Lazyweb Pseudoscience Research Department

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.


  1. Posted January 23, 2005 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    This isn’t really insight, nor is it actually an answer to your question, but there’s a note in the premier issue of Scientific American MIND ( a new quarterly magazine) about cultural differences in dyslexia. Apparently the problems in Chinese dyslexics (reading a non-alphabetic script) lie in different parts of the brain than for western children. As I said, that doesn’t answer your question — but it does point to cultural differences in problems of language and perception.

  2. Posted January 24, 2005 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Dude, self-deprecating readership disclaimers are so 2004.

  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted January 24, 2005 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    “$THING is so $DATE” lines are a year behind that.

  4. Melanie
    Posted January 24, 2005 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, not having read the original study that article is talking about, I have two things to say:

    1. Maybe Chinese musical instruction is just better. There seems to be a learned component to perfect pitch

    2. It is not clear to me what perfect pitch/”tone deafness” have to do with perceiving lexical tones. My (limited) understanding is that lexical tones are relative in nature, not based on absolute pitch – e.g. “rising” vs. “falling” tone. Even “tone-deaf” people generally are not so tone-deaf that they can’t tell rising from falling pitch. I heard at a talk in a conference not to long ago, that people who have real perfect pitch actually have more difficulty perceiving the equivalence of relative pitch. I’m not sure if I believe this (I don’t remember their presenting any data supporting it), but that’s what they said.

  5. Darcy
    Posted January 25, 2005 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    In some study somewhere, but really I’m not just making this up, I read that acquiring perfect pitch is much like learning foreign languages: it depends on early exposure. ie. before you are three. Interestingly, the hippocampus only becomes mature at the age of three. Hence not being able to remember our experiences as infants. So I think to myself as I drag her off to another of my singing lessons that in two years, when Catherine reaches that age, she should have forgotten that she doesn’t like bananas but be able to sing any note on command.

    But I agree with Melanie that this is really all beside the point. What tonal language speakers really need is relative pitch. And because of the way the skull resonates, as I have learnt at above-mentioned singing lessons, even people with good relative pitch can’t necessarily tell what sound they are making when they sing it.