Tuesday, December 4, 2007

#17. Dreaming in Another Language

A 67-year-old man talks in Spanish in his sleep. This doesn't seem weird at all. But take into account that he has forgotten almost all his Spanish, which he learned as a child until the age of 10, when he moved to the Netherlands and started learning Dutch and other languages. He says that Spanish is the only language he was ever fluent in but now all that is left of it is only in his dreams. (link to article below)
In Korea, dreaming in English is people's "dream." They think that if they dream in English, it means that they have achieved a significant level in English. This doesn't seem totally nonsensical, so I wanted to find out how much correlation, if any, there is between dreams and language ability.
Steve Kaufmann, author of The Linguist, founder of thelinguist.com, and speaker of nine languages, offers his opinion on the topic: "In my experience it does not mean much. It sometimes happens to me, I think it reflects the fact that we are really committed to the language, listening to it, and wanting to speak it. In our dreams we are not inhibited so we do well." In an online forum (http://forum.wordreference.com/archive/index.php/t-245778.html), people seem to share the opinion that dreaming in a foreign language doesn't mean you have the language down solid. Citing their experiences, they seem to agree with Kaufmann that people dream in the foreign language when they're studying it intensely.
Other than other personal accounts, I couldn't find any research that pointed to a correlation between dreaming in a foreign language and ability in that language. Apparently, we're "smarter" when we're asleep, so we can speak the foreign language better in our dreams. However, some people have experiences of dreaming in a language they never learned, which they perfectly understand while they're asleep. A lot of sites that I came across as I researched this topic were about interpreting dreams, premonitions (dreams predicting the future), and sleep disorders like somniloquy (sleep talking). So it seems that a lot of the dream world is unknown, because we do things in our sleep that seem unexplainable like carrying out a conversation with someone.
As for me, I don't think I'm very conscious about which language I dream in, but I do find it odd when my English-speaking friends and my Korean-speaking friends come out together in my dreams and seem to communicate perfectly with each other. I think I've had dreams where I understood French perfectly, but the memory is vague, so I'm not really sure. My roommate tells me I sometimes say random words in Korean while I sleep, but as she doesn't know Korean, I'm not sure if it's just gibberish or actual Korean. Although I didn't find any substantial evidence, the majority opinion seems to be that one's actual ability in a foreign language and dreaming in that language have little correlation. Just because you dreamt in German, that doesn't mean you've achieved fluency or even proficiency in it.



Travis said...

Great post! I think this is a very interesting topic and agree that speaking a different language in your dream probably correlates well with its particular significance to you and your life at the time. I have dreamed in Spanish when I had an intense test coming up. I've also had dreams in languages I don't even speak! Otherwise, again, great job!

Daniel said...

I agree with much that you've stated above and I've had a few dreams in French as I was learning it ie not fluent. The part about you being 'smarter' whilst dreaming is really interesting because I think that the links we make in our brains, which mainly just pattern match, actually form a basic understanding of the language syntax and not necessarily the words being said. Hence you get the impression that you understood the conversation in your dream although your brain substituted some of those words in English (or your native tongue). That's my immediate take on the issue.

Great post by the way, Thanks.

Aritul said...

Interesting post. When you say dream in another language, do you mean that whole dream was conducted in the language?

If that's the case, then I've never dreamt in another language. However, once I did had a conversation in Spanish in a dream. It was strange though because I wasn't speaking to a native Spanish speaker and I am certainly not native.

Anyway, dreaming a complete dream in a foreign language continues to be my dream. Hopefully it'll happen.

Art said...

At the 2009 ASD Conference in Chicago I presented on the topic: "Is it easier to dream in one language as opposed to another?" The ASD archives has a CD on this talk. Since then I have expanded the talk into a soon to be published paper utilizing new understandings on dreams and language.

Art said...

At the 2009 ASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) conference, I gave a presentation with the title: "Is it easier to dream in one language as opposed to another?"-- ASD has a CD on my talk in its archives. Since then I have added new research on language and dreaming to bolster my arguments. I and hope to get the research article published soon.

Andres Narvaez said...

Hey travis , I'm 24 and I have never left my country to any other where english is spoken .. I speak italian , spanish ( main ) and portuguese and I can understand french and latin , I have never studied any of them intensely , I just like them ... I'm from colombia and some americans say I have a superaccent and they say I don't sound latino. And yes sometimes I have dreamt about speaking and listening to foreign languages such as russian and czech and I have totally moved out from my own language roots, in the dream I ocasionally speak spanish and the translation process in my mind is relatively ' nule ' so I could infeer I'm thinking in those languages , anyhow its beautiful. Greets.

Will Drouillard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erhan Treeborne said...

I've had a dream where it was the late 50s or 60s and I was in Vietnam with a group expats, mostly French, British and American.

In this dream, I was drinking and partying and took LSD and was speaking both French and Vietnamese very fluently (and I knew that I could also speak English), switching back and forth between the two, and having intense intellectual conversations about philosophy and geo-politics.

Interestingly, in real life I speak neither French nor Vietnamese (I'm an Aussie and speak only Australian English) although I understood everything myself and others said in the dream, including jokes, flirting and general nuance of conversation.

I've had a few other dreams from this period in time and they have been equally as vivid and tangible. I feel that they are some form of reflection from a past life and are an echo of consciousness although to what purpose I am unsure.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?