Can You Learn a Language While Sleeping? Everything You Need to Know
It’s a time to relax and recharge.
It’s a time to dream about showing up in your high school math class wearing nothing but an octopus and a smile.
But can it also be a time to learn a language?
- What Does the Science Say About Sleep Learning in General?
- What Does the Science Say About Language Learning and Sleep?
- Why Try Learning a Language While You Sleep?
- How Do You Learn a Language While You Sleep?
What Does the Science Say About Sleep Learning in General?
The idea of sleep learning, also called hypnopedia, first became popular in the early 20th century and really took off with Soviet studies of the subject in the 1960s.
In fact, a 1965 study suggested that it could be possible to learn during sleep and noted that language learning could be one possible application.
A subsequent study clarified that sleep is important for memory consolidation and is therefore useful for language learning. Likewise, a study from the International Journal of Psychophysiology also indicated a correlation between efficient language learning and quality sleep.
In other words, if you’re learning a language or doing anything else that’s mentally taxing, you need your sleep.
There’s ample evidence that having consistent quality sleep improves your ability to retain what you learned while you were awake. But what about what you learned while getting that much-needed shut-eye?
What Does the Science Say About Language Learning and Sleep?
A few recent studies suggest that you might be able to improve your language skills by listening in your sleep.
- A 2015 Swiss study had students listen to new vocabulary words in a foreign language. Then, half the group went to sleep while the words were played back. The other half stayed awake and listened to the words. The group that slept remembered more of the vocabulary words.
- Another study from 2019 published in Current Biology (also conducted by a Swiss team, interestingly enough) found that those who learned words during sleep were able to give more correct answers regarding these words (upon waking up, of course) than chance could explain. It’s worth noting, however, that these benefits didn’t extend to the more complex aspects of language such as grammar and conjugations.
- In a Digital Trends article published in 2021, Rebecca Crowley (a research associate from Royal Holloway, University of London) suggested that it may be possible to learn from audio material while you slept, as long as you already had some familiarity with the material.
- A study published in 2022 also supported the idea that you may be able to learn new languages in your sleep, but only if the new material was absorbed during the “trough” phases of sleep (the periods when you’re at your most relaxed).
So far, the research suggests that you can pick up a language during sleep, but only under the very specific conditions outlined above.
Regardless, learning a language while you sleep is still worth a try for a couple of key reasons.
Why Try Learning a Language While You Sleep?
One of the best reasons to try learning a language while you sleep is that you won’t be wasting time. Even if you end up learning nothing, you would have been sleeping regardless, so you won’t have wasted any valuable time that you could have used for something else.
Additionally, sleep learning might improve vocabulary retention—as you’ve seen, the science seems to support this. Any little leg up helps! This is all the more reason to use sleep learning as a supplement to another language learning resource.
How Do You Learn a Language While You Sleep?
To recap, the science says that, in order to learn a language while you sleep, you need to be already familiar with the material you’re studying—i.e., you should review those foreign language textbooks before you hit the hay. You’re also more likely to absorb vocabulary than other aspects of language when you’re in a somnolent state. Finally, the importance of good, quality sleep can’t be overemphasized—if you feel agitated and restless in the middle of the night, you’re not likely to retain much of what you listened to.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the specific resources that can help you learn languages while you get your precious zzz’s.
Eko Languages is a YouTube channel that focuses primarily on helping people learn world languages. Videos include general lessons like vocabulary lists and pronunciation guides, but there are also a number of sleep learning videos.
Each video uses a tranquil tone that will help ease you into slumber. Then, a word is spoken in English and repeated three times in the target language. If you happen to be staring at your screen, you’ll also see the word appear in both English and your target language. Videos focus primarily on common words and phrases.
Language lessons available for aspiring sleep learners include Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Russian and Spanish.
There are also sleep learning videos to teach English to native speakers of a variety of languages.
Additionally, there are sleep learning videos to help Spanish speakers learn German, Italian, Russian and more.
Finally, while they’re not marketed as a sleep learning platform, their videos that contain a lot of vocabulary may also work well for sleep learning since the main focus is listening.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
Sleep Learning (Audio Programs)
The Sleep Learning programs offer sleep learning CDs and MP3 downloads. The goal of each program is to teach you the 850 most common words in your target language, equipping you with the most essential vocabulary—which matches up with the research!
There are eight languages available on these programs: Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, German, Japanese, Arabic and Thai.
If you like to listen to audio language learning programs, you’ve probably heard of Pimsleur.
It’ll teach you the basic words and phrases you need to communicate with native speakers in your target language. What’s unique about this program is that it gradually builds on your prior knowledge (instead of slinging new vocab at you in isolation), ensuring that you intuitively retain the new material.
For a more comprehensive review of this program, look here.
Whether or not sleep learning actually works, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. Maybe you’ll at least have cool foreign language dreams—as long as there are no octopi involved!