People are always trying to exoticize things Chinese. Now comes this article with the sensationalistic and patently suspect headline:
"If you speak Mandarin, your brain is different" (2/24/15)
This is based on the following paper:
Jianqiao Gea, Gang Pengc, Bingjiang Lyua, Yi Wanga, Yan Zhuoe, Zhendong Niuf, Li Hai Tang, Alexander P. Leff, and, Jia-Hong Gao, "Cross-language differences in the brain network subserving intelligible speech", PNAS (1/22/15).
Language processing is generally left hemisphere dominant. However, whether the interactions among the typical left hemispheric language regions differ across different languages is largely unknown. An ideal method to address this question is modeling cortical interactions across language groups, but this is usually constrained by the model space with the prior hypothesis due to massive computation demands. With cloud-computing, we used functional MRI dynamic causal modeling analysis to compare more than 4,000 models of cortical dynamics among critical language regions in the temporal and frontal cortex, established the bias-free information flow maps that were shared or specific for processing intelligible speech in Chinese and English, and revealed the neural dynamics between the left and right hemispheres in Chinese speech comprehension.
How is language processed in the brain by native speakers of different languages? Is there one brain system for all languages or are different languages subserved by different brain systems? The first view emphasizes commonality, whereas the second emphasizes specificity. We investigated the cortical dynamics involved in processing two very diverse languages: a tonal language (Chinese) and a nontonal language (English). We used functional MRI and dynamic causal modeling analysis to compute and compare brain network models exhaustively with all possible connections among nodes of language regions in temporal and frontal cortex and found that the information flow from the posterior to anterior portions of the temporal cortex was commonly shared by Chinese and English speakers during speech comprehension, whereas the inferior frontal gyrus received neural signals from the left posterior portion of the temporal cortex in English speakers and from the bilateral anterior portion of the temporal cortex in Chinese speakers. Our results revealed that, although speech processing is largely carried out in the common left hemisphere classical language areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) and anterior temporal cortex, speech comprehension across different language groups depends on how these brain regions interact with each other. Moreover, the right anterior temporal cortex, which is crucial for tone processing, is equally important as its left homolog, the left anterior temporal cortex, in modulating the cortical dynamics in tone language comprehension. The current study pinpoints the importance of the bilateral anterior temporal cortex in language comprehension that is downplayed or even ignored by popular contemporary models of speech comprehension.
Before critiquing the claims put forward by the investigators, let's talk about how tones really work in daily life in Chinese languages.
Tones are not absolute, they are not sacrosanct, they are not immutable. Chinese often argue among themselves about what tones certain words should be pronounced in. Let's take 著, which in most usages, but not all, can also be written as 着.
著 has the following pronunciations: zhuó, zháo, zhāo, zhe, zhù, chú. 着 can have the first four pronunciations but not the last two; the very last pronunciation is used for only one purpose, as the first half of an ancient astronomical term.
After character simplification, when 着 was designated as the simplified (i.e., official) form, except in a few special instances where 著 still had to be used, the pronunciations and related meanings of the two characters got shifted around and reassigned by the script reformers, so that there are now two different sets of usages for these two characters in Taiwan and China.
The six pronunciations listed above (zhuó, zháo, zhāo, zhe, zhù, chú) have a veritable blizzard of meanings and functions associated with them (they must represent a number of different morphemes that became attached to these two characters over the centuries; the fact that three separate Middle Sinitic [about 1,400 years ago] pronunciations of 著 are represented by [i.e., have collapsed into] the modern pronunciation of zhù is fair indication that the phonology of 著 and 着 was even greater a thousand and more years ago than it is now).
Definitions (from Wiktionary)
Associated with the pronunciations zhuó (which I consider to be more literary), zháo (which I consider to be more vernacular), and zhāo (which is restricted to a few specialized uses at the end of this section) are the following meanings:
to touch, to contact
to wear, to put on, to be dressed in; clothing
to put, to place (dialectal Mandarin, Jin, Wu)
to blossom or bear fruit
something to depend on, something to fall back on; desired end; a sense of belonging
to catch fire, to burn, to combust, to be ignited
to turn on (a light) (Cantonese)
to love deeply, to cling to and be reluctant to leave
to make (someone to), to order
to live in a fixed place
name of an ancient drinking vessel.
