London, June 30 (Reuters): Mandarin speakers use more areas of their brains than people who speak English, scientists said today, in a finding that provides new insight into how the brain processes language.
Unlike English speakers, who use one side of their brain to understand the language, scientists at the Wellcome Trust research charity in Britain discovered that both sides of the brain are used to interpret variations in sounds in Mandarin.
“We were very surprised to discover that people who speak different sorts of languages use their brains to decode speech in different ways; it overturned some long-held theories,” said Dr Sophie Scott, a psychologist at the charity.
Using brain scans on volunteers, Scott discovered that different areas of the brain are used to interpret words and intonation.
The left temporal lobe of the brain is active when English speakers hear the language but Mandarin speakers use the left and right lobe, which is normally used to process melody in music and speech.
Intonation is important in Mandarin because it gives different meanings to the same word. The word ma, for example, can mean mother, scold, horse or hemp, depending on the tone.
“We think Mandarin speakers interpret intonation and melody in the right temporal lobe to give the correct meaning to the spoken word,” Scott said in a statement.
She believes the research could provide insights into what happens when people are forced to re-learn speech comprehension following a stroke.
“It seems that the structure of the language you learn as a child affects how the structure of your brain develops to decode speech. Native English speakers, for example, find it extraordinarily difficult to learn Mandarin,” Scott said.
The findings will be presented at a science exhibit this week at the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of leading scientists, in London.