Monday, June 30, 2003

Mandarin uses both sides of your brain; English only one

The BBC reports that a British foundation has new evidence that listening to Mandarin exercises more of the brain than listening to English. Thanks to Craig of Yellowworld for the link:

Dr Sophie Scott and colleagues at the Wellcome Trust carried out brain scans on a group of Mandarin and English speakers. They found that the left temporal lobe, which is located by the left temple, becomes active when English speakers hear English. The researchers believe that this area of the brain links speech sounds together to form individual words.
They expected similar findings when they carried out scans on Mandarin speakers. However, they found that both their left and right temporal lobes become active when they hear Mandarin ...
Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Unlike English, speakers use intonation to distinguish between completely different meanings of particular words. For instance, the word "ma" can mean mother, scold, horse or hemp depending on how it is said. The researchers believe that this need to interpret intonation is why Mandarin speakers need to use both sides of their brain. The right temporal lobe is normally associated with being able to process music or tones.
"We think that Mandarin speakers interpret intonation and melody in the right temporal lobe to give the correct meaning to the spoken words," said Dr Scott.

These findings raise at least four obvious questions (from my hobbyist-linguist standpoint, anyway). First, does this have anything to do with the well-known East Asian affinity for European classical music? (Disclaimer: my training is in linguistics and computers, not neuroscience; take my hypotheses with a large grain of salt).

It's long been suggested, but also usually rejected, that speaking a tonal language gives Chinese people some natural advantage in music. Why specifically classical music? No one's really sure, and up until now, everyone believed that Chinese, like all other languages, was processed only in the left brain, and so there was no reason to take seriously the idea of a link between speaking a certain language, and music.

Chronological correction: Chinese appears to have originally been a non-tonal language as recently as the Han dynasty, developing tonality sometime before or during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) as a consequence of losing final consonant clusters. Presumably, living among an ethnic group who speak a tonal language would exert some selective pressure against people whose right temporal lobes functioned poorly. However, with only a millenia and a half in which to work, it's not clear whether evolution had enough time to have so significant an effect on the structure and/or function of their brains, and specifically on their pitch discrimination and retention abilities, as to explain the Chinese prevalence in the performance of classical music. If it had, it might give them an edge in the musical world, where one must jump about a complex (compared to pop music) progression of pitches with exact timing, while literally buried in a huge mass of people playing other pitches.

Even if speakers of tonal languages are found to have differences in their right brains, don't jump to any conclusions yet: first, the link between the right temporal lobe and classical music isn't fully understood. Though some studies have shown that it is stimulated when listening to such music, no one seems to know in what way or how intensely it is involved in the performance of such music, beyond its role in pitch perception and musical memory (such as recalling the continuation of a melody when given the first few notes). The right frontal cortex seems to be more important in dealing with processing all the frequency information which allows us to perceive all these sounds as music anyway.

It's also been known for a while that East Asians have a higher incidence of perfect pitch, though Zatorre puts this down to differences in the right frontal cortex rather than the right temporal lobe. He also curtly dismisses the idea that musical ability could be related to speaking a tonal language --- by pointing out that Asian-Americans speak English, ignoring the fact that their many of their ancestors spoke tonal languages, which over thousands of years could have had some effect on their brain (though, reasonably enough at the time, he didn't believe that portions of the brain affecting speech would have any particular link to music). Standing on more solid ground, he also notes that Koreans and Japanese have a high incidence of perfect pitch, despite that both their languages are non-tonal --- but it's certainly possible, though not yet tested, that Japanese may make use of the right temporal lobe to understand their language, which is pitch-accented; see question four; I'm not sure of the extent of pitch-accent in Korean, though (and apparently, neither is anyone else).

However, Europeans and white Americans themselves, all native speakers of non-tonal languages, are also quite well represented among concert violinists, while Vietnamese, Thais, Laotians, and Hmong, speakers of tonal languages, are rather more rare.

For that matter, where are the American blacks? Despite their virtually single-handed invention of jazz with it's own complex tonal structure (and paucity of East Asians), blacks are conspiciously absent from the classical music world (though socioeconomic and cultural factors may play a role here and in the comparable absence of SE Asians). However, many of them trace their ancestry back to West Africa, which is full of tonal languages (off the top of my head, I can think of Yoruba and Twi; I think Hausa also developed tonality under the influence of neighboring languages, which suggests that most of those were tonal as well).

