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A Social View on the Chinese Language

Jerome L. Packard

A Social View on the Chinese Language is intended to be a general linguistic introduction to the Chinese language for the general reader and can be used in beginning-level Chinese linguistics courses. It is different from other Chinese linguistics surveys because, in addition to the usual areas of interest (such as the Chinese dialects, the history of the language, the characters and the grammar), it offers a view into linguistic phenomena that are also related to human behavior and society, such as how Chinese children and US college students learn Chinese, how the brain processes Chinese, the genetic origins of Chinese, language disorders and language loss in Chinese, differences in Chinese language use in different social groups, studies of Chinese reading and psycholinguistic aspects of Chinese language use.
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6 Chinese Language and the Brain



Chinese Language and the Brain

Although the Chinese language does not have any special relationship with the brain that is not shared with any other languages, sometimes that relationship is emphasized because of two factors that seem to make the Chinese relationship with the brain more intimate. Those two factors are tone and Chinese character orthography. The relationship is there for tone because of brain hemisphere lat-erality phenomena and how they manifest with linguistic tone as in Chinese and non-linguistic tone as in music.

Music and musical tone are usually found to be processed in the right cerebral hemisphere, and so the natural question to ask is whether linguistic tone as in Chinese is processed in the right hemisphere like musical tone or whether it is processed in the left hemisphere as with most other linguistic information. Chinese tone was found to be processed in the left hemisphere like other linguistic stimuli in studies of aphasic speech in the 1980s.1 But while Chinese lexical tone processing in native Chinese speakers primarily employs language-dominant left-hemisphere cortical areas, non-native processing involves more right hemisphere or bilateral participation, similar to the processing of L1 prosodic or non-speech F0 information.2

Musical experience does seem to facilitate the perception of more linguistically-relevant acoustic dimensions of Chinese tone. For example, while both American musicians and non-musicians perceive tone height in Taiwanese equally well, musicians can better track the F0 contour.3 Other research reveals that native English musicians...

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