A little over a year ago I had an experience which led me to become interested in the role of dreams in language learning. It was during lockdown and I had been studying Mandarin fairly intensively for several hours each day. One night I dreamed that I was in a classroom with a group of around ten other students and a Mandarin teacher. The teacher introduced the topic for Chinese discussion: holiday seasons. Then she went around the class and one by one asked us what we had been up to over Easter.
When it was my turn to speak the whole classroom suddenly turned to stare at me. Feeling under immense pressure to deliver I nervously sputtered out an attempt to say I had spent Easter at my parents’ house: “我在我父母家过复活节。” I paused as I could sense that the students and teacher were looking at me with puzzled expressions. They clearly couldn’t understand a word of what I’d just said. I started again, only this time I amended the sentence to “我在我父母家度过复活节…” The students and teacher began smiling and nodding letting me know that this time they had understood me perfectly. I felt relieved and continued talking about my Easter holidays.
The next morning as I reflected on this strange dream I realised the word I had used to amend the sentence – 度过 – was completely alien to me. I couldn’t recall ever having come across it outside my dream, let alone actively using it. I concluded that I must have made it up. But when I looked the word up in the dictionary I was astonished to discover it is in fact a real word (meaning to pass or spend time) and I had used it correctly. Clearly I had encountered the word numerous times before and, although I was not conscious of it, my brain had absorbed it.
A friend recently told me about a similar dream she had soon after she started taking Chinese classes:
“It was a dream I had just before waking up…I just remember saying 计划 over and over again and then I started to wake up and was still saying it in my head. I wondered what the Chinese I was saying meant. I went and looked it up and realised it was the word for ‘plan’ which I had just covered in one of my previous Confucius classes. Interestingly, I feel I have learnt the word and will never forget it even though I didn’t formally try and learn it.”
Dreaming in Mandarin is not something that happens to me often, or at least if it does I don’t remember. But it turns out foreign language dreams are a common experience among language learners, particularly those who have been studying intensively. Online forums are full of posts from people relaying the contents of their dreams. Some people have even tried using lucid dreaming – the practice of taking conscious control of your dreams – as a language learning tool. Typically, dreamers will perceive their language abilities to be more fluent and less inhibited in their sleep then when awake.
The phenomenon of foreign language dreams has also been the subject of scientific research. In 1990, a paper published in the Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa followed four students who were enrolled on a 6-week French language immersion course. The participants each kept a diary to record their dreams and were monitored while sleeping in a laboratory. The study found that the subjects who made the most progress in their French studies were also the most likely to report dreaming in French.
The exact function of dreaming in language learning remains largely a mystery. It is hard to know whether target language dreams play a causal role in effective language acquisition or whether they are a bi-product of intensive study. But the evidence does suggests that if you find yourself speaking Chinese in your dreams, that’s a good sign.
Have you had any dreams in Chinese or another target language? If so please share your experience in the comments below.