There are a number of important, exciting milestones you’ll hit when you’re learning a new language. The first time you hear something in the language and instantly understand it, the first time you successfully order food in the language, the first time you hold a conversation with a native speaker that isn’t painfully awkward. And one of the most elusive of firsts is when you start to dream in the language you’re learning. It’s not as obviously clear whether dreams and language are directly related, but therein lies the intrigue.
Dreams are a somewhat strange marker of linguistic proficiency. After all, dreams have a strange, indecipherable logic about them. Still, a common question for a multilingual to hear is, “What language do you dream in?”
Is there really a connection between dreams and language that can tell you anything about learning, though? We explored the scientific and experiential underpinnings of what it means to dream in a new language.
The Scientific Link Between Dreams And Language
When thinking about dreams and language, it’s good to clear away some common misconceptions. This article is not about those people who claim to speak languages in dreams they’ve never learned (which is often disproven by scientists, but it’s still a fascinating phenomenon). It also doesn’t have anything to do with learning a language while sleeping (also not backed by science, though sleep does help you consolidate memory). Instead, we’re just looking at whether languages appearing in dreams correlates with language ability.
In 1990, researcher Joseph de Koninck published a study that looked at this exact question. The study followed a group of students who were taking a six-week French course, and who kept a dream journal for 10 weeks (they started two weeks before the course started and ended two weeks after the course). The researchers found that those who made more progress in the course were likely to have French dreams earlier on, and to also have more verbal communication in those dreams. This was a follow-up to another study by de Koninck, and thus reproduced the results showing that the language you dream in does have a clear connection with your learning progress.
This result is probably not too surprising. It basically means that the better you are at a language, the more likely it is that the language will appear in your dreams. If we leave it at that, dreams and language can seem like a pretty boring topic. But dreams are a tough topic to wrangle into scientific explanation.
Experiences Of Dreams And Language
When I was in high school taking Spanish, I was excited to have my first dream in the language. At some point during a finals season when I was spending the most time immersed in the language, it happened. It was a short dream, with only a bit of generic dialogue, and it took place in probably the most obvious place imaginable: Spanish class.
It was this dream that made me realize dreaming in other languages is not some magical, impossible-to-understand phenomenon. To explore the topic more, I asked some of my other colleagues who have multilingual experience.
Elin Asklöv, who works on didactics here, said she has dreams in all three languages she speaks, which are Swedish, English and German. What’s more, the languages tend to fit the context of the dream, so she would have a dream with her mother speaking Swedish, but never German. Similarly, her dreams in German didn’t start until she had moved to Germany and was immersed in the language.
While context-specific seems to make sense, the same is not true for everyone. Video producer Diana Tur says that people in her dreams can speak languages they might not know in real life. For example, there might be a conversation between her mother and boyfriend — a Spanish speaker and an English speaker, respectively — which could never happen in real life. What language they actually spoke in, however, is a mystery, as the logic of the dream was lacking.
And really, the logic of language can be confounding. Designer Ally Zhao, for example, recounted a dream in which she spoke to her maternal grandparents, who only knew Mandarin in real life. Her own Mandarin was elementary, but the dream was able to transcend the language barrier so Ally could convey to her grandfather specifically her feelings at the moment.
What can these dreams tell us about language learning? Well, the relationship between the two can be a little weird. If you start dreaming in the language you’re learning, that’s definitely a good sign that you’re immersing yourself and really starting to internalize the vocabulary. But at the same time, you can also have dreams that make absolutely no sense in any language. So really, don’t fret too much about what language you’re speaking in dreams. Instead, you can fret about that final for the class you forgot to attend, or that all your teeth are falling out, or that you’re naked in public. You know, fun dream things!