Back in 1996 when I was at the International Christian University in Tokyo, I did research on how the Japanese language affect Japanese people’s unique perception of colour and music, which rendered superb manipulation of packaging, design and pop music. Although my research didn’t come to a conclusive answer, it pointed towards the relationship between the use of both kana (Japanese alphabets) and Kanji (Chinese characters) as well as the sounds and intonation of the Japanese language and their effect on neurological development.
Now when we look at overseas born Chinese children learning Chinese, we naturally wonder how this bilingualism will affect their cognitive development. Two of the fundamental differences between Chinese and English are its writing system and its sound system. Let’s look at the dialect of Putonghua/Mandarin.
Sounds in Putonghua (Mandarin)
There are 401 frequently-used Putonghua sounds. These consist of 20 monograms, 219 digrams and 162 trigrams. We won’t get into technical details here, but in order to produce these sounds, it involves specific movements (positions and duration) of the tongue, the throat and the jaw. While there are 4 major intonations (more, if we count the light-tone “輕聲”, er-sound “兒化聲” etc), the 4th tone occupies 40% of the total usage. This is obviously very different from the English spoken language. Will this alone make a great difference in a child’s cognitive development?
Recent Studies on babies interacting with Putonghua
In 2009, extensive experiments were conducted for a study with normal and hearing impaired children. Another 2010 UK study compared native English speaking babies of 10-12 months old who (1) interacted with a real human speaking to them in Chinese Putonghua, (2) watched videos of the same person speaking to them in Putonghua, and (3) had no exposure in Chinese as a second language.
These studies showed that the exposure to Putonghua can have great impact to the neurological development of babies. Live interaction with a real person during babyhood can help a young child learn Chinese as a second language successfully even after the “window of opportunity” closes, whereas children who are merely exposed to video/audio of Chinese retain very little at a later stage. Furthermore, exposure to sounds affects the cognitive sequencing abilities of a child (any task that requires perception, learning, or memorisation of events where order or timing is important) all the way past their teenage years. These studies also confirmed that the effect of linguistic experience extends beyond speech related processing and tasks.
In light of these studies, when we teach our children Chinese, we know that they will benefit far beyond learning his/her own culture, history, roots…. We empower them with a neurological and cognitive development that will help them leap much further in the future.