learning one now, but I suspect it would be considerably more difficult without the intervening years of musical pitch practice.

The takeaway: if you want your child to be more musical than the average American, hire a Cantonese nanny for her until she's at least two, longer if you want your kid to be able to sing.


Language Pricing

Nah, Cantonese speakers are still too expensive. Go for a Thai speaker and get the benefits for a fraction of the price!

Ryan Anthony on November 05, 2012 03:08 AM

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