Can you learn a language in your sleep?

Can you learn a language in your sleep? Can sleeping actually assist with your language learning?

This post is written by Sarah Cummings. When she isn’t writing about sleep, she is getting plenty of it! Sarah takes an afternoon nap a day between her freelance work,  yoga practice and running around after her daughter… and while she isn’t actually fluent in a second language – yet –  Spanish is top of her list!

For many of us, learning a new language is a very difficult thing. Unless we practise it daily, and unless we find people to practise it around, we’ll make pretty slow progress.

It doesn’t make a difference if we know how to write perfectly grammatical sentences, or even if we can read menus in another tongue – if we can’t speak it, or understand it when we hear it, we won’t get very far.

Maybe you learned a second language while you were young; if so, you’re lucky. For the rest of us adults, it can be really hard to pick up a new language, especially if we don’t have what they call “a musical ear”. Tonal languages like Vietnamese might seem next to impossible as we feel incapable of physically making the required sounds. Whereas when we’re young, our ability to mimic and record these new noises is a wonderful thing.

Learn a language while you sleep

So how are we expected to master the difficulties of learning a new language? Well, it may come as a surprise to you, but you can learn a language in your sleep!

If you thought that your brain sleeps when you do, you thought wrong. What actually happens is that during this time, the brain makes lots of new connections between neurons. Unbroken sleep also lets us record this new information more efficiently, as the brain replays the day’s events and learnings in a process called ‘consolidation’.

So, whatever you’ve learned during the day, be it a dance routine, a recipe, or new vocabulary from your Spanish lessons, your brain will replay and store this information away while you sleep.

But can I learn a new language in my sleep?!

Unfortunately, no. That would be amazing. But learning new things while you sleep would also mean that no one would go to school, or to work, or take part in any further educational training. Why bother when they could just take a nap, right?!

But you can boost your memory and improve your knowledge – of the things you’ve already learned – while you sleep. Because that consolidation process makes what you have gone over that day stick.

The brain gets busy reactivating and replaying information from your waking hours, strengthening the neural connections triggered during the information acquisition/learning process.

Basically, what you’ve learned that day cements itself in your mind and when you test yourself on that Spanish vocabulary the following morning… well, you might be surprised at how much you remember.

The effects of a “power nap” on language development

It’s pretty powerful for a reason! This is because that same process of consolidation occurs as during your night-time slumber.

In fact, one particular study around word learning and napping showed that children who were encouraged to sleep shortly after hearing new words retained their newly acquired knowledge significantly better than other children who remained awake.

Recommended Reading: How Sleep affects Children’s Language Development

So maybe after hitting those language books, take a nap soon afterwards. Not only do you deserve a break, it’ll actually help you to retain what you just learned. Powerful stuff, indeed.

Language, listening and sleep: a case study

Ok, so subliminal learning while you sleep might be a myth. Or rather a fantasy… wouldn’t we all love to suddenly wake up fluent in Chinese? But, all sci-fi aside, we’ve seen that we can more effectively consolidate what we’ve learned while we sleep. We may not be able to magically pick up a new skill, but we can certainly hone it more effectively.

So how does this apply to learning a foreign language?

Well, a Swiss biopsychologist called Björn Rasch, and a team of scientists from the Swiss National Science Foundation, wanted to find out. They asked 60 German-speaking students to learn some Dutch words that they’d never seen before at 10pm.

Half of the group were then allowed to go to sleep; the words were played back to them as they did so. The other half of the group also got to listen to the words again; but they were kept awake. This is a common practice known as “verbal cueing”; with the first group, it was a new tactic where they were exposed to the verbal cues before falling asleep.

The first group was woken at 2am, at which time all of the 60 students were tested on the new vocabulary. The results showed that those who had listened to the Dutch words while sleeping were much better at recalling them during the test.

The study also considered the fact that those who were kept awake didn’t perform as well simply because they were sleep-deprived; the team of researchers used EEG (electroencephalographic) measurements of the sleeping students to reveal increased activity in the parietal lobe. Since this part of the brain is important in processing language, those who got to sleep were at a distinct advantage.

The study concluded:

“This acquired behavior persisted throughout the night and into ensuing wake, without later awareness of the learning process. Thus, humans learned new information during sleep.”

So what does this mean, exactly? Can you learn a language in your sleep?

Well, you won’t go to sleep listening to a language CD and suddenly wake up fluent. (Sorry!) But if you listen to it before bedtime, and then again as you sleep, this added stimulus strengthens the consolidation process that occurs. You might not have any recollection of it playing as you snooze, but it works its magic nonetheless.

Do it yourself:

• Play an audio recording of new words while awake
• Replay the same recording while you sleep, setting it to run for the first two to three hours of sleep
• When you wake up, test yourself
• Do this every night for a few weeks before that summer holiday, and find yourself impressing the locals with your fluency!

The importance of sleep

We’ve seen how sleep can help us to learn a new skill, like building our knowledge and memory around a foreign language. But sleep has so many other practical uses in our lives, of which many of us aren’t aware. Fortunately, nowadays, there are experts out there who can tell us how important sleep is; and how we can get more of it.

Sleep strengthens the immune system, helps you to lose weight and makes you a more positive, tolerant person. And that’s just scratching the surface. The thing is, sleep-deprived people are at risk of several physical and mental repercussions; from diabetes to heart disease, anxiety to full-blown depression.

So it’s worth getting a decent sleep every night… not just for self-improvement purposes but for basic survival.

How to get a better night’s sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should be getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night – kids need longer. If that seems impossible to you, maybe you’ve developed some poor pre-bedtime habits that you need to nip in the bud…

• Cut down on caffeine. If you must have that cup ‘o’ joe, have it before 2pm, as caffeine can stay in your bloodstream for up to 6 hours. Not great to be buzzed up when you should be settling down.
• Switch off those screens. Shut down your TV, your laptop and even your phone half an hour before bedtime; that way, the blue light they emit won’t overstimulate your mind and keep you awake.
• Enjoy some “you” time. Instead of being up to ninety until lights out, take some time to relax before bed. Have a bath, read a book, meditate… whatever it takes to help your body and mind slow down.
Sleep your way to a smarter life!

Can you learn a language in your sleep?

Well, as explained not entirely. But, sleep can help enforce your learning! So, whether you want to learn a new language, or simply live a healthier, more restful life, better sleep can help you get there.

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Learn a language while sleeping