LINGUIST List 14.1837

Wed Jul 2 2003

Disc: New: BBC Story: Mandarin & Brain Hemispheres

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  1. aide ma, BBC article: Chinese 'takes more brainpower'

Message 1: BBC article: Chinese 'takes more brainpower'

Date: Wed, 2 Jul 2003 12:14:34 +0800 (CST)
From: aide ma <laomaa20023yahoo.com.cn>
Subject: BBC article: Chinese 'takes more brainpower'


Re Linguist 14.1813

This story from the BBC, of which the relevant excerpt is given below,
shows the perils of trying to interpret brain scan data of language
use without a proper understanding of what is involved either in
language learning or in the internal make-up of languages. Statements
like "Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn" are
completely meaningless unless you specify "for who": Mandarin-speaking
children? speakers of other tonal languages? The reseacher does go on
later to specify that "Native English speakers, for example, find it
extraordinarily difficult to learn Mandarin", but one suspects that
this disclaimer was lost on the journalist, and on most readers.

Other statements like the following - 

"Unlike English, [Mandarin] 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."

are classic examples of language-specific bias. Why do we assume that
there is "one word" ma which "changes" according to the tone? We might
as well say, from the perspective of speakers of many Australian
aboriginal languages which don't use voicing distinctively for stop
consonants, that there is "one word" pet which English speakers
bizarrely "change" into bed, bet etc. Not to mention the systematic
stress alternation of noun-verb pairs in English like EXcerpt (noun)
vs exCEPRT (verb) - and if that doesn't have anything to do with
intonation I'll hang up my linguist's hat straight away!
 
Behind all of this, of course, lies the assumption that changes in
stricture and vowel aperture, as represented by the units of the
English writing system, are somehow "basic" and that changes in pitch,
mostly unrepresented by that writing system, are optional
add-ons. Since no-one has yet identified a language which does not
make use of pitch in a systematic way, either as part of the structure
of the syllable - "tone" languages like Chinese or Thai - or of the
word - "stress" languages like English or Swedish - or of larger units
like the tone group - for example. French - this would seem to be, on
the face of it, completely unscientific.
 
Equally scientific is the idea that you can compare the brain scans of
speakers of only two languages and be able to draw any sort of usable
conclusions. Would we get similar results on African tonal languages?
And I would be very interested as to how the experiment was carried
out. Were speakers asked to say single words - in which case the pitch
resources of English would be reduced to almost zero?
 
As a long-time worker in the fields of Chinese linguistics and Chinese
language teaching, this whole project reads to me like another
ill-aimed attempt to "prove" that Chinese is somehow different from
all other languages, though in practice English tends to be the
default standard of comparison. The fact that such "exclusivism" is
rampant in both those fields is one of the reasons why I fled some
years ago to the comparative sanity of English departments, where such
myth-making masquerading as science seems to be less prevalent.
 
(Excerpt follows. The complete article can be found at:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3025796.stm) 
 
	Chinese 'takes more brainpower'

	Speaking Chinese may take more brainpower than speaking English, a
	study suggests. Researchers in Britain have found that people
	who speak Mandarin Chinese use both sides of their brain to
	understand the language. This compares to English-language
	speakers who only need to use one side of their brain. The
	researchers said the findings could boost understanding of how the
	brain processes languages. This, in turn, could one day help
	scientists to develop better ways of helping people to
	re-learn languages after a stroke or similar damage to the brain.
	Brain scans 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.

	"People who speak different sorts of languages use their brains to
	decode speech in different ways."

	Dr Sophie Scott,
	Wellcome Trust 

	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. "People who speak different
	sorts of languages use their brains to decode speech in
	different ways," said Dr Scott. "It overturned some long-held
	theories." 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. "It seems that the structure of the
	language you learn as a child affects how the structure of
	your brain develops to decode speech. "Native English
	speakers, for example, find it extraordinarily difficult to learn
	Mandarin."





Dr Edward McDonald
Department of Foreign Languages
Tsinghua University
Beijing 100084 PRC

laomaa20023yahoo.com.cn
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