October 2014 – Does Learning Chinese Make You Smarter?

Whilst surfing the net I came upon this article titled ‘Scientists Claim Learning Chinese Makes You Smarter’. Naturally, I was a bit excited; I’ve always considered myself rather lucky to have studied Mandarin throughout childhood. Usually, this is when my mother would jump in and say, ‘Aha! I told you there’d be the day where you’d be grateful for my foresight!’

The article pays homage to newfound evidence indicating that a string of cognitive abilities may be trained when learning Chinese. For instance, an English speaker only uses the left temporal lobe of their brain for language, whereas the tones, sounds and script of Chinese require usage of both temporal lobes in the brain – effectively allowing Chinese speakers to distinguish between different words and meanings via distinct tonal changes. We offer an immersion-based program at Mandarin Stars, which has proven to be most effective, as children are shown to easily learn numbers, colours and basic phrases when they are fully immersed in a Mandarin-speaking environment. Instead of a traditional classroom environment where the teacher is droning on and children are expected to absorb and memorise, our program manages to captivate the attention, interest and enthusiasm of kids as they become engaged through games and play; the kids then automatically associate learning Mandarin with ‘fun’ and enjoy the classes, laying down the foundations for fluency in Mandarin as they mature.

When one considers the English written form you realise that it is mostly linear and composed from left to write, whereas Chinese characters possess a more complex structure. The characters involve all manners of strokes in numerous directions guided by sequential movements, which in turn activate neural activity in the brain’s working, thinking and spatial memory. And thus, by acquiring the skill to handwrite Chinese is deemed to aid the development of motor skills, learning shapes and letters and the visual identification of graphics. One has to understand that the acquisition of Chinese handwriting is a gradual process; the learning curve is rather gentle. Children start from the basics of Chinese handwriting, writing out the numbers one to ten in the correct stroke order under the careful guidance of their laoshi (teacher). At Mandarin Stars, we look to inspire within the kids a lifelong learning and love for Chinese.

The article also raised an interesting point regarding mathematics, asserting that evidence suggest that learning Chinese improves ones mathematical skills. Researchers in New Zealand have found that greater understanding of mathematical concepts are gained by children who are native Chinese speakers, as the student learns and reinforces basic mathematical concepts such as the skills of counting, grouping, ordering and identifying similarities and differences during the natural acquisition process of Chinese, especially when in comparison to their English-speaking counterparts. Essentially, these ‘math’ skills attained allow them to comprehend math concepts better than their English-speaking counterparts. Studies have shown that ‘native Chinese and English speakers treat numbers with different cortical parts of the brain’, concluding that the way non-language information is processed is shaped by different language systems such as Chinese and English.

Research on the correlations between cognition and Chinese language despite being neither inclusive nor extensive, still illustrates the merits and cognitive benefits of learning Chinese.