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A good way to prepare for a trip like this is to listen to language lessons leading up to your arrival. That way, you can hit the ground running when you get there.

It’s a long flight from D.C. to Shanghai, so I’ve spent the last 16 hours listening to Mandarin lessons on my iPod.

I’m afraid I haven’t made much progress. So far, I can only say: “Can you speak English?” and “I speak a little Mandarin.” Which, of course, isn’t true.

The cool thing about Mandarin, though, is that if you learn it before you’re 8 years old, you’re 9 times more likely to develop perfect pitch.

Perfect pitch is the ability to name or sing a musical note at will.

Great composers like Bach and Beethoven were known to have perfect pitch. As are 60% of music-trained Mandarin Chinese speakers.

Psychologists at the University of California in San Diego did a study back in 2005 comparing the musical abilities of students in New York to those in Beijing.

They found that children who learned Mandarin as babies were far more likely to have perfect pitch than those raised to speak English.

That’s because it’s a tonal language. And it seems that tonal languages — Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Thai among others — give kids a musical edge. It makes sense because speakers of these languages are particularly skilled in tones. They have to be.

For them, tones change the meaning of words.

The classic example is the word “ma” in Mandarin. It can have four meanings depending on the tone in which it is said. It can be mother, horse, hemp, or a reproach (criticism).

In the San Diego study, psychologist Diana Deutsch tested first-year students from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing (all of them Mandarin speakers) against English speakers at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Each student was asked to name 36 notes played at random on a keyboard. And here’s what they found…

Of the students who began music lessons between the ages of 4 and 5, 60% of the Chinese speakers tested as having perfect pitch, while only about 14% of the English speakers could claim the same.

For those who began music training between ages 6 and 7, approximately 55% of the Chinese met the criterion for perfect pitch, compared to only 6% of the American English speakers. And for those beginning between ages 8 and 9, the figures held strong for the Mandarin speakers at 42% compared to zero in the U.S. group.

This, of course, doesn’t mean you can’t learn Mandarin as an adult. It just means it might be a little harder… and it probably won’t give you perfect pitch.

It also means, there’s extra incentive to put your kids (or your grandkids) in Mandarin classes at a young age — while they can still gain musical talent at the same time.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my first photography report from Shanghai after I land and get settled in. Then, we’re headed to Yu Gardens as well as the flower, bird, and insect market. And we’ve been invited to a local tea shop where they’ll explain some of the intricacies behind Chinese tea.

I’ll keep you posted.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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