Can you learn a language in your sleep?

Most people want to learn a language or two, but don’t wish to spend years learning them. This is particularly true when they have an immediate use for that language, like travel, study, or career plans involving that language. A traveler to South America would enjoy her/his stay more if she/he could communicate in Spanish. Planning a bilingual English-French career would benefit from effective language learning.

Spending time learning a language seems, in most cases, like a long marathon where many people give up before the finish line.

So, any language learning method that promises to shorten that time from years to a few weeks or even months and to make the whole learning process as passive as possible would be very appealing and more attractive than conventional methods.

Many researchers explored the possibility to bring language learning closer to language acquisition. “The Encyclopedia of the human brain” defines language acquisition as “the process of achieving the ability to speak and understand the particular language or languages to which a child has been exposed.” So, children don’t “learn” their native language(s). They acquire it(them). Creators of language learning methods strive to offer a learning experience that assimilates language acquisition, in other words, learning the language naturally as children do.

I’ve come across many methods that rely on listening to the language sounds that are structured in a certain manner so that it constantly builds information on top of each other, showing the intrinsic linguistic relations without conceptualizing them. For example, you would start with some cognates and move on to building basic vocabulary. You need to listen and repeat. You are often required to translate from your native language or respond to questions and statements. It’s an approach that mimics the exposure to languages that happen in children. These methods avoid teaching grammar in the form of sets of rules and replace them with an approach that is similar to how children learn to speak properly before they start learning all the grammar rules in schools.

I think these methods serve a good purpose and can have varying levels of success.

Many language learners would love for their brains to work full speed in the background and make them capable of using that language in as short a time as possible. Scientific research has been on the look for that kind of learning and many studies have been conducted on the influence of sleep on people learning languages in different stages of life.

Yes, scientists wanted to know how brain activity during sleep, affects language learning.

There is a buzz around the results of some scientific experiments involving learning languages and sleep. I typed “Learn Spanish in your…” in the search bar and the number one auto-complete search word was “car” and number two was “sleep”. Yes, you read this right and I’m sure many of you have heard about this before. Learn a language in your sleep seems to be a thing now. It sounds like an easy shortcut and a promise to train your brain and make good use of its downtime i.e. sleep.

So where did this concept come from?

It seems that it stemmed from specific interpretations of how the brain can be triggered during sleep to retain newly learned information.

I actually tried it myself…

Not so long ago, I thought I might as well give it a go, as it wouldn’t hurt to try learning Spanish in my sleep. In fact, it would be great if it worked. Who would hate waking up with fluency in Spanish gained almost effortlessly, without having to spend hours studying and memorizing words and doing practice exercises and, most importantly, without having to go through the frustration of forgetting what we learn?

So, I went to bed and played a video of “Learn Spanish in your sleep”. Well, the next morning, Not only have I not had any more Spanish words than the ones I had had already known before listening to that 4-hour video, but I also couldn’t sleep well as I like to sleep in an absolutely quiet room. In a nutshell, it didn’t work for me. 

So, what is actually going on? Is it true that we can learn languages in our sleep?

Sleep consolidates memory traces

Sleep is beneficial in language acquisition for both children and adults, but not in the way that trend sells. Having adequate sleeping time enhances brain functionality when it comes to the retention of information. From a neurological perspective, sleep plays a role in brain plasticity. And studies showed that processing recent memory traces, i.e. things that had been recently stored in memory, during sleep promotes certain neurological changes that aid in consolidating these memory traces.

Both REM (associated with dreams) and SWS (Slow-wave) sleep may lead to understanding the underlying rules when learning a new language. They work in synergy to consolidate and integrate memories.

Sleep can indeed consolidate memory functions when it comes to memorizing new words and expressions, which is crucial in learning a foreign language, but that’s about as much benefit from sleep as one can get for learning a second language. In other words, sleep can improve your ability to remember new words that you learned in your waking hours. Sleep itself is not the right environment for the brain to learn new information.

The conclusion of a research study on “Vocabulary learning benefits from REM after slow-wave sleep” run by Northwestern University in the USA, states that:

“Our results provide novel evidence that vocabulary memories benefit optimally from a succession of SWS and REM sleep, and that integration is mediated by REM sleep”

In brief, sleep helps consolidate the retention of new information and the integration between the old information and the new one. We need to learn first, then take a nap or a good night’s sleep to reap the benefits of sleep.

Conscious or subconscious?

Also, learning itself is a combination of a conscious and a subconscious process, so relying on one process, i.e. on the subconscious side will not give the results that you’re looking for.

It seems that many research studies showed that people can acquire certain simple problem-solving ability through sleep. It’s a common experience among people, to sleep on problems and unresolved questions, only to wake up in the morning, with the solution. It means that the brain continued working on the process of problem-solving on the subconscious level while you were asleep.

Now, this is different from learning languages, which is a complex process that requires the simultaneous building up of different skills and a conscious effort to gain those skills which means that it is next to impossible to have it all happening on the subconscious level, i.e. during sleep.

Ali Nouri, a professor at the Iranian University of Malayer describes language learning, in his paper “Cognitive Neuroscience of Foreign Language Education: Myths and Realities” as follows:

           “Language learning not only entails consciously memorizing dozens of new words and their meaning but also entails to develop a learning strategy and continuously restructure the newly acquired information in a fashion coherent with the preexisting knowledge base.”

Passive learning…

Remember that language learning involves much more than passive listening to words and sentences. You need to grasp concepts, produce texts, familiarize yourself with the culture, and understand semiotics, connotations, and contexts. All this cannot be achieved by simply listening, especially when the listening is done while being unaware.

Individual differences…

There’s also an individual selective level of difficulty. Each learner has certain aspects of the language that he/she finds easy or difficult, for purely individual reasons that can be attributed to anything, from the unexplained ability or inability to gain linguistic skills to the dedication of time and effort.

I had a student once who didn’t take any written notes in class and depended entirely, as far as I knew, on her memory. She said that she found many similarities between the language she was learning, French, and her native language, Hindi. I think this is an individual case, where one learner could easily remember the new words just by listening to them and reading along while finding lots of references in their native language or any other language(s) they know.

I, for one, cannot learn a new word without seeing it, the visual connection is important to me. I also learn by listening, but while I listen, I envision the words in my head.

So, this sleep pattern of learning cannot be applied successfully to all language learners, because of these individual differences. Even so, there’s no scientific evidence to back that claim.

The promise of learning languages without doing the actual work, in general, is an exaggeration, to say the least. Although, by doing so, people can gain some level of language knowledge, but this cannot be a comprehensive approach to learning. Many good and innovative methods make the learning process more effective in terms of effort and time and, yes, some people can learn faster than others for different reasons. But learning languages just by going to sleep while keeping the sounds of that language in the background doesn’t seem to be doing that trick.

Let me know if you’ve ever tried learning a language in your sleep and did it actually work for you?