Synesthesia and the Language Classroom – Using Personalised Colour Schemes for Language Learning
Michele Bachmann, Switzerland
Michele Bachmann is an EFL teacher at a Swiss secondary school and a translator for German, English, French and Italian. She does research in both areas, and specialises in using synesthesia and automatic colour associations as a research tool. Her interests include bilingual mental lexicon research and interdisciplinary research.
What is synesthesia?
Synesthesia and language
Research aim and design
Using synesthesia for second language learning
Using synesthesia for second language teaching
Synesthesia is an automatic connection between two ore more senses or sensory modes (Cytowic 2000). Most commonly, language, either in written or spoken form, is associated to colours and shapes; however, all senses can in theory be connected. A famous example of a synesthete was a man who ‘tasted shapes’, so that when he was cooking chicken, he realised there were not enough spices because it did not taste ‘pointed’ enough (Cytowic 1993). People who experience this sort of connection are called synesthetes, the most common again being language-colour synesthetes. Basically, whenever synesthetes hear or see a word (the so-called trigger), they ‘see’ the corresponding colour as well, sometimes without even consciously realising it.
Being a synesthete myself with rather strong colour and shape associations and having had to learn various foreign languages, I became aware that these colour associations can be a helpful tool for language learning. Unluckily, nobody had ever told me so, and I could not fully explore the possibilities as a language learner, mainly because there was no research on this topic, so that nobody knew about synesthesia and language. Nevertheless, I did use my colours to learn French genders.
To me, the French determiner of a masculine word, ‘le’, was clearly red, whereas the determiner for a feminine word, ‘la’, was dark blue. There is no reason for these colours, they are just there, and I see them whenever I see or hear the words. Therefore, it was not necessary to remember the gender or the determiner as such – I only had to remember whether a word was blue or red to pick the correct gender in writing or in speaking, which was a lot less abstract. In addition, especially in writing, the words simply looked wrong with the wrong determiner. The colour of the whole thing did not seem expression right.
Becoming aware of the potential of synesthesia as a learning and as a research tool led me to the question whether it was really true that synesthetic colours can enhance language learning. Even though I had used my colours, I wanted to know whether synesthesia was more useful than random colour associations. It seems to be true that colours can enhance language learning in general. Therefore my basic question was: does it make sense for synesthetic learners to pick their own colours to learn foreign languages? If yes, does the same hold true for non-synesthetes?
It has long been proven that synesthesia is a real perception and not something imagined by people experiencing it (Harrison 2001). Synesthetic perceptions have the following properties:
- They are involuntary and elicited by a specific trigger.
- They are projected or spatially extended in the mind’s eye.
- They are durable, generic and discrete.
- They are memorable and emotional, and synesthetes are completely sure about their perception. (taken from Cytowic 2000).
In addition, synesthetic perceptions are simple, not elaborate, which means that they do not form images as such, but are rather specks of colour. However, these colours are usually highly specific and hard to describe, as, for example, ‘blue with a hue of turquoise with a silver shine’ (Cytowic 1993). Synesthesia is usually unidirectional, which means that even though numbers may trigger colours, the same colours do not usually trigger the perception of numbers (Kadosh et al. 2005). Synesthetes usually do not agree with the colour perception of others, even though there seem to be some common colour associations. These are sometimes even shared by non-synesthetes, who seem to pick colours at random. For example, higher tones are frequently being associated with lighter colours by synesthetes and non-synesthetes (Cytowic 2000).
There is no general agreement on the number of people who experience some form of synesthesia. Estimates range from 1 in 25,000 (Cytowic 2000) to 1 in 2000 (Baron-Cohen et al. 1996); however, recent estimates by synesthetic associations show that as many as 1 in 5 may have some sort of the condition, often without being aware of it (Hälg and Mächler 2003). There are various theories about the reasons why some people experience synesthesia and some do not. For synesthetes, there seems to be an enhanced connection or reduced inhibition between different brain areas (Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001), and it has been suggested that synesthesia uses brain connections which everyone has in a different way (Ward et al. 2006). These theories also consider that everyone might theoretically be capable of experiencing synesthesia-like associations, but that these connections are only conscious for synesthetes. This would imply that synesthesia could be ‘learned’ by making these dormant connections more conscious. However, there still is a lack of research in this particular area in order to confirm these claims beyond doubt.
