Most of us sometimes wonder: can you learn a language while sleeping?
There are two main positions:
- The first position claims that learning while sleeping is impossible. The position is motivated by the fact that unconsciously information is absorbed worse, and after sleep a person simply forgets what he or she learned during sleep.
- The second position says that audiobooks, podcasts and sleeping pills on the contrary help with learning. That is, if you listen to books in a foreign language all night, new information and words will gradually enter your head while you sleep. And the interesting thing is that sometimes in the morning you may even remember some of what you heard. Some say it is one of the best passive learning techniques.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of research confirming that when we fall into unconscious sleep, we do not lose the ability to remember new material. In this article, we will find out if it is possible to have an all-night listening dictionary of new words and memorize them upon awakening. Or in other words: can you learn a language while sleeping?
Proof 1: Learning during sleep is possible
Numerous studies have found that conditioning, a major form of learning, occurs during sleep. Israeli researchers found that people can learn to identify sounds with smells while asleep, in the study published in 2012 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Researchers played a specific sound to sleeping study participants while simultaneously producing the unpleasant smell of rotten fish. When the subjects woke up, they held their breath in anticipation of the unpleasant smell.
Observers of the experiment said this was a clear result, showing that people can generate new memories during sleep.
Proof 2: You can learn new information while sleeping
And in the 2014 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists found that even if the memory was implicit, it can change a person’s behavior. Smokers who spent the night exposed to the smell of cigarettes combined with bad eggs or spoiled seafood consumed fewer cigarettes.
Looking at this example, we realize that in one way or another the brain takes in all the information that is given during sleep. Moreover, we can conclude that learning while sleeping also affects your behavior and habits.
Proof 3: You can learn a language in your sleep
In this study researchers took 41 German-speaking volunteers of males and females. Instead of teaching them a regular language, the team made up fake words, each with a specific meaning. Researchers made sure that one of the participants had no contact with the new language.
The scientists decided to target a specific period of sleep: the so-called “peaks” during deep sleep, usually unrelated to dreams.
During deep sleep, neurons coordinate their activity for short periods of time before dropping back into a period of inactivity. These two states cyclically alternate every half-second.
When the volunteers fell asleep, they each wore an EEG device to monitor brain function, and the scientists began playing word associations through earbuds.
For example, the made-up word “tofer” meant “key” and “guga” meant “elephant.” Each pair of words was played four times, according to the rhythm of the sleeping brain, so that the second word coincided with wave peaks. In all, the sleeping brain heard about 36 different word pairs over 146 repetitions.
“The moment when the second word was played was important because at that moment an association could be formed between one word and another, and thus neural plasticity should be optimal,” the researchers explain.
After awakening the volunteers, the researchers showed them a fake word and asked them to picture whether the designated object would be smaller or larger than a shoebox – as a way to tap into unconscious memories.
“Implicit memories are difficult to articulate explicitly. We had to access unconscious, implicit knowledge through questions about the semantic aspects of these new words.”
Remarkably, when the second word in the word pair coincided with the deep sleep state, participants could correctly characterize the made-up word at a 10% higher chance.
Sleep learning and memory
We often think of sleep as a downtime. Well, it’s not. Can you learn a language while sleeping? Yes, we can.
Recent studies have shown that sleep helps the brain “cleanse” itself, flushing out toxic molecules that can eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
More importantly, sleep also reorganizes memories. During certain stages of sleep, the brain replay memories in an accelerated mode. The neurons responsible for storing memories are reactivated as a network, essentially training the brain to remember. This replay helps us to take important lessons and life experiences and saves them in closer to permanent storage in our brains. Meanwhile, memories that “don’t deserve” much attention in the first place are erased to open up more storage space.
By the way, this is why interval repetition works great. It lets your brain know that knowledge is still important and it doesn’t erase it. Words memorization in the Langavia Personal Dictionary application is based on this.
Don’t forget to reinforce new knowledge
If you decide to learn a foreign language while you sleep, do not forget to reinforce your knowledge by active exercises while you’re awake to get active recall. For example, if you listened to the audio version of the word list at night, you need to reinforce your knowledge during the day, for example through flashcards or simple reading. The Langavia app is great for that. It allows you to create and keep your own dictionary of words and phrases you want to know. Just create dictionary cards for everything you were learning during the sleep and continue memorizing that via game-based exercises. This will help you reinforce the knowledge you gained during sleep in practice.