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In a paper published in Developmental Science, an international team of researchers shows that young children between 3 and 5 years who speak Mandarin Chinese are better than English-speaking counterparts at processing music skills.
Why? Mandarin is a tone language: the tone in which a word is said not only conveys an emotional content but a different meaning altogether. Mandarin speakers use the changes in pitch to define the intended meaning. That means one word can have several different meanings, depending on the way it is said.
English uses pitch to convey emotion: “Come here” can be a request or a command depending on the tone and pitch used. But in Mandarin but the same word can have an entirely different definition altogether!
For instance, the syllable “ma” in Mandarin can mean “mother,” “horse,” “hemp” or “scold” depending on how it’s spoken, and Mandarin learners quickly learn the subtle changes in pitch that conveys an intended meaning. In English “context” expresses emotion and meaning since in English one word generally has only one definition.
Tonal based languages are common in parts of Africa, East Asia and Central America, with estimates that as much as 70% of the world’s languages can be considered “tonal”.