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
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