Advanced foreign language learning skills can be possibly categorised as an important cognitive trait of synaesthetes. It has not been widely recognised. However, there has been a well documented case of Daniel Tammet who learnt Icelandic, a difficult European language, within a week. This certainly is a very rare case. Daniel is not only a synaesthete, but also a savant.
I have noticed Skye’s remarkable learning ability in Chinese reading and writing since he started attending a weekend Chinese school at the beginning of last year. He genuinely appreciates Chinese and thinks it as an artistic language. The result was the development of a full on synaesthesia towards this ancient language, even slightly more than his native language English.
Unlike English, Chinese characters evolved from symbols. In a way, many characters still have a resemblance of original objects from which the characters were originated. This allows Skye to apply his intuitions while learning Chinese characters.
He thinks synaesthesia has played an enormous role in his Chinese learning. He sees majority of characters in multiple colours. This quite possibly is different from a native Chinese synaesthete who usually learns Chinese before English, and most likely sees each character in one colour.
There is a good reason behind Skey’s synaesthetic system in Chinese character recognition. I will illustrate by using four examples in the attached picture.
If you look at the top character, the character means happiness or like in Chinese. He has learnt this character before. Skye sees it in three different colours as there are three parts in this character in his mind. The middle part looks like a rectangle which usually represents a mouth. Skye sees it in orange.
The second character from the top means luck. It was an unknown character to him before I wrote it down. However, he immediately saw the same blue and orange colours as the top two parts of Character 1. He felt it was a lively and positive character though without knowing the actual meaning. Once he was told what this character meant, he very easily remembered it.
If Skye had not had this multiple colour system, he would not have been able to port two small parts from one character to another to make them easily re-usable. That’s how his brain synthesizes information.
The third character in the picture means sing. So again, Skye sees it in multiple colours. In his mind, he thinks the left side is a small child’s mouth, and it is in the orange colour like the orange part in other two characters shown before. The right top part of the character is the mother’s mouth which has a lip line. It is in orange as well. The right bottom part is the father’s bigger mouth and is in the lavender violet colour.
To further illustrate the significant role synaesthesia plays, let’s look at the fourth character. It was another unknown character to Skye. When I first wrote it, I wrote like the one shown as 4.2. The middle stroke was not connected with the top right stroke, which was the correct way of writing. He saw two colours, i.e., silver at the top and ginger at the bottom. He didn’t see the bottom part in orange as that particular mouth had a vertical line above. Ginger is a colour close to orange. The look of the character immediately triggered a boiling curry soup with a very bitter taste. He didn’t even know what the character meant at the time. But the personality and the feel of this character told him it was not a good character. The character means bitter or poor.
When I wrote it down on the paper in the picture to prepare for this blog, I wrote with a slight difference, i.e., two of the strokes in the character were connected. Skye started colouring the top part, all of a sudden, he stopped. “Sorry mum, the colour has disappeared. I don’t have synaesthesia in this character any more because its invalid.” I was confused, and asked him why. He said it was not the same character I wrote five minutes ago. I went back to check my original writing and understood why. So I re-wrote as 4.2. “Yep, I can see colours again!” He happily coloured it.
This blog only has touched a bit of surface of Skye’s synaesthesia in learning Chinese. Other common synaesthetic experience includes hearing different Chinese characters in different sounds. Character 5, in the picture, “Ren” (means people) gives him the Broadway rhythm. Character 6 “Li” (means strength, also is part of the Chinese word for chocalate) triggers off a G aug chord on piano. He hears a drum beat when he reads character 7 (means count).
The bottom green colour of the first character is a beautiful happy colour to Skye. It gives him a beautiful picture. He sees himself at North Carolina Avenue in a cold place.
“North Carolina Ave.? How come?” I asked with curiosity.
“Wait mum. I show you why.” He went off for a couple of minutes, and brought back the game of Monopoly. He opened up the board, and showed me North Carolina Ave. with the same green colour on the board. The word “North” gives him a cold feel, thus, a cold place.
I finally understand why he is so exceptional in Chinese, Maths, music, and many other areas. He doesn’t let his synaesthesia get in his way, and become a burden. Instead, he fully takes advantage of it.
“I think in my mind, ‘Mr. Synaesthesia, please come to help me with my Chinese exam.’ Mr. Synaesthesia comes and turns the whole page in colour, gives me music and taste, and let me complete my exam easily.” Skye said with his usual wit.
I have not stopped laughing since.