What language do you dream in?

August 1, 2013

Language dream

It has been said that once you start dreaming in a second language you know you have become fluent. But is this an old wives’ tale?

If you have ever learned or been in the process of learning a language you have probably heard this before - I know I did. It is an interesting idea and one that holds some truth to it. Sure, when the mind is on information overload it is very common to dream about that subject. Very often we dream about unresolved work problems, things we’ve seen or heard, and at times we may hear or see ourselves speaking a different language.

A very important distinction needs to be made here between times when these dreams depict us speaking what little we know about another language and times when we are fluently speaking the foreign tongue. For example, oftentimes people have dreams where they are “speaking” the language they are learning but upon thorough analysis they realize they were saying the only words they know. Or it turns out to be a mixture of their own language with the known words in the new language. This is by far the most common case. The more interesting instance and the focus of this post is the latter - people having 100% of the dream in the foreign language.

If you are completely bilingual this is an event that happens very often. Both languages are dominated and you think and speak in both, so your mind switches back and forth easily. But for people who are learning the second language, when do bilingual dreams happen? And do these dreams really mean they have attained fluency?

One could argue that dreaming in a foreign language is perfectly normal. And it is if we are already fluent in that language. But when it happens in either a) the early stages of learning or b) having no knowledge of the language? That’s when it gets interesting. Some of our students at English summer camp have reported dreaming in English - we take this with rejoice and as normal since they are immersed in the language 24h a day.

In the midst of learning a language in which we are immersed (depending on the learning method), we are constantly bombarded with rules, words and meanings. At night we process our daily activities in our minds and dreams help us do that. It is normal then to have images and sounds of our learned words and sentences at night while we sleep. This is a perfectly normal explanation on why we have these basic language dreams. The difficulty comes when we try to analyze the reason or meaning behind a full-blown foreign language dream, especially if we are NOT fluent.

Our mind works in incredible ways and its capable of very powerful things. There are many theories on why we have these dreams and in some occasions, though not the topic of this post but certainly interesting, why people who have woken after an accident are suddenly fluent in a foreign language. For more on accidents and language swapping check this article. It reports a swapping event and has links to other sources as well.

The phenomenon of dreaming in a foreign language in fluency remains unexplained. However one possible explanation might lie in what our subconscious mind picks up that we consciously are not aware of. We are constantly receiving information even when we are focused on other things. Cars going by, people talking on the street while we are on the phone, etc. All these bits and pieces of information, noises and images do get in our brains unconsciously. More often than not an image or word pops up in our head “out of nowhere” when in reality it is something we heard or saw earlier in the day or weeks before without noticing.

It is said that our subconscious mind can remember word for word, image by image every single detail of our lives. Something we consciously are not capable of doing. If this is the case it can explain how during dreams or vivid memories we can replay whole conversations we’ve heard. Even in foreign languages. So an answer to the question: Are we fluent once we dream in a different language? is a difficult one to attain if it is looked for in the mind of a learner. Like all things “dreams” a solid conclusion is most likely not possible. Nonetheless my conclusion is that somewhere in the process of learning we tie in conversations we’ve heard but do not understand with our current learning process. During this process these conversations are replayed during dreams and we wake up with the strange feeling of having “spoken” that language in our sleep. When in reality it is a playback of an unconscious heard conversation. No matter the case, a dream in a different language should be taken as an incredibly positive sign of language improvement and awareness.

Have you had any dreams in a foreign language lately?

Until next time!