Studies Suggest Learning a Language in Your Sleep May Be Possible
If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language like Spanish or German and felt it was just too difficult or time-consuming, there may be good news for you. A recent study from a lab in Switzerland suggests it may just be possible to learn new words while you sleep.
In this study, published in the journal Current Biology, it suggests that anyone could learn new words while they’re asleep. This would increase their working vocabulary in that language. The study was made up of 41 German-speaking participants.
In the study, German words were paired with nonsense words. For example, the word “haus” (German for “house”) was paired with “Tofer”, a nonsense word. All of these words were either smaller or larger than a standard shoebox. At the end of the experiment, the subjects were tested by being asked whether or not something would fit inside of this shoebox.
While participants were asleep, these word pairs were played back to them and meant to coincide with certain wave patterns. When the wave patterns and the nonsense words lined up in the way that the scientist recognized as optimal, it appears that the sleep-formed associations translated into recognizable “awake-associations.”
The words were played with the first word in the pair being alternated, in order to promote flexible binding. Each participant “learned” roughly 36 words, with an average of about 146 repetitions during their “nap.”
In order to test how well these words were learned, participants were given a number of questions. Each question asked if one of the words they were presented with would fit inside of a shoebox or not. They were presented with questions about imaginary words they had learned and some they had not.
In order to eliminate bias based on “size semantics”, half of the words on the list of made-up words were played to one-half of the sample group. The other half of the sample group would rate these words based on whether they felt they were larger or smaller than a shoebox. The same was done to the other half of the list of words.
Once the test was over and the researchers were able to analyze the results, they realized that their hypothesis was at least partially correct. When each subject took the test, they averaged an accuracy rating of about 10% better than what would be considered “chance level.” Chance level was, in part, determined by the rating given in the “size semantics” portion of the test.
Specifically, it was determined that slow wave sleep patterns were most effective at getting people to recognize one word as synonymous with another. This has been suggested within other studies but not enough research had been done to prove it definitively.
There is no doubt that sleep is needed in order to encode information we take in while awake. Even a short nap increases our likelihood of remembering what we have learned just as insufficient sleep can impair learning.
This study, as well as others, are beginning to build a foundation for the theory that learning during sleep is not only possible but that if done a certain way it may be just as if not more effective than learning while awake. At least when it comes to subjects, like vocabulary, that can rely on cueing.
More Research Is Needed
The team behind this study, led by Dr. Simon Ruch at the University of Bern, intends to continue this research into learning while asleep. Ideally, they will be able to improve the learning success rate to a point where it will be usable for the average person.
Greg Taylor is a Mechanical Engineer and former competitive long distance runner with a keen interest in health and general well-being issues. He acquired some carpentry and welding skills from his father and worked for a couple of very famous furniture and mattress manufacturers over the course of 30 years.