Terra Cotta Warriors circa 2016

I have studied Chinese since I was 19 years old. Almost every semester in college had one Chinese course, I studied abroad in my fourth year, and I went back to Beijing to work for six years. 

Was I fluent in all that time? Not at all, but I had a better understanding of the language and culture than most people in my life. 

Many people I met came to China not knowing a word of Chinese. Some of them stuck to translators and calling Chinese coworkers. 

Others made an effort to learn independence. Those people left the country more fluent than me. 

My wavering confidence and general nervousness around people kept me from being fluent like my more outgoing classmates and coworkers. 

I started noticing something most speakers had in common

I noticed it sometime during my year studying at Beijing Language and Culture University. I started thinking about my classmates and their different backgrounds. We all came from different backgrounds, but most of us had something in common.

I had five years of piano lessons, four years of clarinet, and six years of choral singing under my belt. My roommate played went to spent her middle and high school years in art school studying the bass. During our time in China, she started learning how to play the erhu. 

Two of my classmates were avid guitar players. One of them became a guitarist in the Beijing Dead when he went back to China after graduating college. 

My coworkers were the same way. My old boss played guitar for years. Many of my coworkers dabbled in music and singing, but they couldn’t read music. 

Mandarin is a tone-based language. Could a musical background be what separates people’s ability from language? Or is it a coincidence the best Chinese speakers I ever met had vast musical backgrounds? 

When you think about it, it makes complete sense

Think about music and Mandarin. Think about the things they have in common. Both depend on tone and pitch. 

Reading music and reading Chinese are special skills not everyone has. I think you can see where I’m going from here. The two aren’t the same, but they have a lot of similarities. 

It turns out I’m not the only person who noticed! In 2017, the University of California San Francisco did a study with Mandarin and music. 

The study took 180 children, both English and Mandarin speakers, and had them perform tasks involving timbre and pitch contour. The Mandarin speakers did way better on the tone-based tasks than the English speakers! 

UC San Francisco isn’t the only school to find these results. In 2007, Northwestern University did a study involving twenty volunteers who didn’t speak Chinese. Half of them studied an instrument for at least six years. 

The volunteers were shown a movie while listening to an audiotape say the Chinese word mi in three different tones. Researchers would record brain activity and found the musical volunteers had higher brain activity than non-musicians! 

Does this mean you’re not going to learn Chinese well if you’re not skilled with an instrument? Not at all. It means musicians might have a slight advantage. 

But if the musician is shyer and more reserved than you, you might be more fluent than the musician by the time you leave China. 

No matter how skilled you are in music or language, you need the practice to get better. Musicians get better from practicing their instruments. Your Chinese will get better from practicing. 

You can’t get better at the language if you’re not using it. You need to talk to people. Even if you’re asking wait staff about the menu, it’s more practice than the person dependent on their translation apps. 

The takeaway

Are musicians going to have an easier time with learning the tones? Yes. Does it mean they’re going to be better speakers? 

If they don’t try to use the language, no. They could memorize every word and every tone and still not understand what they’re saying. 

If you want to be a fluent speaker, you need to find ways to put yourself out there and start talking to native speakers. 

Whether it means asking about the menu in a restaurant or taking an ESL job so you can learn from listening to your students, practice is what makes you better at a language, just as it does with an instrument. 


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Keara Hopkins

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