A new study, as reported by BBC News, concludes that “people who speak Mandarin Chinese use both sides of their brain to understand the language,” as compared to “English-language speakers who only need to use one side of their brain.” Interesting if true; I’ll await further research before drawing any exciting conclusions. I’m not impressed by the idiotic quote “Native English speakers, for example, find it extraordinarily difficult to learn Mandarin.” (Thanks, Ron!)


  1. I saw this article a while back, and I’m still having a hard time swallowing it. First, while English is not technically a tone language, (i.e., it doesn’t use tone to distinguish lexical items that would otherwise be homonymous), it does use tone to distinguish meaning, suprasegmentally in sentences. Second, this whole two-sides-of-the-brain has always seemed a little suspicious to me in a New Age sort of way. I wonder if English speakers using tone to distinguish between interrogative and declarative sentences with the same words and word order use both “sides” of the brain, too?

  2. Earlier studies have shown that when given a list of words in random order – and then asked to repeat the list several weeks later, native Chinese speakers will say each word in pretty much the exact same pitch that they had earlier, while English speakers will not. I also know that when I tought English in Taiwan I had to be very careful about how I pronounced each word – because my intonation would often be remembered along with the word. But I think the danger is ascribing too much importance to this. For instance, people who loose part of their brain are often able to compensate by using another part to fulfil the same langauge functions. I think there are a lot of unscientific cultural assumptions about “left-brain” and “right-brain” that are probably implied in this article. Still, it makes sense to me that a part of the brain better attuned to sounds would be invoked in speaking a tonal language. The real test would be to study Yoruba and other non Chinese tonal languages as well.

  3. Kerim– Excellent points. It just now occurred to me: I wonder if the Chinese speakers were literate or not? It seems that have to remember something closer to a picture than a phonological transcription when memorizing vocabulary.

  4. This is quite old; I’m surpsied that the BBC is just now getting wind of this. Since they’ve clearly missed the boat, why even bother publishing it? It just makes them look bad.

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