to need to, to ought to, should (Min, Wu)
to be affected by, to be troubled with
to get, to receive (Hakka, Min)
to fall asleep (dialectal Mandarin, Wu)
to fall into a trap, to be trapped
particle denoting that an action was "appropriately done"; "not done in vain".
particle denoting the success or continuation of an action
particle used after verbs to denote the severity of the event (Beijing Mandarin)
one by one (Cantonese)
correct, right (Cantonese, Hakka, Min)
at, in (a place) (Min Dong)
it's now …'s turn (Min)
all right; OK; that's exactly what I was thinking (dialectal Mandarin, Xiang) (zhāo)
move (in go games), step; trick, device (zhāo 招)
Associated with the pronunciation zhù:
notable, remarkable, striking
to show, to manifest
to praise, to speak approvingly of
to write, to compose
literary work, composition, book
to record, to document
to establish, to set up, to build up
aboriginal, native inhabitants
the space between the front gate and the screens / shields
(佇／伫) to remain (at a place), to be held up
(貯／贮) to store
(褚) to stuff a lined garment with cotton
Associated with the pronunciation zhe:
particle indicating the continuation of an action or a state; often used with 正在 or 正
particle used after some adjectives to denote comparison of levels
particle denoting a command, request or advice
Just within supposed Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), I have heard literate, learned Chinese speakers argue over which of the pronunciations of 著 and 着 should be associated with which of the meanings listed above. An example cited by Brendan O'Kane, who is gathering notes for a piece with the working title "A Student's Guide to the Worst Character" (which will delve into the historical background of the problem), offers this example of uncertainty concerning the pronunciation of 著 in one particular instance, namely,
…despite what the dictionary says (and what one would expect given the meaning of 著 read in the second tone), I've heard 著急 [VHM: "worry; be anxious"] much more often as zhāojí than as zháojí. The latter reading would actually sound weird to me — or would at least sound as if the speaker were trying to put special emphasis on the word.
I agree with Brendan: I hear zhāojí more often than zháojí.
Brendan also offers the following humorously illuminating example of uncertainty over how to pronounce 著:
On the topic of 著, the character that dare not speak its name, I recently remembered a scene in the (very funny, almost unknown) Zhang Yimou movie Keep Cool (有話好好說) in which a mispronunciation is played for laughs: a migrant worker, hired by the film's main character to stand outside the window of the girl he likes and serenade her, keeps shouting "我睡不著覺" (wo3 shui4 bu zhuo2 jiao4).
VHM: Most people would say Wǒ shuì bùzháo jiào 我睡不着觉 ("I can't fall asleep") [Google Translate gives Wǒ shuì bùzháo jué, but that's a separate problem of distinguishing between the two MSM pronunciations of 觉, jué ("sense; feel; become aware/awakened") and jiào ("sleep")].
Moving beyond MSM, in Cantonese the first group of definitions are variously pronounced as zau1 zau2 zoek3 zoek6.
In various dialects of Hakka, we have chok8 tiok8 do3, chok8, chok8 chok7, cok8 zok7, cok8, zhok7 chok8, cok8 ziok7, cok8 tiok8 do3.
Teochow diêh4 / dioh4 (tieh / tioh) diêh8 / dioh8 (tiêh / tiôh)
Mindong ciŏk / diŏh
Minnan tio̍h / tio̍k / to̍h
Wu tsaq (T4)
In Cantonese, the second group of definitions are variously pronounced as zoek3 zoek6 zyu3.
In various dialects of Hakka, we have chok8 tiok8 chok7 diau2 zhu5 (do3), zok7 | zu5 | cok8, cok8 tiok8 zok7 diau2 zu5 (do3), zhu5 | chok7, zhu6, zhu5, zu5, cog6 dau3 do3 zog5 zu4, zu5
Teochow du3 (tù) diêh4 / dioh4 (tieh)
Wu tsr (T2)
And we have only begun to scratch the surface. If we start to get into regional differences just within so-called Mandarin (e.g., Shandong and its subtopolects, Sichuan and its subtopolects, Gansu, Yunnan, Hunan…, and there are countless other topolects, the tonal variations among them are endless.
