By Pete Chuang

It fell on me: isn’t it inspiring how we can pick up languages since we were babies? We have been mimicking sounds, words and sentences. But how have we come to understand their meanings?

How did we tell that mom was giving us a kiss or a spank? 

Logic. Early scientists discovered that language learning is signalled by activity in the left brain, the hemisphere that handles logic and analytical thinking. However, an emerging theory suggests that it is not the only party. Based on discovery of activity flowing between both hemispheres¬ in the brain of Mandarin speakers, scientists question the mechanism of the right hemisphere in tonal languages.

Mandarin is one branch of a major tonal language group–the Chinese languages. For tonal languages, word meanings are dominated by tones. Namely, different pronunciation of a syllable can convey polar meanings, even misunderstanding sometimes. For example, the syllable for ‘chicken’, ‘collect’, ‘jam-packed’, ‘worship’ is the same, while all pronounced differently.

To register tones, the right brain, the hemisphere that perceives musical elements, is activated. In the brain of Mandarin speakers, scientists mapped connection between hemispheres. Essentially, to communicate in Mandarin, words are thrown between left and right, spiralling in the coil of logic and tone.

Imagine being seventeen again. You are sitting in class and the clock ticks towards 3pm. You start packing your bag because school routine tells you the bell will ring soon. For some of your peers, they tick with the right bell at the right time. Even when the time hits 3pm, they won’t buzz if an announcement plays instead of the bell.

In English, tones play the role of emotions in speech. Mandarin just works up your brain even more by weaving them both. It’s, at the same time, finicky, tiring and accomplishing.