June 29, 2003
Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English

Dr. Sophie Scott of the University College London and colleagues have discovered that English and Mandarin language speakers use their brains in different ways to decode language.

They found that the left temporal lobe, which is located by the left temple, becomes active when English speakers hear English.


However, they found that both their left and right temporal lobes become active when they hear Mandarin.

"People who speak different sorts of languages use their brains to decode speech in different ways," said Dr Scott.

Two questions immediately arise in my mind in response to these results:

  • By causing more language processing to take place on the right side of the brain does the use of Mandarin versus English exert subtle effects on how people think about the world?
  • Did the need to speak Mandarin exert any kind of natural selection effect on genes coding for mental characteristics in humans in those areas where it has been spoken for a long time? For instance, did it select for a greater integration between the two halves of the brain in order to be able to process tones and integrate them with the brain's language center?l

People have been arguing for a long time whether the language one speaks is responsible for at least some of the conceptual model which one uses to make sense of the world. I'm reminded of Samuel Delaney's Babel 17 in which a character learns a more precise alien language and by doing so has the way she looks at life altered.

Locked into English, Rydra awakens to a certain reality - she is trapped in a strange restraining web. In desperation she switches in her thoughts to the language Babel-17, which she has partially mastered: "She looked down at the - not 'webbing' but rather a three particle vowel differential, each part of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point." The perspective afforded by the new language enables her to see the weakness of the webbing: "By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel". Switching to another language creates another reality: Rydra is able to free herself."

Now, Delaney's novel is kinda nuts and hard slogging to get thru. If I went back and read it now I'd probably not even like it as much as I did way back when. But while the exact effects that Babel-17 had on the characters in his book may have little in common with the differences caused by thinking in different human languages the idea that the structure of a language has effects on how we think seems a lot more plausble. That two languages can differ so much in their intellectual demands that the effects of hearing them causes a large visible difference in brain scans certainly makes much more plausible the idea that differences between human languages can cause significant differences in cognitive processing.

For example, given that parsing the sounds of Mandarin language into something intelligible causes both sides of the brain to light up does that make it more likely that a Mandarin speaker will access different kinds of memories (textual vs emotional vs visual and so on) from both sides of the brain than a person who interprets spoken language on only one side of the brain? My point here is not to argue that doing so will enhance total cognitive performance. I'm just thinking that something about how people reason about reality (e.g. whether they tend to think spatially or whether they tend to connect melodies to textual memories) will be different if they use both versus one side of the brain to interpret language.

Also, if more of the mind is used to process language then that raises the possibility that less of the mind is available for other purposes. Whatever area of the right temporal lobe that processes language sounds in Mandarin speakers is not available to do whatever that part of the brain tends to do in English speakers. Did this create an extra selective pressure in evolution among Chinese that caused some other part of the brain to be bigger to accomodate the greater need for brain area to do language processing?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 29 11:01 PM  Brain Performance

SusanJ said at July 1, 2003 3:02 AM:

Interesting - I have a problem with arthritis in my right hand (I am right-handed), and have been trying to do more with my left hand, and have been wondering if by doing that I will somehow change how I think, or how I view the world.

Margaret Holt Jong said at November 12, 2003 3:19 PM:

11/12/03 I am a native speaker of English. I have been a speaker of Mandarin for 34 years. My first Masters is in Chinese, so I read and write as well. I have a semi-photographic memory. I remember things in pictures(like Chinese characters, for example, I remember numbers as pictures of numbers on a page. About science and civilzation in China and the terrific topic of Greece vs China please consult Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China. There are at least six volumes and he covers this topic well.I do not think it is so much the language, but the nature of the culture. The examination system was fairly early on and there was a great emphasis on memorizting the classics.This was still true when I learned that language. Also discoveries were kept secret, not made public. This is not currently true and China has adopted Western science, more or less. It is true that your perception changes with your choice of language. Chinese is very old and non-Western so it is quite different. It is quite common for people who speak several languages to select a certain language for a certain topic.


Margaret Holt 何 美 莉

mdc said at November 16, 2003 12:19 PM:

WNYC - Radio Lab: Word Musicians (November 14, 2003)
... to me! She also offers one possible explanation for why Mandarin, Vietnamese and Chinese speaking cultures consistently produce amazing musical talent: they ...
http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/11142003, 29k

Nan Caldwell said at October 18, 2004 1:30 PM:

Hello- I am wondering if you have any research findings on how American students with learning disabilities do in the study of Mandarin. I have heard that students who have trouble with spelling, structures, patterns and grammar- those who often waive foreign language courses- actually excell in Mandarin. Do you have any experience with that or references? Thank you- Nan Caldwell Lake Forest Country Day School Foreign Language Department Head

Claire said at October 25, 2004 10:47 AM:

I'd say Mandarin must use more brains as it's a very complicated language. I wonder how about German and Russian. Do you know how much of the brain they use?

Kylie Tillman said at January 26, 2005 10:38 PM:

Hello, I am currently attending a four month intensive Chinese program. As a dyslexic comparing Chinese charaters and English textI must say that reading Chinese characters is less intimidating than reading English text. Each character is made up of radicals, and each represents something from history or natural elements. This is much more appealing to a visual and three dimensional learner. This May I will be going to China to do a study abroad and am wondering if you have any information on field work dealing with dyslexia in Beijing.

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