If you are a speaker of MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) and you travel across the Mandarin-speaking areas of China, you will be astonished at the enormous variety of tonal configurations for words. My wife was from Shandong and grew up in Sichuan, so I got a liberal dose of the tonal patterns of both areas. I became so conditioned to them that, if I were upstairs and someone called who spoke Mandarin with Sichuan or Shandong tones, I could tell very quickly to which my wife downstairs was speaking, since — even though she spoke beautiful MSM — she would switch into the very different tone patterns of her interlocutor. I often said that Sichuanese tones were "upside down" in relation to MSM (though they are consistent within their own phonological system).
Other examples of tonal variation within Mandarin are given in posts such as these:
"English and Mandarin juxtaposed " (9/6/13)
Tones can be distorted for many reasons: emphasis, emotion, musical tunes, hip-hop and rap, and so on. There are many other reasons that the designated tones of characters may be changed or ignored. For example, Cantonese waiters will use the shorthand form 才 ("talent; natural abilities; a moment ago; just now; only; not until), normally pronounced coi4, for the more complex character 菜 ("vegetables; greens; food eaten with rice or alcoholic drinks; dish; course"), pronounced coi3.
To summarize the first part of this post, tones are not absolute and inalterable. Even with supposed MSM as spoken in Taiwan and on the Mainland there are are stark differences, while tones in Shandong, Sichuan, the northwest — all supposedly Mandarin — are dissimilar, and this is not to mention the radically different tonal systems of the non-Mandarin Sinitic languages.
Turning to the question of tones and the brain, I asked several colleagues who specialize in the cognitive aspects of East Asian languages their opinion of the article and paper cited above. Their replies follow below.
From Bill Hannas:
If the study did no more than the linked article states, it fails to support its conclusion. The claim, reportedly, is that phonemic tone accounts for observed differences in brain network activation between English and Mandarin speakers. While these differences, if valid, are interesting, why didn't the researchers back up their claim by testing additional groups of speakers, e.g., Vietnamese (south: 5 tones, north: 6) or, for that matter, native speakers of other Chinese languages where the number of tones, their contours, sandhi rules and, arguably, linguistic importance vary from the Mandarin "standard"? Am I missing something here?
From Jim Unger:
There may be an area somewhere in the right hemisphere that controls suprasegmental pitch adjustments (tone) in real time, but so what? It certainly doesn't mean that the brains of Mandarin speakers are unique in some transcendental way. There are loads of other tone or pitch accent languages in the world, even if they are a minority of all languages. It doesn't prove that phonemic tone is transcendentally special: there are many other "unusual" phonemic contrasts that occur in only a minority of languages, any one of which might also be handled in some specific brain area or other. It does not add significant evidence to support sweeping theories of hemispheric laterality, on which Kosslyn and others have lately poured a good deal of empirical cold water. In fact, given that speech production involves the coordination of numerous articulatory gestures in real time, it is more likely that pitch adjustments, voice onset time for obstruents, etc., are under the control of several competing loci in the brain, not just one, even if that one seems always to be active during the time that gesture is occurring.
From a psycholinguist who specializes on Chinese:
This is of course pretty surfacy stuff. Our brains are all different, and if you were to hold everything else constant and allow to vary only the languages that we speak, you'd find very minor, insignificant differences. Mandarin lights up brain areas about the same as any other language when the same tasks are performed. Functionally speaking, tasks focusing on 'contrastive tone' and 'contrastive stress' would activate the same brain areas, and those areas would only minimally involve R-hemisphere 'musical tone'.
From a colleague who is a specialist on writing systems:
Usually when I read a story on "here's your brain on Mandarin vs. English" there's some sort of link to Hanzi, along with entirely unsupported claims of their special and useful difference. So it's refreshing to see something without that for a change. Still, the article doesn't say anything about just how much difference was observed. And I'm wondering a lot about what is called "intelligible speech." Is that Mandarin as it is normally spoken or with the exaggerated tones of sing-song speech so common when someone is asked to read aloud?
Is tonal vs. non-tonal really such an absolute distinction? Are there degrees? And as the write-up notes, "Tone matters in English, just not to the same extent as in Chinese." So what happens in the brains of English speakers if given tonal variations on the "Where have you been?" question?
Another thing I'd like to see is the same study run with native speakers of tonal languages with different tones than Mandarin: Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Thai, for example. Are there differences among them? And would PRC-based scientists want to risk a study that might point to possible differences (however small) in the brains of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers? Heh.
Tones are not sacrosanct, nor do they have the ability to modify a person's brain.
[h.t. Geoff Wade]