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Sleep and learn a language: fact or fiction?

You have to admit, the possibility of learning a language in your sleep, without having to spend time on lessons or exercises, sounds like a dream! In recent years, several studies have been carried out on this subject. What’s the purpose of these studies? To determine whether our brain is capable of memorising information while we sleep. So, is it really possible to learn a language while sleeping? Yes and no. This article will explain everything in more detail.

Is it possible to revise vocabulary while you sleep?

Good news, the answer is yes! Some studies have shown that it is possible to better retain some words or phrases heard while sleeping. This is because our brain does not shut down completely when we sleep.

But that doesn’t mean that by broadcasting lists of vocabulary while you sleep you will retain every word. The process is a slightly more complex than that.

Actually, when we sleep, we can stimulate our memory to anchor the knowledge acquired during the day in our brain. In other words, we can boost our revisions by listening to words we already know when we sleep.

A study published in the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex (November 2015) reveals that the ideal sleep stage for carrying out this activity is that of deep and restorative sleep, during which the waves released by our brain are relaxed and slow. The words heard during this sleep phase will be better retained and can be more easily reproduced when we are awake.

This makes it possible to learn (or rather brush up) your vocabulary in your sleep and can help you to boost your language learning.

Language learning in your sleep: more than mixed results

In contrast to revising, it would appear that learning new new things during sleep is considerably less effective.

Although the brain may be able to regulate information gathered during the day at night, the same cannot be said for words that have never been heard, for example. Therefore, there is no point in broadcasting dialogues or vocabulary lists in a foreign language when you sleep, as your brain would not retain them.

However, that is not to say that our brain doesn’t hear them. Another study conducted by Swiss researchers in 2019 reportedly demonstrates that we are able somehow to ‘learn’ new information while we sleep

The researchers subjected individuals to pairs of words while they slept. For each pair, the first word was an imagined word and the second was its supposed translation. When the volunteers awoke, they could not remember the words they heard while sleeping, nor the accompanying translations.

The researchers then asked them to sort the fictitious words into two categories:

  • those they thought small enough to fit in a shoe box ;
  • and those they thought to big to fit in such a box.

More than 50% of the contributors were able to place the words in the right category. It seems that the brain, while it cannot recall the newly introduced words, still managed to associate them with a concept: their alleged size.

Active language learning, an inevitable stage

The conclusion we can draw from these studies is that active learning is a must to study a foreign language effectively. Indeed, learning a language while sleeping is only possible if our brain has already been in contact, when awake, with the information it has to retain.

Therefore, foreign language lessons remain indispensable! Sleep revision is, for now, just a small add-on that you can use to learn a language faster. However, it is to be expected that further studies will further develop our knowledge of sleep-based learning.

In the meantime, bear in mind that the success of your language training mainly relies on the quality of the lessons you take.

You can count on the 1to1PROGRESS team and our 100% flexible training courses adapted to your needs to support you with your language learning.