You Can Learn a New Language While You Sleep, Study Finds

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Swiss study finds memory for new words reinforced by listening again during sleep.

Tricks for enhancing learning that seem too good to be true usually are.

Learning a new language while you sleep has exactly this kind of ring to it.

How can anything you listen to while you are asleep possibly have much effect on learning?

A new study, though, suggests there may be something to the old sleep learning trick after all.

Researchers at the Swiss universities of Zurich and Fribourg wanted to see if students learning Dutch could enhance their memory by listening again to new words during their sleep (Schreiner & Rasch, 2014).

At 10 o’clock at night they were given a series of Dutch and German word-pairs to learn (they were native German speakers).

Half the group then went off to bed, while the other half had to stay up.

Both the sleeping group and those kept awake then listened to a playback of some of the word-pairs they’d learned earlier.

This was to check if repeatedly hearing some of the words had any extra beneficial effect.

At 2am both groups were given a test.

Surprisingly, the people who’d been asleep did better on the words they’d heard while asleep than those who’d been awake.

Those who were awake did no better on words they’d been listening to on the tape than ones that they’d learned earlier that weren’t on the tape.

The study suggests that listening to words during sleep can help us learn, likely because it activates the subject matter in the brain again.

One of the study’s authors, Björn Rasch, points out, though, that it isn’t enough to just listen to words while you sleep:

“You can only successfully activate words that you have learned before you go to sleep.

Playing back words you don’t know while you’re asleep has no effect.”

Dr. Rasch is optimistic about the practical uses of the method:

“Our method is easy to use in daily life and can be adopted by anyone.”

If you’re thinking of trying it, the researchers found that the learning occurred during NREM sleep.

This is the deep, dreamless sleep that happens more often in the first half of the night.

So, you would need to set it to play between, say, 12 and 2am, if you go to sleep at 11pm.

In the study the volume was set low so that it didn’t wake people up and it only involved words they’d already been learning before they went to sleep.

Image credit: xioubin low

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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 15 July 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License