All these signs point to there being a rather more complex explanation than improved right temporal lobe function leading directly to talent in classical music; there's something else at work here. It's a start, though.

If you want the other three questions, they're in the post directly below. Blogger is inexplicably refusing to allow me to put them into this post.

Additional questions on Mandarin Chinese and the right temporal lobe

  1. What happens in the brain of native English-speaking students of Chinese when they hear Chinese?
    From what I've seen, beginning students of Mandarin don't seem to bother with distinguishing tones they hear at all, except for the first week of class in which the teacher is giving them tone drills. Usually this is because they don't see any reason to, and at least given the material they learn, they're right not to --- beginning and even intermediate Mandarin textbooks seem to avoid teaching words which could easily be confused for other words if they were pronounced in the wrong tone.

    Since the teacher speaks using vocabulary restricted to that which the students have already learned, the students can match the teachers' words to the vocabulary in their lexicon without relying on tonal information at all. (The most obvious evidence for this point is that teachers of Mandarin often give quizzes which require the student to put tone marks on a sentence written out in pinyin romanization, but provide neither the Chinese characters nor the English translation of the sentence --- thus students are expected to understand the words appearing in a toneless sentence!) Thus their right brains can likely stay disengaged.

    In the long term, this would seem a very poor idea: one of the biggest challenges in language teaching is to get students to start processing phonetic information which they're used to ignoring entirely when they speak their native. This process includes waking up parts of the students' brains which they are used to leaving asleep.

    Interestingly, a while ago I remember a language exchange partner of mine --- he taught me Spanish, I taught him Cantonese (yep, even as a college frosh, I was already proving myself to be a Sellout Half-Breed by pandering to Evil Whitey's secret desire to Appropriate Eastern Culture, Steal Asian Women, And Oppress Asian Men) --- using a set of cassette tapes called "The Musical Approach: Introducing a new concept to learn Cantonese," which, inexplicably to me at the time, kept playing classical music in the background of the dialogues. Though real language teachers apparently hate it because it doesn't follow the traditional tone order handed down from ancient Chinese linguists, I now wonder if the authors of the tapes weren't onto something --- a way of stimulating the student to use his right brain while listening to a conversation, so he might begin to notice tonal differences in speech which he otherwise wouldn't.

  2. Does Mandarin make heavier use of the right temporal lobe than other dialects?
    The real question here is whether more tones or more tone sandhi (the change in the tone of a word depending on the tone of the words which surround it --- don't ask me why English speakers use a Sanskrit word to describe a Chinese linguistic phenomenon) put a heavier load on the brain, or whether it doesn't make a difference, or indeed whether tone sandhi involves a different part of the brain than basic tone differentiation. One could presumably resolve this question by comparing activity in the right temporal lobe between Cantonese-speakers (who have nine tones, but with tone sandhi almost entirely absent) and Mandarin speakers (who allegedly have only four tones, but various complex rules for shifting them around, as well as the infamous "neutral tone" which plagues Beijing Mandarin and follows no rules at all).

  3. Do Japanese speakers make use of the right temporal lobe in understanding their language as well? What about Koreans?
    Although most Japanese textbooks won't tell you, Japanese is a pitch-accent language. Though the tone doesn't carry nearly as much informational content as in Chinese, Thai, or other tonal languages, Japanese people will still consider you to have a funny accent if your voice rises or falls at the wrong time. Some homophone, both loanwords from Chinese and native Yamato words, are distinguished only by the relative pitch of the two syllables. Furthermore, there are some sentences, such as kirei zya nai (kirei meaning "pretty," zya nai meaning "not") which can mean either "it is pretty" or "it isn't pretty" depending on the pitch of zya nai relative to kirei (this isn't related to pitch rising at the end of a question; in either case, it's a declarative sentence). However, researchers disagree whether and to what extent the pitch accent exists and conveys semantic information in Korean.

    NB: This is far worse than Chinese, in which a tone error, though it may lead listeners to interpret an utterance as nonsensical or even offensive (Cantonese, infamously, has various vulgarities which differ only in tone, not in pronunciation, from common words such as "at" or "nine"), almost never causes you to say the exact opposite of what you intended.

