Speaking Mandarin may offer kids a musical edge

Children who speak this Chinese language fare better than American kids in perceiving musical pitch

piano kid

Some Chinese kids may have an advantage in at least one musical skill.


Kids who speak Mandarin, the primary language in China, may outperform kids who speak English in at least one aspect of musical ability — perceiving pitch. That’s the finding of a new study.

Pitch refers to how high or low a sound’s frequency is. In tonal languages, such as Mandarin, pitch is very important. These languages use different pitch patterns to give meaning to words. In Mandarin, a word like “ma,” for instance, could mean “mother” or “horse.” Knowing which will depend on how it was spoken. The English language uses vowels and consonants to change the meaning of a word. Switch the vowel in cat from “a” to “o,” and it becomes cot. But changing the pitch of the word doesn’t matter. (Even in English, pitch can play a role — just a different one. For instance, raising the pitch for the last word in a sentence signals that a question has just been asked.)

Sarah Creel led the new study. She works at the University of California, San Diego, where she studies how the brain perceives language and music. People who speak Mandarin may be better at detecting differences in pitch generally. “If you have to focus on pitch patterns a lot to understand what the people around you are saying, that may really hone your attention to pitch,” explains Creel. “And that attention to pitch in language then transfers to another domain.” One such domain: music.

Creel and her colleagues conducted an experiment with roughly 100 kids between the ages of three and five. Half lived in China, the rest in the United States. The children listened to pairs of sounds. Then they reported whether the sounds in a pair had been the same or different. Some of the paired sounds were exactly alike. Others were slightly different. Some, for instance, had differences in how low or high a sound was. Other pairs had the same pitch but were played by different instruments.

Both groups did equally well at identifying pairs of sounds from different instruments. But Chinese kids were much better than the Americans at picking pairs of sounds having different pitches — almost 15 percentage points better. In a second trial, the researchers ran the test with three- to four-year-olds. Again, the Chinese children performed better at pitch perception, although not quite as well as the older children had.

Creel’s team published its findings online January 16 in Developmental Science.

Scientists had previously linked speaking Mandarin and musical ability in adults. The new study is the first to do that in children.

“Showing the link in children suggests that it only takes a few years of experience with a tonal language to see effects,” says Creel. The finding probably applies to other tonal languages too, she says. Cantonese (another Chinese language), Vietnamese and Thai are examples. Many languages in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America also are tonal.

The right side of the brain plays a crucial role in music. Languages, such as English and Mandarin, are mostly processed on the left side of the brain. But research has shown that Mandarin tends to activate parts of the right side of the brain that English doesn’t.

It is not yet clear, however, whether the advantage in perceiving pitch actually makes Chinese kids better musicians, Creel notes.

Fan-Gang Zeng is a scientist at the University of California, Irvine. He studies how hearing works in the brain. Zeng says the study is “credible.” But, he adds, the advantage the Chinese children showed “can be easily overcome by motivation, experience and training.”

So if you want to spruce up your piano skills, maybe you should practice your piano lessons more, not head out to learn Chinese.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine