The effects of tone language experience on pitch processing in the brainstem

J Neurolinguistics. 2010 Jan 1;23(1):81-95. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2009.09.001.


Neural encoding of pitch in the auditory brainstem is shaped by long-term experience with language. The aim herein was to determine to what extent this experience-dependent effect is specific to a particular language. Analysis of variance of brainstem responses to Mandarin and Thai tones revealed that regardless of language identity, pitch-tracking accuracy of whole tones was higher in the two tone language groups (Chinese, Thai) compared to the non-tone language group (English), and that pitch strength of 40-ms tonal sections was generally more robust in tone relative to non-tone languages. Discriminant analysis of tonal sections, as defined by variation in direction and degree of slope, showed that moderate rising pitch was the most important variable for classifying English, Chinese, and Thai participants into their respective groups. We conclude that language-dependent enhancement of pitch representation transfers to other languages with similar phonological systems. From a neurobiological perspective, these findings suggest that neural mechanisms local to the brainstem are tuned for processing pitch dimensions that are perceptually salient depending upon the melodic patterns of a language.