August 20, 2010

Now THAT'S A Reason To Find A Mandarin-Speaking Nanny

Someone on Twitter called the 2006 show titled, "Musical Language" the single best episode of Radiolab ever. I don't know about that, but it is certainly very awesome.

And from a parent's perspective it is a must-listen. There's a bit about why every human in the world uses that sing-songy language to talk to babies. And then there's the part about how our kids could all have perfect pitch if only they were exposed at ages 6-12 months to a tonal language, like, say, Mandarin:

Here we have a faculty that had been thought to be confined to a few rare individuals who were thought to just be extraordinarily gifted, that might, in fact, be available to any individual, provided they're given the right exposure, at a critical period. And that raises the question of what other sorts of abilities could be brought out if we only knew just what to do. There may be much more human potential than we realized.
When cultural historians trace the origins of Tribeca's Chinese-speaking nanny trend, they will find Jad Abumrad sitting there waiting for them with a Confucius-like smile on his face.

Radiolab | Musical Language, April 21, 2006 [wnyc, via, I remember now, it was tom carmody, sitting in for jason kottke]


Isn't that the "sometimes behaves so strangely" one? I could not get that out of my head for days.

d'oh, thanks, now it's stuck in my head, too.

I didn't hear all of this one, and I didn't do extensive fact-checking, but as I recall, the science behind the claims about perfect pitch and tone languages was shaky, if not entirely imaginary.

Basically, you can assume the science behind anything you read/hear in the media about Chinese or tone languages generally is shaky, if not entirely imaginary. There's something about lexical tone that really captures the imagination (and overworks it).

(Similarly for logographic writing systems-- a double-whammy of ridiculous claims for Chinese, unfortunately.)

I'll have to give this a listen, but like "a" I'm extremely skeptical of claims linking tonal language to perfect pitch.

Unlike perfect pitch, which means you can tell apart notes that correspond to specific absolute frequencies (e.g., A = 440Hz), the tones in Mandarin are all relative. They're more similar to the accents in Western languages than to the notes on a scale.

And it's not like English is devoid of tonality. It's not as central to individual words as it is in Mandarin, but tone is crucial to interpreting the meaning of many sentences.

Example 1:

"You're going there." vs. "You're going there?"

When spoken, these have the exact same words but you know which is a question based on whether the speaker ends on a relatively low tone or a relatively high tone.

Example 2:

"Do you want soup or salad?"

If the speaker gives "soup" a higher pitch than "salad," the correct answer is either "soup" or "salad." If the speaker gives "soup" a lower pitch than "salad," the correct answer is either "yes" or "no." Almost every native speaker of English would be able to answer this question correctly based entirely on the tones the speaker used. No musical ability or aptitude necessary.

Tones in Mandarin work the same way. They're used more frequently--almost every syllable has a tone--but it's the same concept.

So I'm not really sure why learning Mandarin would make a difference in terms of musical ability.

In a nutshell, they discovered that Mandarin speakers don't just all use the same relative pitch for language (like most (all?) other languages) but the same absolute pitch. They recorded dozens of Mandarin speakers uttering common phrases and the absolute pitch was identical. Thus, the link to perfect pitch.

They recorded dozens of Mandarin speakers uttering common phrases and the absolute pitch was identical.

Do you have a citation? Speaking Mandarin is not like singing. It's possible that an individual speaker has consistent pitch in his/her tones over time, but from speaker to speaker, I'm pretty sure from my (unscientific) observation that different people not only use different pitches for particular tones (so one person's "first tone" will be different from another's), but have different pitch spacing between first (high) and third (low) tones.

Meanwhile, this study (which is the only real study I'm able to pull up from a minute of googling) seems to have some pretty significant control flaws. They drew their conclusions based on comparing Beijing Central Conservatory and Eastman School students and controlled only for gender and age of onset of musical training, but there are many things that differ in those two populations aside from language background, gender and years of training. The authors acknowledge that there may be genetic differences in brain structure, for example, but they don't even mention more obvious possibilities such as the possibility that the style of music training in China and the US is likely quite different.

Again, I'll have to listen to the Radiolab episode, but I remain very skeptical.

That's the one. The researcher's name is Diana Deutsch; she's at UCSD. Here's the paper on the study comparing music students from China and the US, which was presented at the Acoustical Society of America's annual meeting in 2004.

Another possibility, of course, is that the schooling system in China presorts kids with absolute pitch disproportionately. There are all sorts of possible factors. In one sense, the differences between methodology standards in linguistics vs psychology vs neural development, come into play.

But the researchers do themselves no favors with a squishy intro like this, which is clearly designed to push lazy reporting that Mandarin nannies cause perfect pitch:

"Our findings suggest that the potential for acquiring absolute pitch may be universal at birth. It raises the possibility that parents may be able to encourage the development of absolute pitch in their children during the 'critical period' when infants are learning the main features of their native language."

Meanwhile their real conclusion is that "this paper reports the first large scale study which demonstrates a difference in the prevalence of absolute pitch in two normal populations, as determined by the administration of a direct, on-site test, without self-selection from within the target populations, and controlling for gender and for age of onset of musical training."

So they found there are more folks with perfect pitch at Beijing Central Conservatory than at Eastman, but the link to language is variously described as a "hypothesis," "possibility" and "conjecture." Stop the presses!

I didn't know about Radiolabs before reading this post. It's been added to my podcast queue given how interesting this segment was. Thanks for posting!

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