LINGUIST List 14.1864

Fri Jul 4 2003

Disc: BBC Story: Mandarin & Brain Hemispheres

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Chris Beckwith, BBC Story: Mandarin & Brain Hemispheres

Message 1: BBC Story: Mandarin & Brain Hemispheres

Date: Thu, 03 Jul 2003 15:36:46 +0000
From: Chris Beckwith <>
Subject: BBC Story: Mandarin & Brain Hemispheres

Re: Linguist 14.1837
I agree with Professor McDonald's comments. I also wondered why they
did not check their results on, for example, Thai speakers, and why
they did not do brain scans of bilingual people (as a control for
their study if nothing else). Also, I have to admit that my initial
reaction was, ''_Mandarin_ is extraordinarily difficult for English
speakers to learn to speak?!'' What a lot of nonsense! It is difficult
to find many languages that are as similar to English as Mandarin is,
or as easy for English speakers to learn to speak. This statement
caused me to doubt everything else that has been claimed by the
researchers. Tones are not easy for some students to learn, but this
is partly due to the methods used to teach them. And many learners who
cannot acquire tones correctly nevertheless do just fine in Mandarin,
partly because the tones are radically different from dialect to
dialect, and few Chinese speak perfect 'standard' Mandarin. I have met
fluent foreign speakers of Mandarin who cannot produce a single
correct tone. How then is it possible for them to communicate with
Chinese (as I have personally witnessed them do) under the usual
assumptions? It is notable that the standard example of the syllable
[ma] in four tones (one could add the toneless form too) is hard, if
not impossible, to replicate with any other syllable, indicating that
phonemic tone does not _actually_ occur in isolated monosyllables in
Mandarin, with very few exceptions. All that does not mean tone is
subphonemic, but I really wonder if the preconceptions of the
researchers did not suggest their results. (Why otherwise did they do
brain scans of Mandarin speakers?) Either the science has been very
badly misrepresented in the news report or it isn't science, despite
all the equipment and prestigious institutions involved.

(Prof.) Christopher I. Beckwith
Indiana University 
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