The Babbel Blog

All posts by James Lane

The link between dreaming and language learning

Posted on July 9, 2014 by

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dreaming and language learningEver wondered about the link between dreaming and language learning?

You’ve probably heard people talk about the moment when they started to dream in a foreign language. It’s often considered a sign of fluency. In the 1980s, Canadian psychologist Joseph De Koninck observed that students of French who spoke French in their dreams earlier made progress faster than other students.

But were they quicker because they dreamed, or did they dream because they were quicker?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have tried to investigate the link between dreaming and language learning, but it’s difficult to pin down what happens in dreams. Some people report speaking fluently in a dream in a language they can barely speak when awake. Dreamers are unreliable witnesses.

The subconscious mind is capable of amazing things, like with the coma patient who forgot her native language and woke up speaking German. Maybe while you’re learning a new language your brain is busily storing away all the information that your conscious mind cannot absorb and it all spills out when you’re asleep?

Or maybe not.

The point is, it’s tough to prove either way. Whether dreams have any real psychological or physiological purpose is still hotly debated. Common hypotheses for why we dream include as a way of solving problems, processing information, or getting rid of stuff the brain doesn’t need.


We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest


Partly because science struggles to explain dreams, they remain a glimpse into the numinous. They perform important culturally-specific functions: think of shamans using dreams to heal people or predict the future, and the continuing pull of New-Age mysticism.

Maybe dreaming in another language is an expression of our desire for linguistic and cultural ‘insiderness’, tapping into the sense of belonging that a new language can bring. Whether you consider it a linguistic milestone or not, it definitely indicates a strong awareness of and engagement with new language.


Extreme dreaming

dreaming and language learning

So could sleep-learning (hypnopaedia), when you listen to tapes while sleeping, be effective?

Although a recent study claims it could, the short answer is no. Research has largely discredited it. “Disturbing sleep patterns in this way requires the brain to remain alert to listen, preventing you from attaining the sort of deep sleep which is actually so important for the mind,” says Florence Cardinal of Canada’s National Sleep Foundation.

She recommends revising material before bed several times and letting the brain do its work while sleeping.

The average human sleeps 8 hours a night for 75 years. That’s 220,000 hours. What if you could actively use that time?

Welcome to the world of Lucid Dreaming, when you know you’re dreaming and you can control it.

This controversial claim was coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden and has spawned an industry of people happy to help you “explore your dreamworld, fulfil any fantasy, and tap into your creative genius” – for a fee.

It does have some scientific credentials. British parapsychologist Keith Hearne demonstrated in the 1970s that someone in a lucid dreaming state could make deliberate eye movements, and further studies from Stanford’s Stephen LaBerge have shown that brain activity during a lucid dream is different from that of an ‘ordinary’ dream. Skeptics question whether lucid dreaming is actually sleeping, or more like a meditative state.

Lucid dreamers acknowledge that you can’t learn new information – like words you’ve never heard – in a dream. But you could, for example, make a conscious decision to revise vocabulary, practice verbs, or have a conversation with an imaginary person in their language.

Just think of it like having Babbel’s review manager handy while you sleep!

For added fun, why not drop by Jan Born’s office at the University of Tübingen? He’s found that running a small electric current through the heads of sleeping people increases their memory retention by 8%. Kids, don’t try this at home.

What languages do you dream in? Are you a lucid dreamer? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


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Brazilian football language: English roots, native flowers

Posted on July 4, 2014 by

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Brazilian football language

With the World Cup in full swing, everybody is brushing up on their Brazilian football language and throwing around words like jogo bonito! and golaço!.

These words are part of every football fan’s vocabulary, testament to the vibrancy of Brazilian footballing culture and its impact on the world.

Yet we need only step back a century, to the birth of Brazilian football, and we have to acknowledge the influence of a small island nation that has only won one World Cup compared to Brazil’s five – England.

Two footballs, a pump and a rulebook

Brazilian football language

Two men in particular were instrumental in bringing football to Brazil.

Charles Miller (above left), son of a Scottish railway engineer and a Brazilian woman of English descent, was sent to study in Southampton, England. Here he learned how to play cricket and football, and returned to his native São Paulo with two footballs, a pump and a rulebook.

In his biography of Miller, author John Mills quotes a bemused São Paulo journalist, who wrote about how British sportsmen were getting together on weekends, “to kick something around that looked like an oxen’s bladder, which gave them great satisfaction and displeasure when this kind of yellowish bladder got into a rectangle formed by posts.”

Miller played a major role in setting up São Paulo Athletic Club. Naturally he installed himself as striker.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, a young man called Oscar Alfredo Cox (above right) from a wealthy English-Brazilian family was also discovering the joy of football. Upon coming home he organized the first match in Rio de Janeiro, in September 1901. Word had spread of what Miller was doing in São Paulo, so Cox lead a group of friends south, and the two men finally met on the field of battle. They played twice: both matches were drawn. One year later Cox founded the Fluminense Football Club, at the age of 22.

