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.
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!