Photograph by: Lauren Baker

A lot of Chinese learners would know that the most difficult part about learning Chinese, besides the numerous complex characters, is the tone.

Chinese is a tone language in which different pitch conveys different meanings. There are altogether four tones in Mandarin Chinese and six in Cantonese.

For example, the syllable “ma” in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “linen”, “horse” and “scold” according to its different tones. Learning these tones is just like trying to reach the musical pitch, especially with the third tone which requires your tone to go down first and then turn up.

Recent research also provides evidence that, because of this special feature of Chinese, native Chinese speakers are better at processing perfect pitch than their European counterparts.

An international team of researchers from University of California – San Diego conducted the experiment with two groups of children, one was all Mandarin learners and the other was English learners.

Researchers then tested all 180 children on tasks involving pitch, contour and timbre. The results showed that the linguistic emphasis to pitch gave these Mandarin speakers an advantage in identifying pitch in music.

The study suggests that learning a tonal language can be helpful in terms of playing music, but it also helps researchers to discover more about our brains.

According to Sarah Creel of the Department of Cognitive Science: “Both language and music contain pitch changes so 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.”