Well Being


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I have long thought that the pitch and tones of speech—its musical qualities—are as important for my son Charlie in understanding speech as the sound of the words. Charlie and I have conversations that sound (that are) exchanges of warbling and bits of tunes; for the past few weeks, I have been teaching him to count in Mandarin (it is going slowly, but he always says each word perfectly on pitch: yi, er, san, syh……..).

A recent study in the online versions of Nature Neuroscience suggests that people with musical training have an easier time learning Chinese, precisely because, as the March 20th New York Times reports:

Mandarin speakers have been shown to have a more complex encoding of pitch patterns in their brains than English speakers do. This is presumably because in Mandarin and other Asian languages, pitch plays a central role. A single-syllable word can have several meanings depending on how it is intoned.

For this study, the researchers looked at 20 non-Chinese speaking volunteers, half with no musical background and half who had studied an instrument for at least six years.

As they were shown a movie, the volunteers also heard an audiotape of the Mandarin word “mi” in three of its meanings: squint, bewilder and rice. The researchers recorded activity in their brain stems to see how well they were processing the sounds.

Patrick C. M. Wong of Northwestern University, the lead author of the study, also noted that those who are native speakers of Mandarin and of tonal languages may learn musical instruments more easily.

Charlie's native language is English, though language does not seem to be his most preferred mode of communication. He has taken quite readily to playing the piano and is now learning that the treble clef means you play with your right hand and the bass clef with your left. I have been thinking that his “music-ability” (I suppose there is a more formal term for this, but I am liking that neologism right now) has helped him to learn to read music: When he plays a note, he hears a sound, so that the note is not just some black lines on a piece of paper: It is sound, with tone, pitch; it is part of a melody.

…..wu, liow, chi, bah, jeou, shyr……..