Most English speakers aren’t very knowledgeable about tonal languages, as English itself is a non- tonal language. A non-tonal language simply means that, although tone might convey some emotional information about the speaker, tone does not indicate anything about the actual word. So, English can be spoken in a total monotone and can still be easily understood- tone is by no means vital to understanding of English. However, this is not the case for tonal languages, like Mandarin, actually has four tones to convey meaning. We can look at this piece by the The Atlantic to see just how important tone is for Mandarin speakers:

Take the word ma. If you say it the way an English-speaker would say it, just reading it sitting by itself on a page, then it means “scold.” Say ma as if you were looking for your mother—ma?—and it means “rough.” If you were just whining at her—“ma-a-a?!?”—with your voice swooping down a bit and then back up even higher, that would mean, believe it or not, “horse.” And if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as ma instead of “oh” for some reason, that would actually mean mother. That’s the way almost every syllable works in Chinese.’

Mandarin is by no means the only tonal language, or even the most complicated. The Hmong language, spoken in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand can have seven or eight tones! Tone languages are spoken all over the  world, but are most common in three main areas: East and South East Asia, sub Saharan Africa, and among the indigenous communities of Mexico. It is actually estimated that as many as 70% of world languages may be tonal, so they are not as uncommon as English speakers might assume!

Tone languages have some great advantages. Speakers of some African languages can communicate across long distances by playing the tones on drums, and Mazatec speakers in Mexico can do the same thing with whistling. There is also evidence to suggest that speakers of tone languages are more likely to have ‘absolute/perfect pitch’. Foe Example, an experiment found that Mandarin speaking musicians were better at identifying musical pitches than English speaking ones. The same was found for speakers of Cantonese (which can have up to nine tones) when tested against English and French (also a non- tonal language) speakers. 

It has also been discovered that the brains of tonal and non tonal language speakers work a little differently too! When exposing Mandarin and English speakers to their respective languages, under brain imaging scans, researchers found that tonal language speakers exhibit a different flow of information during speech comprehension! When listening to their language, native Mandarin speakers and native English speakers both showed evidence of activity in the brains left hemisphere, as expected. Interestingly, Mandarin speakers also showed activity in the right hemisphere, specifically in a region important for processing music, via pitch and tone, an area that has long been seen as largely unrelated to language comprehension!

Do you speak a tonal language, or are you learning one? Let us know on our social media!

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