Can You Learn A Language While You Sleep?

Updated: June 22, 2022
Fact-Check & Editorial Responsibility: Kris Broholm

In this modern world, our lives are often so busy that we don’t make time to do the things we really want to do, like take up a new sport, try a new skill, or perhaps learn a new language. 

But what if I told you that it's possible to learn a language while you sleep?

Would you make time then?

While it's believed that aiding your language learning is possible while you sleep, there’s no definite conclusion as to whether you can actually learn a language in its entirety.

Let's explore this a bit further…

One thing that is for sure is that you’re never going to go from a complete novice to a fluent speaker by learning during your sleep, but you may pick up a kind of basic knowledge or cement something that you’ve learnt during the day.

This was never going to be an easy question to answer, but I’m going to try and break it down for you into understandable, bite-sized chunks. And by the end of this text, you might be tempted to give it a go yourself!

So, how does the brain work while we’re asleep?

While we’re asleep, our brains don’t actually function that different to when we’re awake. 

You can put this down to how the brain is stimulated, in a part of it known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus can be found in the temporal lobe (the bit of our brain found just behind our temples) and is responsible for retaining memories and information. 

As you might imagine, the hippocampus is pretty crucial when it comes to learning a language. 

Science suggests that, when presented with new information, the hippocampus is stimulated whether we’re awake or asleep, suggesting that it is possible to learn a language while you snooze.

Studies have also shown that when phrases from someone’s non-native language are played to a sleeping person, the hippocampus still becomes responsive, despite the lack of consciousness from the individual. 

However, when the hippocampus is stimulated in this way, it only has the potential to help a person retain new information if it occurs during non-rapid eye movement sleep, more commonly referred to as non-REM sleep.

To put it simply:

During REM sleep, a person is more likely to experience dreaming, distracting the brain from any outside stimulus. During non-REM sleep, the brain is free from any distractions and is, therefore, more receptive to outside stimulus. 

What else do we know about what our brain does while we sleep?

Scientists have also discovered that while we sleep, the brain will reactivate memories that we’ve made during the day. 

See it as a type of brain organisation, if you will.

Essentially, during the night, the brain dissects and organises any information that we’ve gathered during the day. Have you ever experienced one of those dreams that feels like real life? That's probably because your brain is organising that memory while you sleep.

With this piece of information, scientists conclude that if we dedicate time to learning a language during the day, our brains will actually continue to process this new information during the night. This makes a pretty solid argument for learning bite-sized chunks of a language every single day.

It’s said that once you start dreaming in a foreign language, you’re well and truly on the way to becoming a pro. 

When I was living and studying in Russia back in 2015, I found myself dreaming in Russian. I wouldn’t say that I was totally fluent in the language, but I would say that the immersive and all-encompassing experience of living in St Petersburg certainly improved my language skills, and my brain was certainly working overtime during the night.

P.S. If you fancy giving Russian a go before you try learning in your sleep, our “Bite Size Russian” Course is a great place to start for beginners or intermediates.

How do we know that all of this goes on?

As I mentioned earlier, studies have been going on trying to figure out the answer to this tricky question for years, since the early 1900s in fact.

In recent times, one particular study in Switzerland has been causing a stir.

In this study, researchers spoke to a number of German-speaking subjects, who were asked at 10 pm to read and remember as many Dutch phrases as they could. Half of the participants were asked to go to sleep, and the other half were asked to remain awake.

The non-REM stages of sleep occur during the first couple of hours of unconsciousness. So, during the study, Dutch phrases were played to the subjects who were sleeping, with the aim of targeting their hippocampus during non-REM sleep times. At 2 am, they were asked to wake up.

The study found that the people who had slept (and had the recordings played to them), were able to recall the dutch phrases much more easily than those who had not slept. 

Therefore proving the theory that it is possible to learn a language while we sleep.

You’ll find tonnes of studies just like this one with a simple Google search.

So, how does learning a language while you sleep benefit you?

Of course, the most beneficial factor here is time-saving.

And, while you’ll never be able to completely master a language while you sleep, many studies prove that playing a recording while you sleep can improve your language skills considerably. 

Let’s face it, we all struggle to find the motivation to sit down and study a language sometimes, especially when life’s commitments have us burning the candle at both ends. 

As research suggests, learning even a couple of phrases a day, and then heading into a deep slumber may be sufficient enough to improve your skills. Couple this with recordings played during the night and you’ve got yourself a dangerous combination to speed up your language learning.

With languages averaging a staggering 150,000 words, we could all do with a little extra help here and there, right?

The best way to learn a language in your sleep? It's pretty simple.

Learning a language while you sleep is as simple as setting up a recording to be played during the first stages of your slumber, which are typically non-REM sleep hours. 

So, if you sleep for an average of eight hours a night, you’ll want to set up a recording in your desired language to play during the first four hours of sleep.

Some studies also suggest that you can enhance learning while you sleep with the aid of pink noise.

Quite different to white noise, pink noise refers to the sounds of the natural world. This can include anything from the waves hitting the shore, wind rustling through the trees or the birds singing in the early hours of the morning. 

Pink noise is most commonly used to drown out other sounds, inducing a feeling of calm and helping people to fall asleep a little easier. However, if you continue to play pink noise while you sleep, there’s evidence to suggest that it can be a huge help in language advancement.

This is because pink noise has the ability to induce slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep and is believed to be prime time for learning while you snooze. 

If this is true, there’s no doubt that playing pink noise can certainly help your language learning.

A second benefit to pink noise is its apparent ability to help the brain to more effectively and easily store memories. In theory, this means that any language material that you’ve perused during your waking hours may be more deeply ingrained in your brain as you rest.

We reckon it's worth giving it a go.

Taking all of the research into consideration, it’s impossible to deny that there's definite potential for improving your language skills while you sleep. 

If you’re thinking of giving it a go, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Target periods of non-REM sleep which usually takes place during the first few hours to sleep.
  • Enhance your learning by playing pink noise while you sleep.
  • Try to learn a few new phrases or words every day so your brain can process the information during the night. 

It has to be said that learning a language while you sleep should not be seen as a quick fix.

Whilst, it is an effective way to aid traditional study, no evidence suggests that it should be used as the main form of language education.

After all, learning a language takes time, commitment and practice, and the addition of learning in your sleep should be used to complement these important factors. 

But, anything’s worth a try.

You’ve got nothing to lose after all, and a lot to gain if it proves successful.