    Though it seems as though the answer to this question should be an obvious "Yes," there's one thing to consider: if it were true, we would expect Japanese people to have found out about it already. Japanese academia's notorious nihonjinron supporters are always looking for further evidence to prove the biological and cultural uniqueness of the Japanese people. Considering how much mileage they got out of an average of a few extra inches in their intestinal length (which were once used to justify the continuation of agricultural protectionism in the 1980s, by claiming that foreign beef would be difficult for Japanese to digest), I'd be surprised not to hear about an actual neuro-cerebral justification for "why foreigners all speak bad Japanese: they don't know how to use their whole brain like wareware nihonjin."

Abercrombie and Fitch ... again

The New York Times reported (long enough ago that it's already disappeared into their pay archives at the time I'm posting) that A&F may have discriminated on the basis of race in their personnel policies, and as a result has been sued:

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, charges that Abercrombie discriminates against Hispanics, Asians and blacks in its hiring as it seeks to project what the company calls the "classic American" look. Abercrombie, whose upscale casual clothes have made it one of the hottest companies for teenagers and college students, is accused of favoring whites by concentrating its hiring on certain colleges, fraternities and sororities.
Several Hispanic and Asian plaintiffs said in interviews that when they applied for jobs, store managers steered them to stockroom jobs and away from the sales floor because they did not project what the company called the "A & F look." That look, these plaintiffs said, is overwhelmingly white, judging from the low percentage of minority members who work on the sales floor and from the company's posters and quarterly magazine, which overwhelmingly featured white models.

My (late) take on this: so Abercrombie seeks to sell to overwhelmingly white upper class frat boys and those who would emulate them (such as, most of my high school ... apologies to Robert Locke, but prep schools haven't stopped promoting upper-class white culture, upper-class white culture just lost all its standards), and does so by hiring such people. Maybe blacks and Latinos could do just as well; A&F don't want to be the ones to take the chance.

Juancarlos Gomez-Montejano, who worked in sales at an Abercrombie in Santa Monica, said that after a corporate official visited his store, he and four other minority sales workers were terminated, told that the staff was too large. A few weeks later, he said, the store hired five white fraternity members from U.C.L.A.
"It disgusted me because my family name has been on this continent for centuries, and they have the audacity to say I'm not American enough," Mr. Gomez-Montejano said.

If Mr. Gomez is that convinced that A&F corporate are a bunch of racists, why is he suing their company to gain the privilege of working for them and helping them make even more money while earning a comparative pittance himself? Looks like everyone would rather rely on the government to fight their battles for them these days. Can't exactly blame them, the government is big and most of us are rather smaller.

He should just go work for Banana like this Mr. Gonzalez and do his capitalistic best to drive the competition out of business:

Eduardo Gonzalez, a junior at Stanford University, said that when he applied last August to the Abercrombie store in Santa Clara, Calif., a manager said he should apply for the stock room or an overnight position.
"It was like, wow, they're pushing me to the only nonvisible jobs, they don't want me to be seen in public," Mr. Gonzalez said. "And it was weird: all the store's posters were white, blond-haired, blue-eyed."
Soon after, a nearby Banana Republic hired him.
"If you look at a store like Banana Republic," Mr. Gonzalez said, "there's a huge difference. Banana Republic has almost all minorities working there."

It's hardly surprising Banana hires lots of minorities, either. A huge portion of their customer base are Asian-Americans whose main image concern is proving they're really not members of the evil white oppressor class no matter how much they act and speak like them. At the same time, the nice fabrics and designs of their $40 shirts and $110 trousers flaunts their money to their fellow Asian-Americans, proving to potential mates that, while they may play the role of an oppressed minority at the protest march, they're hardly as poor as them.

Surrounding such AA consumers with lots of non-white sales reps helps them to minimize the cognitive dissonance they must feel when they spend ridiculous sums of money (earned by distant parents working at professional jobs with huge numbers of white coworkers), to prove to their Asian-American and other classmates, and to themselves (who achieved the opportunity to flaunt their clothes in those famous universities by attending schools in majority-white suburbs, always communicating amongst themselves and each other in English) that they really aren't similar to Evil Whitey.

One has to wonder Asian-Americans go to such damaging lengths to distance themselves from white people. Could it be the continued demonization of whites by their humanities and social science professors and the larger university culture which three-quarters of them pass through?

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