Neuroanatomical markers of speaking Chinese

Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 Dec;30(12):4108-15. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20832.


The aim of this study was to identify regional structural differences in the brains of native speakers of a tonal language (Chinese) compared to nontonal (European) language speakers. Our expectation was that there would be differences in regions implicated in pitch perception and production. We therefore compared structural brain images in three groups of participants: 31 who were native Chinese speakers; 7 who were native English speakers who had learnt Chinese in adulthood; and 21 European multilinguals who did not speak Chinese. The results identified two brain regions in the vicinity of the right anterior temporal lobe and the left insula where speakers of Chinese had significantly greater gray and white matter density compared with those who did not speak Chinese. Importantly, the effects were found in both native Chinese speakers and European subjects who learnt Chinese as a non-native language, illustrating that they were language related and not ethnicity effects. On the basis of prior studies, we suggest that the locations of these gray and white matter changes in speakers of a tonal language are consistent with a role in linking the pitch of words to their meaning.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Asian Continental Ancestry Group
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Language*
  • Multilingualism*
  • Young Adult