Can You Learn a New Language in Your Sleep?

This article originally appeared on the telc English blog and has been reposted here for preservation. Image: Creative Commons.

Scientists are now saying you can

It’s the wish of many students to acquire new information in their sleep. The common myth, laughable in retrospect, of university years regarding “learning through osmosis”, in which one places a textbook under one’s pillow to learn during sleep, yields little benefit for would-be dream students. Researchers at the University of Bern, however, are now saying that learning while sleeping may not be such a fantasy after all.

The Study

The results of a study published in Current Biology shows how researchers taught test subjects new vocabulary during what is known as the up-state period of sleep, that is when the brain cells are most active. Using semantic association, the test subjects were made to listen to real words associated with fake words. After waking, the test subjects were quizzed on the fake words and were asked whether they were objects larger or smaller than a shoebox. The results showed that these test subjects scored better than if they had guessed at random.

Current Limitations

As far as we know it today, sleep learning is a process not thoroughly understood. What is known, however, is that there are limitations to what can be taught; lessons more complex than word association don’t seem to work as well. Comprehension of grammar isn’t being taught during sleep, after all, rather the subject gains a subtle familiarity with new words.

This is not unlike another Swiss study conducted back in 2014, when researchers found that subjects who were exposed to new foreign words in their sleep were better at recalling the words than subjects who listened to the same tape while awake (the test takes into account sleep deprivation). 

2015 article in Business Insider begged to differ, stating that sleep learning apps and playlists only helped to hinder sleep. According to the most recent Swiss study, however, a person would have to reach deep sleep before learning could really begin. Perhaps this suggests that while sleep learning is possible, the methodology with how it’s conducted is just as important.

Available Sleep Learning Lessons

Where can we turn to if we want to try sleep learning for ourselves? To better replicate the process of the latest study, it’s probably best to find an audio program that does simple word associations rather than more complicated phrases. 

The most cost-effective solution would be to search YouTube for a simple audio lesson that you can listen to as you sleep. Using the search phrase, “Learn xxx words in sleep”, (with “xxx” replaced with your target language) should yield a fair amount of videos. Try to find one that presents individual word associations and that covers words you need to learn. Here is an example video for those learning German. And here’s a potentially good video for those learning Italian that repeats words to (hopefully) enhance retention. For advanced students, include the word “advanced” to search for more appropriate videos.

There are also YouTube channels dedicated to sleep learning. These are not limited to just language learning, so you would have to find the right video for you.

Will these sleep learning lessons work? Until we learn more from researchers, you’ll just have to try the videos and find out for yourself. Let us know your results on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on language learning!