The echoes of English can still be heard today in the language of Brazilian football. A centre-back is still sometimes called a beque. A really good player is a craque, a ‘crack’. You have to chutar (shoot) if you want to score a gol, and if you score enough of them, your time (team) will lift the troféu.

Life’s a pitch: How Brazilian football language dribbled into everyday life

Brazilian football language

By 1919, author David Goldblatt notes in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, the local Rio derby was drawing 18,000 people with another 5,000 locked outside the stadium without tickets.

Why was football such a runaway success in Brazil?

Accessibility was certainly a factor. All you needed was a flat space (and not even that, sometimes) and a ball, without any special equipment. Yet this does not fully explain why it caught on to the extent that it did: just look at India and China, countries of comparable size which have not adopted football to the same extent. In Brazil, it became a religion, a philosophy, an identity – and a language.

In Brazil, the ball – bola, which is feminine as opposed to the masculine German Fußball – is something to be treasured and caressed. The worst thing you could do is pisar na bola, to stamp on the ball. You might as well pendurar as chuteiras, hang up your boots, and tirar o time de campo, give up because all hope is lost (forfeit). If it’s catastrophically bad you might even have suffered a maracanaço – a reference to Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the Maracanã Stadium in the 1950 World Cup final, still a collective national trauma over half a century later.

But let’s stay positive. The word golaço is not reserved for spectacular goals: it can be used for any remarkable feat, like wowing a client with your dazzling powerpoint presentation. It’s important to make a good impression when you vestir a camisa (wear the jersey), when you’re representing your company, so well done you.

And if you end up stealing that client and starting your own company, well, we all need to be a bit selfish – to take the corner kick and head it yourself, bater o escanteio e cabecear a bola – from time to time. After all it’s a pontapé inícial (kick-off), a new beginning.

Extra time

You don’t want your team to be ‘in the lantern position’, estar na lanterna – last in the table.

Everyone wants to ‘eat the ball’, comer a bola – to play excellently.

No goalkeeper wants to ‘get roostered’ – levar um peru – to make a terrible mistake.

Now that you’re down with the lingo, try our Brazilian football sayings quiz!


Photo 1: ‘World Cup football – Soccer ball with flags of different countries’ © / andresr

Photo 2: Charles Miller & Oscar Alfredo Cox | CC0 1.0

Photo 3 ‘Maracana Stadium’ © / CelsoDiniz


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7 Reasons Why We Love Listicles But They’re Killing Our Brains

Posted on May 22, 2014 by

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We like lists because we don’t want to die.

- Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists


What’s a listicle? It’s an article written in the form of a list. You know, the ones you see with titles like ‘11 Things to Never Say to a Man Whose Head Has Been Sheared Off by a Sheet of Glass’ or ‘25 Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber’ (wait! come back!).

Depending on your taste they can make you laugh or simply confirm that humanity is a lost cause. Websites like Buzzfeed and Listverse grew famous for them, newspapers embraced them, and people, inevitably, started to hate them.

They are the purest textual expression of a distracted, modern mind. So it’s probably worth asking: what are they doing to our brains?

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Why Italians talk with their hands (and Scandinavians don’t)

Posted on May 7, 2014 by

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Why Italians talk with their hands

Photo by Haraldo Ferrary / CC 2.0


When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie

That’s amore…


Love. Fury. Passion. Italians are well known for expressing themselves through body language and hand gestures, as if the feelings bubbling up inside them can’t be expressed in mere words, but require an accusing finger, an appeal to the heavens, a shake of the fist.

Scandinavians, on the other hand, are not.

According to traditional stereotypes, our northern brethren are more reasoning and reserved. It’s not that they don’t feel extreme emotions – just that they are less inclined to express them physically.

Yes, these are cultural cliches, although few people would dispute that Italians talk with their hands to express themselves. But what if there is a biological imperative behind it? What if gestures actually help our brain develop? What if there is a link between how we use our hands and how we solve problems?


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Guarding the gates of English

Posted on April 24, 2014 by

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Photo by Elias Gayles / CC 2.0

Students are anxious to learn it. Dictionaries try to define it. Media outlets develop extensive style guides for it. Governments try to control it.

What sounds like a new crack epidemic is, in fact, just a language: English.

We live in a world surrounded by many different types of English.  You can enjoy the weird and wonderful offerings of Urban Dictionary, smile when an Indian businessman asks you to prepone your meeting, or watch The Wire and realise you need subtitles.

But ‘proper English’ is still a desirable commodity – and big business. So who gets to decide what it is?


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