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December 13, 2006

When language is music to the brain

From: - London,England,UK - Dec 13, 2006

Some people find it hard to register and understand tonal languages like Mandarin, a new study suggests.

The University of California (UC) Irvine study focuses on why cochlear implant users have difficulty in understanding the language.

There is evidence of the left side of the brain processing language while the right side processes music, but the researchers have asked: what side of the brain would register a musical (tonal) language like Mandarin Chinese?

UC Irvine researcher Fan-Gang Zeng and Chinese colleagues studied brain scans of subjects as they listened to spoken Mandarin.

They found that the brain processes the music, or pitch, of the words first in the right hemisphere before the left side of the brain processes the semantics, or meaning, of the information.

The results show that language processing is more complex than previously thought, and it gives clues to why people who use auditory prosthetic devices have difficulty understanding Mandarin.

Cochlear implants not designed for register large tonal ranges

In the English language, Zeng said, changes in pitch dictate the difference between a spoken statement and question, or in mood, but the meaning of the words does not change.

This is different in Mandarin, in which changes in pitch affect the meaning of words.

“Most cochlear implant devices lack the ability to register large tonal ranges, which is why these device users have difficulty enjoying music … or understanding a tonal language,” said Zeng.

A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.

In his hearing and speech lab at UCI, Zeng has made advances in cochlear implant development, discovering that enhancing the detection of frequency modulation (FM) significantly boosts the performance of many hearing aids devices by increasing tonal recognition, which is essential to hearing music and understanding certain spoken languages like Mandarin.

The study appears in this week’s online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

© 2006 scenta