Synesthesia is commonly believed to enhance memory, because concepts are not only encoded with their normal associations, for example spelling and pronunciation, but also with a synesthetic association. This is not only an additional way to remember things, but it makes the whole concept of a word or a fact more memorable, because synesthesia is less abstract and more emotional than other ways of association (Cytowic 2000). Luria’s (1968) patient S used his complex synesthesia to work as a mnemonist and remembered astounding amounts of data even after years, and Miller’s (2005) subject DT remembered 22,000 digits of the number pi by using his colour and shape associations.
However, even though synesthesia research has developed in the last decades, there are still open questions. One of the most important issues is to find the differences between synesthetic and non-synesthetic brains. This is especially important because synesthesia has recently begun to be used as a research tool in cognitive science, and seems to yield interesting results (Kadosh and Henik 2007). However, no general conclusions can be drawn from these results before it has been shown that synesthetic and non-synesthetic brains are basically the same.
There are various connections and similarities between synesthesia and language. Synesthesia is most often triggered by language, most commonly by abstract words such as weekdays, numbers and other concepts. Thus, it is most often perceived for categories of words, and it is quite common that the colour of a category colours the whole word (for example if the colour for ‘masculine’ is red, all masculine words become red as well). Cytowic (2000) argues that synesthesia takes place at a lower neural level than language-meaning associations. He suspects that language might be the reason why synesthesia is suppressed for most people: while synesthesia is an iconic way of connecting a concept to something else, language use is a symbolic way of doing the same thing. The second and more abstract way is usually preferred simply because it is used more often. However, it is also suspected that language use and synesthetic perception might be located in the same part of the brain, namely right next to each other in the left hemisphere (Beeli 2007), which might explain why most synesthetic experiences involve language. This fact might give a first clue why synesthesia could be used in language learning.
Various researchers are convinced that synesthesia can be used in language research (cf. Lehrer 2007), and some of them focus explicitly on synesthesia to explain and research complex psycholinguistic phenomena (cf. Simner 2007). However, there are not many studies investigating synesthesia and second language. Nelson (2006) points out that synesthesia is a process of connecting senses and literally ‘making sense’ of something, which is similar to learning and using languages. Thus, it can be expected that synesthesia can be a valuable tool not only for language research, but also for second language learning.
An important distinction in synesthesia research is the distinction between concept and form synesthetes (so-called lower and higher synesthetes). Concept synesthetes associate the meaning of words with colours, form synesthetes’ colours are triggered by the form, for example letters or sounds. Apparently, synesthesia can be triggered by both – which again leads to speculation about the usefulness of synesthesia when it comes to linking the two in a foreign language. It can be expected that concept synesthetes could use their synesthesia to remember the meaning of words, whereas form synesthetes might find it more useful to remember the form, e.g. orthography or grammar.
My study focused on the use of colours to learn the German genders (masculine, feminine, neuter, which are respectively expressed in the definite articles “der”, “die”, “das”). Beginner learners of German, synesthetes as well as non-synesthetes, had to learn three sets of nouns with their articles and their translation. The first set was printed in black. The second set was printed in three different, randomly chosen colours representing the three genders. The third set was printed in three different colours chosen by the participants to represent the three genders. The participants were not told the aim of the study, and all possible outside influences were eliminated by scrambling the words, handing the tables out in different orders etc. They chose their colours as a part of a questionnaire with other, random, questions, so that it could be expected that they did not realise that using these colours was the true point of the questionnaire.
After having learned all three sets of words, the participants took a test. They only had to indicate the correct article for all the words; however, they did not know that only form was tested, so that it can be expected that they focused on meaning at the learning stage. The mistakes for each set were counted and compared.
The outcome showed slight differences in the amount of mistakes made for all tables. Most mistakes were made in the first set of words, which was only printed in black. There was no clear difference for the second and third set of words; however, whichever colour scheme was learned first was memorised best. The participants’ comments about the whole test were much clearer: all of them said that it was much easier to remember colours, most agreed that it was easier to remember the colours they had chosen themselves, and some mentioned that it was really hard to ‘adjust’ to the new colour scheme for the third table. Even though the outcomes (comments as well as mistake count) were more pronounced for synesthetes, the results were basically the same for non-synesthetes.
Thus, it can be concluded that colours tend to facilitate the learning of easily categorisable sets of words such as nouns with their article. It seems to be easier to remember the colours when they have been chosen by the learners themselves, and it seems to be hard to change the colour scheme after getting used to whichever colour has been chosen first. However, it has to be taken into account that it was a short-term study only, so that the participants did not have time to get used to their colours and use them in more than one set of words. In addition, the outcome would probably be different if they had used the colours consciously.
