Does the early development of one's language affect one's musical development? The study, "Speaking a tone language enhances musical pitch perception in 3–5-year-olds," contends that Mandarin-speaking children tend to be better at differentiating pitch difference in music in comparison with English-speaking children. The results suggest that this tendency is related to having a tonal language, Mandarin, as one's first language and its influence on the child's pitch perception.
Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning speakers use tone or pitch patterns to express different word meanings. The famous example is the syllable "ma." The syllable's meaning varies according to the tone:
1) 媽 mā - mother, 2) 麻 má - hemp, 3) 馬 mǎ - horse, 4) 罵 mà - scold.
Consider another well-known example:
我要睡覺。Wǒ yào shuìjiào. - I want to sleep.
我要水餃。Wǒ yào shuǐjiǎo. - I want dumplings.
This feature in Mandarin makes it challenging for English speakers to learn to speak Mandarin without embarrassing misunderstandings on occasion.
In this study, Creed and colleagues (2017) at the University of California San Diego conducted a test between two groups: English-speaking children in the United States and Mandarin-speaking children in China. The age of both groups is between 3 to 5 years old. The researchers ask the children to distinguish between two tracks in three different musical tasks:
1st task: two tracks of different pitch pattern, the same musical instrument
2nd task: two tracks of the same pitch pattern, different musical instruments
3rd task: two tracks of the same pattern, the same musical instrument
Children of both English and Mandarin are able to tell the two tracks in the 2nd task are created by different instruments. However, Mandarin-speaking children in China tend to be better at distinguishing the difference between the two tracks in the 1st task. In other words, children of Mandarin Chinese are more aware when the pitch pattern changes, indicating that learning a tonal language during an early developmental stage may have an effect on one's musical development.
The researchers of this study also provide a video abstract of this study: