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‘Mind’ your language

Conversing in our native tongue is second nature, something almost as instinctive as drawing breath.  But while conscious thought may be required to frame a sentence or present an argument, very little effort is required actually to produce speech itself. 

Yet every language has a different way of using the main components of speech such as grammar, semantics and pragmatics: these components all work together to create meaningful communication between individuals and the nuances of these differences in approach have some very interesting, and unexpected consequences.

Music to the ears?

We think of language and music as separate and distinct, but even the most basic of sentences uses intonation and pitch to shape and phrase words – we don’t speak in a monotone (well, thankfully not most of us at least).

Research from Baycrest’s RRI found that those who speak tonal as opposed to non-tonal languages have enhanced auditory systems which better allows them to hear musical notes and detect minute changes in pitch.

Perhaps this is why there are so many Asian classical music prodigies.  Cantonese, for example, has an intricate six-tone system, while English has no tones at all. No one suggests that taking Vietnamese or Cantonese lessons is a shortcut to musical success; the languages cannot teach you to strum a guitar or play the flute for example. But learning a tonal language at an early age “exercises” the same part of the brain that links to musicality so could be thought of as a kind of musical cross-training.

Those who speak tonal as opposed to non-tonal languages have enhanced auditory systems which better allows them to hear musical notes and detect minute changes in pitch.

Number-naming: the language of maths

Not only does music come easier to those who speak an Asian language, but there is a big difference between number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages, which also may give Asian children an advantage when it comes to learning Maths.

Chinese numbers and words are remarkably brief. For example, it will take a Mandarin speaker much less time to list and memorise the sequence: 4,5,8,2,9,7, than it would an English speaker, purely because each number is shorter in Mandarin than in English and thus can be memorised more quickly. In The Number Sense, Stanislas Dehaene confirms that the ‘memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length.’

Similarly, the number system in English is highly irregular and its basic rules arbitrary. In places like China, Japan and Korea things are much simpler; fifteen is one-five, and eighteen is one-eight. This variance helps to demonstrate why Asian Children learn to count much faster than native English speakers.

The regularity of their number systems also means that addition, subtraction and other arithmetical manipulations are also much more straightforward to learn.

Regardless, there is no doubt however that hard work is essential to be good at subjects like maths and music. According to Maths Professor, Alan Schoenfeld, it is about your attitude towards it: ‘you master mathematics if you are willing to try’ and success ultimately comes through ‘persistence’. The underlying point is that these subjects are sometimes easier and naturally quicker to learn simply because of a person’s native language.

It’s not you, it’s cultural

Differences between the building blocks of language affect other things too – jokes don’t always translate well. Take the apparently simple question “why did the chicken cross the road?” In English, we have used the verb in its present tense as “cross.” In response, we would say “the chicken crossed the road to…” Here the verb is changed into past tense.

In Indonesian, you cannot change the tense of the verb. In Turkish however, you can change the tense of the verb, but you would also have to include further information depending on whether the person you being spoken to is male or female. The way a sentence translates from one language to another may therefore entirely change its meaning.

Language and culture are inseparable – if you don’t understand the language, much of the culture will get lost in translation. This implies that when you acquire a new language, for instance, you not only learn to communicate with someone but you also gain an appreciation of how their culture operates.

Globalisation has changed the world we live in. Having an appreciation of the huge array of languages we have in the world and all their glorious variety ultimately supports the preservation of cultural diversity. In a business sense, anything that promotes diversity of thought, including cultural and linguistic diversity, give a competitive edge. Companies who embrace diversity will be all the better for it.

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