Learn a Language In Your Sleep?

“Learn a language in your sleep!” It sounds like a scam, doesn’t it? However, according to researchers from the Swiss National Science Foundation, it just might work. Sort of.

The researchers played a series of Dutch vocabulary words to a group of 60 German-speaking volunteers. Half of the volunteers were then allowed to go to sleep, and while they slept, the researchers played the newly acquired Dutch words for them again. The other half were asked to stay awake, and they also got to hear the new Dutch words played again.  Then, the researchers woke the first group up and tested everyone to see how well they had retained the vocabulary.

You might expect the group that stayed awake to do better on the test, since they’d had the opportunity to hear the words repeated while they were actually conscious. In fact, the group that went to sleep remembered the vocabulary more accurately.

As Wired noted in its write up of the study, “[i]t is, of course, entirely reasonable to assume that sleep deprivation versus rest played a part in the results.” The vocabulary test took place at 2 AM, after all. 

However, the researchers also had the sleeping subjects hooked up to EEG machines to measure their brainwaves.  When the sleeping volunteers heard the Dutch words being played, they showed increased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with creating memories.

So, can you learn a new language in your sleep?

Not completely. Listening to a foreign language while you snooze falls under the category of “passive listening.” As Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months puts it:

“When you already understand the language, it’s different – but to learn the language? The problem with embracing a passive means of learning a language is that a language is active. It requires your attention to understand and your ability to produce to actually converse.”

Note that even in this study, the volunteers initially learned the new foreign vocabulary words actively, while they were awake. Hearing them in their sleep later may have helped reinforce what they had already learned while they were conscious, but without that conscious effort, your language learning dreams are doomed to remain just that…dreams!

Have you tried to learn a language (or anything else) in your sleep? Did it work? Tell us about it in the comments!

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