Learning Japanese before my alarm goes off?
Cramming in a few more fundamentals between hitting the “snooze” button (a few dozen times)?
It’s also one that’s been keeping humans wondering how they could do it for centuries. People have been interested in the idea of learning while settling in for a quick nap since at least the 1800s when the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys conducted some of his dream research.
Admittedly, he wasn’t trying to master a new language with his sleep stimulation, but the principles hold up in spite of his true objective.
The idea of learning while you’re asleep seems simple—learn a new concept while you’re unconscious.
Go to sleep not knowing the words you want and wake up with a whole new set of verbs ready to go in your brain the next morning, like magic. Getting to use all of that seemingly wasted time is very appealing.
Besides, what else is the brain up to?
What’s the Link Between Sleep and the Brain?
While sleep might seem like a waste of eight hours, we know it doesn’t do a body (or brain) good to go without it.
If you’ve ever stayed up a few hours too many on the weekend, then you know how groggy (and snappy) you can get when you’re short on sleep.
Even though we can’t, for the most part, remember what happens when we go down for the night, it seems to play an important role in our well-being. While scientists cannot completely agree on why, they agree that it’s a vital part of our cognitive processes.
Most researchers agree that sleep plays a vital role in the process of memory consolidation. That’s what matters to us for sleep learning.
Without the ability to consolidate a memory, you wouldn’t be able to learn new things. With the right hacks, we can use this to our advantage and help enhance the consolidation process.
Let’s look at some tips on how you could use your sleep time to study better.
3 Dreamy Tips to Learn Japanese While You Sleep
To continue your learning in your waking hours, FluentU is a great option.
FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn. It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Japanese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
And hey, you can try playing the FluentU videos while you sleep. You’ve got nothing to lose and plenty to learn!
1. Align your expectations with reality
First things first, we need to set the record straight. You won’t be completely fluent in Japanese by taking a passive route. It would be nice if it worked that way, but this is just wishful thinking.
You can’t just play audiobooks while you sleep to learn the language. The idea of straight up learning new information you’ve never been exposed to before in your sleep has been debunked since the 1950’s.
Does that mean that you have no hope?
Of course not. You can use passive tools in order to make sleep-aided learning possible. There’s some potential to learn while you sleep, but you just have to know how to do it the right way and keep your expectations in line with reality.
If you can do that, then you can do your language studies a big favor.
Sleep-aided learning functions more like a support system to the waking brain—reinforcing knowledge but not substituting your daytime study hours. The focus of this kind of study is to help with memory consolidation.
For those of you not familiar with the concept of memory consolidation, it’s how our brains transfer information from our short-term memory (what you use to cram for an exam) to long-term memory (the part of your brain that allows you to remember the phone number of your childhood home).
Techniques that do this usually rely on creating stronger pathways by tying them to your senses.
2. Know the techniques in sleep-aided learning and how you might use them
Your first option is called simple sound cognition. In a study on verbal learning, subjects were asked to study words right before they went to bed. Then the sounds of the words were played while they slept.
The participants who were exposed to these sounds showed enhanced retention of the words. This may be because the reactivation of these parts of the brain helped with better memory consolidation
You can use this technique at home by replaying sections of a Japanese audiobook, YouTube channel or podcast that you’ve recently been studying. Just be sure to keep it on a low enough volume that it won’t keep you awake, but loud enough that you can still hear it. (At a level where you wouldn’t have to strain to make out the words seems to be about right.)
You don’t want to pay attention to the words (you’re not trying to stay awake). You just want to be able to hear the sounds while you sleep.
Your next choice is a method called stimulation by odor. The research of this method suggests ties made to memories in the brain are stronger when you can stimulate the reprocessing of this information during the night, deepening the neural connections and making recall more likely.
If you can stimulate this response, then you can get more out of your memory.
You can use this by attaching your studies to a signature scent. Get a perfume or other fragrant item (like incense) and keep it near you while you’re studying Japanese. Then, you should also keep it near you while you sleep.
Spray a little bit of perfume on your blanket or pillow, or burn some incense before you go to sleep. This should help you to increase the amount of words that find a home in your long-term memory.
3. Get some good options for listening
Some of the Japanese materials you use for active learning should also be used for the passive learning you’ll be doing while you sleep.
If you’re listening to a vocabulary audiobook during the day, you should use this for your memory consolidation. It’s better to repeat the same sounds in the same order so that your memory gets a true repetition.
Just like hearing them over and over again when you’re awake, this repetition helps your brain to remember. In the case of sleep, you can get the same effect.
If you’re looking for something new, there are a wealth of great, free podcasts to check out to help you get your audio on while you’re taking a nap. For basic vocabulary, podcasts like Learn Japanese Pod is a great option for reinforcing the basic words you’re learning. Another great option for beginners in NKH World, which features basic, everyday words in context.
LingQ is a good option if you’re past the basic vocabulary and looking for some conversational Japanese. There are also a few snippets of audiobooks on this podcast, but in general you should get a nice mix of basic daily speech.
News in Slow Japanese will give you complex sentences and thoughts, but at a speed slow enough to allow you to distinguish the individual words and sounds. This is a great option for intermediate to advanced learners who are trying to get a grip on the day-to-day speech in Japan.
When you’re ready to speed it up, give Japanese Listening Advanced a try. They’ll get you up to speed on speaking Japanese.
While these methods may not be able to replace your study time, they’ll help you make it more effective. These little hacks may work differently for different people, so play around with them until you find the right mix for you.
Just remember to be polite to anyone you may be sharing a bed or bedroom with!
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