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Synesthesia and Languages

Synesthesia is a fascinating condition. It's when two of someone's senses are crossed, so that they associate one sense with another. For instance, some people see colors when they hear music, other people taste shapes, and still others associate every letter of the alphabet to a specific personality! I myself have this condition, in that I see colors when I hear music and -- more importantly to this post -- I see colors in words. Anyone in the Duolingo community who has a type of synesthesia that has to do with words or sounds has probably encountered something in their language which is affected by their synesthesia. Maybe it helps you, maybe it hurts you, or maybe it doesn't do anything at all; but in this post I aim to talk about some of the boons and difficulties that having synesthesia can give to learning a language, and how to get around some of the difficulties. I'll just use the association of words with color for the sake of example in this post, but you can swap out "words" and "color" for whatever type of synesthesia you have. I hope these help any of you synesthetes out there, and for you non-synesthetes, I hope you learn something new!

Some have said that it's EASIER to learn a language with synesthesia because you can remember the colors of the words you learned. For instance, you can recall that the French word for "dog" is yellow, and then the word "chien" might come back to you. But others have said that it's HARDER to learn a language with synesthesia, because the colors of the words might not match up with the colors of the words in your native language. For instance, the color of "chien" might be yellow, but the color of "dog" could be blue -- or maybe your colors are completely different when reading in another language! How are you supposed to remember that "chien" or "perro" means "dog," when the colors are so different? What I do is create mnemonic devices in my head -- for instance, when I hear the word "chien," I might think of a yellow dog, like a Golden Retriever. Or if you associate the word with a triangle, or a rubbery texture, vizualize a dog sitting in a triangular box or imagine feeling a dog made out of rubber. For me, the Spanish word for dog -- "perro" -- is purple, so I imagine a bright purple dog. The sillier your mnemonic is, the more likely it is to stick in your mind!

Another method is to not link individual words to your colors, but maybe groups of words. Maybe you could think of masculine nouns as one color/shape/personality, and feminine nouns as another one (and neuter ones as another one, if your language has those!). If that doesn't work for you, try memorizing the individual endings of masculine and feminine nouns using their colors. Like in Spanish, most (but not all) nouns ending in -o are masculine and nouns ending in -a are feminine, so maybe you could link the color of -o to masculine nouns and the color of -a to feminine nouns. Or you could just remember the colors of the individual articles, like el/la or die/der/das. (For me, el is orange and la is purplish-red. Die, der, and das are all purple, even though the letter D on its own is green, so to not get confused I remember the colors of the OTHER letters -- die is pink, der is orange, and das is reddish.) Also, synesthete sense association might help with other things in the language, like tenses, conjugations (verb endings), and parts of speech (verbs could be green, nouns could be yellow, etc.).

Here's another interesting thing I've heard and experienced with synesthesia and languages -- maybe a whole LANGUAGE is one specific color/texture/feeling to you. Until I was able to kinda-sorta read Spanish, the entire language was sort of dark yellow, and my other languages are still mostly all one color -- French is golden, German is olive green, Italian is light pinkish-red, and I'm not even sure WHAT Russian is, as I haven't exactly gotten the hang of the Cyrillic alphabet yet! Has this happened to any of you guys?

So in conclusion, synesthesia can both help and hinder your language learning abilities, but there are ways to turn it around and use it as a benefit. It's a fascinating condition, and for the people who have it, it adds an extra dimension to the world around us! Thanks for reading my long rant, and I hope you learned something new. Happy learning!

December 6, 2016



I HAVE THIS !! I am a musician , I have played guitar for 17 years , and METALLICA'S DEATH MAGNETIC is like listening to a musical kaleidoscope ! I love just laying there with my eyes closed and listening , another epic Guitar-oscope album is SHOGUN BY TRIVIUM


That's really cool! I love those songs that are a whole kaleidoscope of different colors. Sometimes when I listen to classical music (especially from the Impressionist period, like Debussy), I can see the colors as brush strokes creating a painting in my head. Thank you for responding!


Wow! Very interesting! I've never actually heard of anyone else with this condition but I do recall seeing a video of someone who had this condition and managed to learn Icelandic (regarded as one of the hardest languages in the world) in one week.

I was wondering how many languages can you speak? Have you ever met someone else with this condition? Thank you for sharing with us!


