Chinese is a tonal language, which means that unlike English, the same syllable can mean several different things depending on inflection – for example, depending on your intonation the syllable “mah” can mean mother, horse, fire truck, hemp, spider web, calamitous intergalactic apocalypse or bacon. I might be wrong about a few of those, but in keeping with the spirit of modern journalism I’m content to substitute actual research with just making stuff up. If somebody out there would like to pay me to shill their policies, the circle would be complete.
Getting back to where we were, this occurred to me today: in North America, among native English speakers at least, tone-deafness is relatively common and perfect pitch is rare,something that’s apparently not true for tonal-language native speakers. On the other hand, we do have this thing called dyslexia; a syndrome which results in people unable to read or write for reasons that (as I understand the state of the science) aren’t currently obvious or soluble.
Now, my question is this: do cultures with tonal languages have some kind of dyslexia-comparable affliction for people who are genuinely, thoroughly tone-deaf? An affliction like, say, verbal dyspraxia, of somebody who cannot be taught to speak a tonal language properly?
(For which one line of research might be “teach this person a simpler, atonal language”?)
I really don’t know; I don’t even know where to start looking. I just thought that it was an interesting-if-random inquiry that I’d share with you. If any of my four or five regular readers have some insight into this, I’d be glad to hear about it.