Taking Cantonese lessons can't teach you to play the piano or strum a guitar. But new research suggests that speakers of Cantonese and other so-called "tonal" languages enjoy a distinct advantage when it comes to learning to play a musical instrument.
The key is in the structures governing music and language abilities, several of which overlap in the brain.
For a study published April 2 in the online journal PLOS One, researchers focused on how language influences musical processing in the brain. They found that Cantonese speakers with no musical training processed pitch and tone much like trained musicians do.
"When we looked at tasks that involved the perception of music, tone language speakers performed very much like musicians," study author Dr. Gavin M. Bidelman, assistant professor at the University of Memphis, told The Huffington Post.
Bidelman, who also directs the university's Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, conducted the study with researchers at the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) in Toronto, Canada, as part of his post-doctoral work. Evaluating both Cantonese speakers and English speakers with no musical training against professional musicians (who also spoke English), the team discovered that Cantonese speakers outperformed their English-speaking counterparts across the board on auditory, musical, and cognitive tests. And despite their lack of training, the Cantonese speakers kept pace with the musicians.
"For those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain's auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch," Bidelman said in a statement released by the institute. "If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language."
Based on a similar study of Mandarin Chinese speakers Bidelman published in 2011, the new research also illustrates that Cantonese trumps Mandarin when it comes to learning to play an instrument. The difference lies in the language's lexical tone -- that distinctive pitch level of each syllable. Bidelman said Mandarin has more "curved" sounds, while in the Cantonese language, these tones are level.
Bidelman and his team included only native Cantonese speakers in the new study. But he said he believes he would have seen the same effect, albeit to a lesser degree, if he and his team had examined people who only recently picked up Cantonese.
The study could pave the way for research on the effects of introducing Cantonese or other East Asian languages in early childhood (Parents, take note!), but Bidelman believes the most immediate practical application is speech-language training for people with serious brain injuries.
"If you want to restore some function in a stroke patient," Bidelman told HuffPost, "you don't want to just give them speech training software program. Because that's really boring."