Judging from these results, and from my own experience for that matter, it seems likely that synesthetic or synesthesia-like associations can be used by learners, synesthetes or not, to facilitate their own language learning experience. They can chose colour connections or use colour connections which are already present more consciously, by, for example, colouring words or writing them down in colours. After a certain period of time, the connections should become subconscious and thus automatic, which can enhance learning without any additional effort. It might even be the case that colours do not have to be added in ‘reality’ anymore, but that the mental connections develop automatically (however, these processes are not proven by research yet - nonetheless it does not really matter what exactly happens in the brain, as long as learning is enhanced).
As by using synesthetic or other individualised colours schemes, the learners are encouraged to use their own colours and decide for themselves if they want to use colours and which ones, this approach leads to a more autonomous learning style. The students experiment with the colours and with what learning styles could make sense for them, and they can even come up with their own ideas and techniques – if they want to. It seems likely that colours help certain learners more, and that some learners do not mind using an imposed colour scheme at all, so it is important for the learners to know the potential of using colour association, and to find a way to use them so that they can profit most.
Therefore, it is most important that learners are aware of synesthesia and its potential use for language learning. Many synesthetic participants in the study said that if they had known about synesthesia before they had started learning languages (or other subjects), they would have used it more consciously. To them, synesthesia would have been an added benefit for their learning, which they could not explore because they did not know about it.
However, learners also need to be aware of the confusions colours can cause. For synesthetes, that means that colours can ‘drown’ everything else, or things with similar automatic colours can be confused. For non-synesthetes, it can be dangerous to rely on non-automatic colours because of the possibility of forgetting their meaning or allocating the wrong colour and thus the wrong colour equivalent to something. It might be helpful to use colours for categories like articles, but colours can never replace the act of learning. Colours have to be seen as one of many means to facilitate language learning.
Awareness of synesthesia and the potential of using colours in the classroom can be enriching for teachers as well as for learners. If recent estimates are correct, it is quite likely that there are one or two synesthetes in every class of ten to twenty students – besides, non-synesthetes can profit from a ‘near-synesthetic’ learning style as well. However, most people do not know about their synesthesia, and much less about the potential of using individualised ‘random’ colour schemes, so it can be useful if teachers point out this possibility to their students in a general way, in addition to creating opportunities to use colours in class.
A possible way of creating such opportunities is creating exercises where the students are encouraged to use their own colours for categories such as genders, but also for example verbs followed by infinitives or gerund or verbs followed by different prepositions (make sure the students bring colours with them or keep a box of coloured pens ready!). Or let the students colour their vocabulary books for homework. Or encourage them to use coloured post-its around the house to learn words. Or try something new with spatial arrangements instead of colours for things such as weekdays (careful – many people seem to have their own spatial arrangements, so it is even more likely that students get confused by prefabricated new arrangements).
An awareness of synesthesia can also be important because there might be unwanted problems with using colours. Whenever teachers decide to use their colours in the classroom, for example by pointing out differences on the whiteboard in colours, it might be the case that some students who use their own colours, synesthetic or not, might get confused by a new set of colours. This again might lead to confusions about the language point the teacher wants to highlight. I would not suggest not using colours in the classroom, obviously, but it might be a good idea to tell the learners that they can use their own colours if they want to (especially if they are young and likely to copy everything exactly as the teacher models it).
In addition, it is important that teachers stick to their colour scheme once they have chosen it. For most people (i.e. non-synesthetes), it does not matter so much what colours were chosen at the beginning, as they usually pick them randomly anyway, but it is as hard for them to change their colour scheme as for synesthetes. Therefore, a teacher change which brings a colour scheme change as well can be especially tricky. However, if teachers are aware of the fact that there might be issues with colours, either because other colours have been used before or because the teacher’s colours look ‘wrong’ for synesthetic students, they can work to use colours to an advantage rather than confusing the students by (subconsciously) insisting on an ‘inappropriate’ colour scheme.
Thus, there are positive as well as negative factors to consider when using colours in the classroom or encouraging learners to do so. However, if teachers are aware of the potentials of using colours for second language learning, and work to make their students aware of it, there are some aspects of learning at least which can be facilitated considerably by colouring up learning and teaching styles.
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