"Tonal Language for Tone Deaf", April Holladay.
Q: How do tone-deaf Chinese communicate? (L.A., Sandia Park, New Mexico)
A: Tone-deaf Chinese talk just like other Chinese. Their profound musical disability makes no real difference in understanding and talking a tonal language.
You'd think it would. Tone deaf means a person cannot hear the difference between two successive tones. The two tones are indistinguishable. In a tonal language, like Chinese, different tones give words different meanings.
So, you'd think that a tone-deaf Chinese would be stuck. How can he tell the difference in speech between, say, "woman" and "horse" with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?
Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: "I'm a little hoarse"), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context. But also, it's easier to distinguish varying tones. Moreover, the tones we use in languages are coarse discriminators that even a disabled person can manage. To convey meaning differences, speech requires tone distinctions three to six times greater than melodies do for musical nuances.
A child learns to talk and to sing spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction. Our brains are hard-wired for music and language. Apparently, tone-deafness (called amusia) results from a slight disruption in the wiring of the auditory cortex — similar to color-blindness or dyslexia.
"Music is probably the only domain in which fine-grained pitch discrimination is required for its appreciation," report Julie Ayotte, Isabelle Peretz, and Krista Hyde in a tone-deaf study. Accordingly, a "degraded pitch perception system" may compromise music perception but leave speech intonation relatively unaffected. "Yet, the same pitch-tracking mechanism may subserve both domains," they conclude.
We often think of "tone deafness" in its lay meaning — "unable to carry a tune or sing a song." That's different from the medical meaning of "inability to distinguish successive tones." Almost all people (except the medically tone deaf) can learn to sing with training.
Perhaps much the same happens for tone-deaf Chinese. With the help of language cues, they can distinguish varying tones and learn the gross tonal discriminations of their language. As they learn to talk, they receive training in its use.