My native language is English, I can speak enough Bengali to get by (I grew up in a Bengali-speaking household so I don't know how to read or write it, only how to listen to and speak it), and I am okay in Spanish. I've never met someone else with this condition in person, but I have read many documented cases about it -- I know that the Duolingoer AlexisLinguist is synesthetic, and I've heard of composers who associate music with colors and such. (Random fact: I also associate music with colors and I compose a little, but I can't use my synesthesia in reverse. I can listen to a song and say it's blue, but I can't compose a blue song.) There's a really good middle-grade novel about synesthesia by Wendy Mass, called "A Mango-Shaped Space," that I would definitely recommend.

I had heard of Daniel Tammet and I think his case is fascinating! He is also an autistic savant so I wonder if that also had an effect on his language learning.

Thank you for reading and responding!


I taste smells, know what something tastes like by associating it with another thing's smell and what it therefore tastes like. (Twinkies taste like 409!! I've never eaten 409, so you see I'm basically saying that something tastes like another thing's smell.) Maybe it's this thing you're talking about, maybe it's another, I don't know.


Wow! I do think that is synesthesia, as there are many different types. That's really interesting, and thank you for sharing!


Taste and smell are basically the same thing, except taste (full flavour of food) also includes: sweetness, saltness, sourness, umami (protein), fat, and bitterness. (some smells can mimic those too)

An example of real synesthesia is when for example (there are different types): Everytime you see the number 4 you can taste cheese. Another example: Everytime you see the word "fox" it is red (if it's actually green you may see both colours). If you actually taste Twinkies everytime you see the number 409 then that really is synesthesia.

I can often tell what is in food by it's smell it's more from experience though, but I don't have synesthesia.

[deactivated user]

    There are several people who are active in the forums who have talked about their synesthesia, including in this post: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/6408615. Thanks for sharing your experience.


    Wow, that amazing! I had a friend who would see colors when she heard music. Sometimes she would paint songs. She always got annoyed going to live concerts because she said that the colors of the lights were always wrong and didn't match the song.

    I thought it was really interesting when you said the colors of different languages, I'd like to hear what you think of Swedish :)


    May I ask whether your synesthesia is projective or associative (do you actually see the words in the colour or do you just associate them with the colours)? I have associative synesthesia and have experienced much of what you described here - I have colours for individual letters, words and even certain combinations of letters/phonetic sounds, for example 'ea' is a yellow-orange and 'th' is navy blue.

    Your ideas are excellent! I've also experienced cases where the colours I associate with words don't match up between languages but I had never thought of using mnemonics to help remember words in that way.

    Thanks for posting!


    My synesthesia is mostly associative -- I see these words as black, I don't "see" my A as red, but if I think about the concept of the A, I know that it is red. That's really cool that you have this too, and thank you for responding and for the comment about my ideas!


    This is interesting! I didn't know there were two types of synesthesia. Are those clinical terms (projective and associative)? I know a lot of people who have the associative type - who associate colors with numbers, letters, etc. I am like this, too. I often categorize different kinds of music or songs as "pink-blue-purple" (major keys) or "green-orange-brown" (minor keys). I also think of songs in major keys as "sweet" and minor keys as "savory." These are all associations in my mind. But if I hear a song in a major key, I don't actually get a sweet taste in my mouth. I wouldn't look at a white wall and actually see a combination of pink, blue, and purple areas. It's more an association of concepts for me.

    Several years ago I read a book about synesthesia called "The Man Who Tasted Shapes," and there was a description of a woman who, whenever she heard a certain buzzer sound, would see - actually see, I guess hallucinate? - a jagged, bright red line above her. It was like a drawing of a red lightning bolt on the wall or ceiling. I don't experience anything like that.

    A friend of mine often says, "You're so synesthetic" when I describe one sensory experience in terms of another. I've always dismissed that idea, because I don't actually experience the other sense. I just associate them. I have colors for all the letters in the alphabet, but on paper, they appear in whatever color they're written or printed in. And unfortunately the colors are pretty boring! They're always these grey-blues or wineskin color (a light, reddish brown), and they don't have much vibrancy. FGS, if I'm going to have a psychedelic "talent," the least it could do would be to be vivid and saturated colors!

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