Tonal languages, found mostly in Asia, Africa and South America, are those that use a number of high and low pitch sounds in patterns of speech. In these languages, slight changes in pitch can greatly change the meaning of a word.
According to Canadian researchers, the Vietnamese language, for example, has 11 different vowel sounds and six different tones. Cantonese also uses a complex six-tone system, while languages such as English have no tones within its speech patterns.
Neuroscientists also have a reason to be excited about the findings because they provide the first strong evidence that music and language, which scientists say share overlapping brain structures, have bi-directional benefits.
“For those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain’s auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch,” said lead investigator Gavin Bidelman. “If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language.”
However, speaking a tonal language don’t necessarily make for better musicians, since musicianship involves many more skills and abilities than just the sense of hearing.
The researchers said that knowing music and language, which are two important areas of human cognition, can actually influence each other, and may offer ways to develop new approaches in rehabilitation for people with speech and language difficulties.
“If music and language are so intimately coupled, we may be able to design rehabilitation treatments that use musical training to help individuals improve speech-related functions that have been impaired due to age, aphasia or stroke,” Bidelman said.
Researchers think the benefits of this music-language coupling might also work in reverse, so that well-developed speech and language training programs could improve a person’s musical listening skills.
Not all tonal languages offer the same music listening benefits as Cantonese.
The researchers found that Mandarin, for example, “has more ‘curved’ tones and the pitch patterns vary with time,” which is quite different from how pitch is used in music.
Musical pitch, Bidelman said, resembles “stair step, level pitch patterns” which happen to share similarities with the Cantonese language.