People with synesthesia experience the world in a much more sensory way than others. For example, they can taste colors or see music as it unfolds. And thanks to a new study, we’ve learned that someone who learns a second language later in life but is not natively bilingual is more likely to have this sensory ability.
Researchers surveyed approximately 11,000 students at two universities: one located in Prague, and the other in British Columbia. Those students surveyed were asked if they had one of six common forms of synesthesia, as well as if and when they were exposed to or learned a second language. The participants were also asked whether they experienced difficulty learning to read and write and if they were left- or right-handed. Students who reported having synesthesia were given an additional test to confirm.
Final study results concluded that approximately 4.4% of the Czech students and 2.7% of the Canadian students surveyed had synesthesia. In addition, the follow-up tests concluded that many of the people who reported they did not have synesthesia actually did.
However, the most impressive finding was that students who had learned a second language after reaching school age were much more likely to have synesethesia than those who did not. For their first eight years, children naturally acquire language skills. When those skills fade, learning a language becomes more difficult, but not impossible.
Study co-author Marcus Watson, an experimental psychologist at York University in Toronto, explained that depending on linguistic background, there are varying rates of synesthesia. “It ranges from 0 percent to about 5 percent depending on what their language background is,” he added.
The study findings also suggest that synesthesia may be able to develop in a way that improves a person’s ability to learn complex tasks such as reading, music theory, and telling time.
In addition, learning a second language has been proven to have significant learning benefits. For example, those students who learn a second language have better executive brain function than those who do not. This means that bilingual students are able to stay focused for longer periods of time and complete more complex tasks.
The research on bilingualism is constantly improving and finding new exciting things in the human brain. Research on the link between bilingualism and synethesia is ongoing.