Can you learn Italian while you sleep?
You wish you could learn Italian in your sleep, right? When you are trying to balance family, school, work and the rest of your responsibilities, spending 8 hours of your day asleep can seem like wasted time. It would be nice if you could make use of that time!
A plethora of websites, podcasts, and YouTube playlists promise that you can learn a language subconsciously just by passively exposing yourself to it, without any effort. Even in your dreams. Sit back, relax, and in no time, you’re guaranteed to be fluent.
Are such claims realistic?
First, I’ll give you the catchy answer you were looking for: yes, you can learn Italian while sleeping.
Now that you’re in a good mood, I’ll address what you probably meant when you Googled “can you learn Italian while you sleep?” I’m sorry, it’s going to be disappointing.
What is subliminal language learning?
The concept of picking up a language without trying is called subliminal language learning. Even if you’re not paying attention to anything being spoken, your brain will automatically remember commonly repeated words and form connections between those words and their definitions in your native tongue.
Generally speaking, subliminal learning refers to the ability of learning complex regularities that underlie a foreign language without even realizing what we’re doing. This is a sort of implicit language learning – a process that powers language acquisition of children, who seem to simply soak up this skill and barely need to use grammar or pronunciation guides.
In adult language learning, the process is usually far from effortless and success isn’t guaranteed. That’s probably why many people (and researchers) are curious whether the ability to learn a language subconsciously is still within the reach of adult learners.
The most famous example of subliminal language learning is hypnopaedic learning. That simply means learning while sleeping. The idea is to put on a set of headphones with words and phrases of a language playing during the whole night, but quietly enough not to disrupt our sleep.
A quick search for products promising to make listeners bilingual turns up dozens of get-fluent-quick products in everything from Portuguese to Japanese.
What does science say about sleep-learning?
In scientific literature, I could only find one study that partially supports this method.
At 10 p.m., German-speaking students were taught a list of new Dutch words. Some heard those words only before sleeping, while others both before and while sleeping. At 2 a.m., the psychologists woke everyone up and tested both groups. Re-exposure to Dutch words during sleep improved later memory for the German translation of the cued words when compared with uncued words. Recall of uncued words was similar to an additional group receiving no verbal cues during sleep.
On the other hand, there’s a vast literature against those findings. In particular, opponents of subliminal language learning cite alternative explanations for the psychologists’ findings:
- All of the German students had heard the vocabulary words at least once before, so while sleeping, the participants weren’t truly taking in any new information. If anything, their brains were just mapping connections among the words that they learned while awake.
- It’s possible that they didn’t learn while they were asleep—they learned because they were asleep. Students allowed to rest will almost always perform better than exhausted students who have been forced to listen to the same monotonous vocabulary recording drone on and on until 2 a.m. That’s not groundbreaking science as much as it is common sense.
As a testimonial, take someone who spent a month trying to learn French in their sleep:
“For me, the nightly French lessons made it extremely hard to fall asleep. Some mornings, I didn’t feel as refreshed. Most nights, I lost about 30 minutes of sleep to shut off my brain. A month later, the only French words I know are bonjour, au revoir, and croissant.”
Wanting to test hypnopaedic learning for themselves, linguists at the language website MosaLingua ran their own study in 2016. The participants listened to recordings of words and phrases during sleep. After listening to recordings of words they’d never seen before, 72% of participants experienced absolutely no change to their test scores. They retained none of the new words from the recording.
The conclusion: hypnopaedic learning is not effective and learning new words while sleeping is nearly impossible.
Now that you’re disappointed, I’ll show you why you still need to sleep in order to learn Italian, other languages, or just any piece of information. Once you know how your brain learns in sleep, you’ll be able to set realistic expectations for your progress in Italian.
Your brain learns by itself in your sleep
Sleep, learning, and memory are complex phenomena that are not entirely understood. However, animal and human studies suggest that the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways:
- First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently
- Sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.
Sleep researchers study the role of sleep in learning and memory formation in two ways:
- Looking at the different stages of sleep (and changes in their duration) in response to learning a variety of new tasks.
- Examining how sleep deprivation affects learning. Sleep deprivation can be total (no sleep allowed), partial (either early or late sleep is deprived), or selective (specific stages of sleep are deprived).
Although the exact mechanisms are not known, learning and memory are often described in terms of three functions.
- Acquisition refers to the introduction of new information into the brain.
- Consolidation represents the processes by which a memory becomes stable.
- Recall refers to the ability to access the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) after it has been stored.
Each of these steps is necessary for proper memory function. Acquisition and recall occur only during wakefulness, but research suggests that memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. Although there is no consensus about how sleep makes this process possible, many researchers think that specific characteristics of brainwaves during different stages of sleep are associated with the formation of particular types of memory.
So why can you learn while you sleep? The truth is, you can’t learn something new while you sleep, but studies have shown that sleep is the time when your brain consolidates information, turning it into long-term memories or disposing of information that is not important. By re-exposing your brain to the things that you have already been exposed to, you can transmit them to long-term memory. In particular, sleep allows the brain to work creatively on problems posed before sleep.
The influence of sleep on language acquisition has been studied in various contexts. For example, lexical competition, indexing the integration of a newly acquired word into the mental lexicon, emerges only after a period of sleep, and not after an equivalent period of wakefulness. It appears that sleep is especially important for pattern or rule generalization within a language. Remarkably, the abstraction of linguistic rules over time is influenced not only by experiences during the wake, but also by neurophysiological sleep mechanisms.
The general consensus is that consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory. However, even short naps – as short at 6 minutes – may help boost learning, memory, and creative problem-solving.
On the contrary, when we are sleep deprived, our focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and we lose our ability to access previously learned information.
You can learn Italian while sleeping, but not the way you thought
If you were looking for a secret trick to become fluent (literally) overnight, you might be disappointed.
However, if you truly want to understand how to learn faster, hopefully, you will have come to the conclusion that sleep is an essential step in the learning process. Thus, you should definitely take a night of sleep between study sessions.
That’s why serious language audio courses are structured in lessons to be taken once a day and recommend taking a night of sleep between lessons, not during them!
On a side note, if you feel that you don’t have enough time for studying, maybe it’s not your busy schedule, but your study methods, that make the process harder than it should be. While there are study tips that can certainly help, the most efficient way to tackle a new language is to watch a comprehensive guide and take 1-to-1 coaching with an expert. That will boost your progress and relieve frustration.