Learn a Language While You’re Asleep

Some people claim that they can learn a new skill while having a lucid dream. Have you ever tried to learn a language by listening to an audio course, to music or to the radio while doing something else, such as sleeping?

The language industry offers many options packaged for absorption while sleeping, which are commonly criticised as based on pseudo-scientific methodology, since it has been very difficult to prove the true potential of such passive learning.

According to recent research, interactive learning-in which the student is actively involved in the process of learning-is the best way to learn a new language.

In counterpoint to most research however, a recent study carried out by Swiss psychologists Schreiner and Rasch attempted to explore the possibility of learning a foreign language while asleep, or at least to reinforce a vocabulary. According to this study, reactivating memories by way of replaying recently learnt words during sleep can improve the memorisation of new vocabulary.

The study was based on giving new Dutch words to a group of six German students before 10 pm. The words were replayed to one half of the group during active or passive learning, and to the other half during non-rapid eye movement sleep (NonREM), which is in the first hours of the night, while we do not dream.

At 2am, both groups were asked about the words and the scientists found that the group who had the words replayed while asleep performed significantly better at recalling them.

While the researchers replayed the words to the participants who were asleep, they noted increased theta brainwave activity, similar to the activity generated in the brain while we are actively learning during our waking hours.

As a result, this study concluded that the verbal cues reactivated associated memories which can help to consolidate the language learning process.

So perhaps it is the case that many of the language learning products on the market such as CDs, audiobooks and apps designed for use during these first hours of sleep can actually have some benefit, although it is yet to be shown that they can assist us in the original act of learning new vocabulary. This might make for an interesting follow-up study for Schreiner and Rasch.

Scientists have also pointed out that those participants in their study who were kept awake at night may not have performed so well due to sleep deprivation. This potential bias in the study needs addressing, and also serves as a whimsical reminder about the value of a good night’s sleep for any learning process.


Schreiner T, & Rasch B (2014). Boosting Vocabulary Learning by Verbal Cueing During Sleep. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991) PMID: 24962994

Image via bikeriderlondon / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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