What language do you dream in?

Integrating studies, visions, theories and reflections to better decipher the intriguing stories surrounding this question

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Definition — Dream (noun)

(1) set of images that present themselves during sleep.

(2) life project, something that gives meaning and motivation to existence.

Due to my personal experience involving this topic and countless stories from my students over the years, I started a case study to be able to delve into this question and seek solid and blunt answers that would help everyone understand the language of dreams in relation to functionality of the brain in language learning.

The interest in the study and understanding of this phenomenon comes from the most remote times. The earliest record we have of a dream was made by the Sumerian king Tammuz or Dumuzi dated to the beginning of the Third Dynastic Period (c. 2600–2334 BC).

First, in order to understand the scientific side of dreams, we need to approach them from different points of view: neurobiological, neuropsychological and concepts from experimental, psychoanalytic and cognitive behavioral psychology.

With the discovery of REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) by Moldovan physician Nathaniel Kleitman in 1924, and subsequent psychophysiological discoveries, dreaming was taken into the realm of Biology. A neurobiological theory then defined dreams with the “activation synthesis hypothesis”, stating that they don’t mean anything in particular: they are just electrical brain impulses that extract random thoughts and images from memory creating a story. REM sleep dreams are longer, more vivid, rich in detail and fanciful, which makes humans wake up in the morning and remember practically everything they dreamed about that night.

For Sigmund Freud, father of Psychoanalysis, dreams express the hallucinatory satisfaction of repressed desires. In 1900, Freud wrote his famous book “The Interpretation of Dreams”. It was, precisely, a dream he had that inspired him to write this work in which he develops his thesis for the interpretation of the symbology of dreams and shows that they are the best way to access the unconscious. For him, dreams was the main way to get to know the psychic life of a patient.

Carl Gustav Jung, founder of Analytical Psychology, was one of the pioneers to study Freud’s theory. However, he ended up building his own and original way of working by proposing the method of symbology applied in different contexts. For him, from a psychoanalytic point of view, the dream transcends neurobiological knowledge, and is configured as an internal activation process that can be apparently chaotic, but in fact, is rich in meanings, arising from the person’s affective and emotional history.

The most recent studies approach the understanding of dreams based on contemporary theories of human behavior. Cognitive Behavioral Psychology seeks to understand perceptions that alter thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For Aaron Beck, known as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, dreams shed light on aspects of the patient’s waking experiences. A behavioral therapist does not regard the dream as a mere symbol. A dream report can provide access to facts from the past or current history, serving as a data collection instrument so that its valuable interpretation reaches the different functions and behaviors of the patient’s life.

The language of dreams

Wondering is a project developed by Harvard University where questions are answered by experts from the institution. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of the book “The Committee of Sleep”, answered according to her research and knowledge, which language a bilingual or multilingual person is most likely to dream about and why:

“There are very few studies on bilingualism and multilingualism and how they influence dreams. These are small studies, but they were able to discover that people who speak a second language, even without good proficiency, occasionally dream of that other language. One study asked participants, in their opinion, why this happened, and most of them responded that the determining factor was the people they were talking to and the scenario they were dreaming. For example, if you dream about your family in your home country, then most likely your dream will be in your mother tongue. And if you were dreaming about people you met while traveling abroad where they speak a different language, you would dream in the language of that place. The combination of where the dream was set and the language determines the language of the dream.”

Once, a Brazilian student, studying English as a second language, asked me: “Teacher, why am I more fluent in English in my dream than in my work when I need to talk to my British boss?”

The human brain has four areas known as the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe. Most dreams occur during REM sleep. This is part of the sleep-wake cycle and is controlled by the reticular activating system whose circuits run from the brain stem through the thalamus to the cortex. Neuroscience explains that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for reality checks. It is the area of ​​the brain that controls conscious cognitive processes and plays an important role in the ability to self-reflect. In real life, your conscious mind controls the language and you are aware of who you are talking to and what the person might think of you. In dreams, inhibitory factors such as self-criticism and self-judgment are absent, making it possible for you to be proficient in a more natural way.

Languages and the brain

In order to delve deeper into language and the brain, we first need to understand how the brain learns. After much research on the complex relationships between language, brain and behavior, I chose to enrich this text what I call the most complete and enlightening: Cognitive Neuroscience. In the video below, Steven Pinker, renowned linguist and professor of psychology at Harvard, discusses linguistics as a window to understanding the human brain.

Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain | Big Think

You’ve probably heard people talk about the moment they started dreaming in a foreign language. Often, for the education field, this is considered a sign of fluency. In a search on Quora, I searched for the question, “What language do you dream in?” and I found very interesting answers, such as:

“Having the ability to speak and understand four languages, I recall having dreams regularly in all four.”

“It depends on the people around me. I always dream in my mother tongue. As soon as I started traveling the world, I started dreaming in the language of the place I was visiting.”

“I can speak three languages, but my dreams are technically in none of them. I don’t remember what language the characters in my dreams speak, but I know I can understand them perfectly.”

In the 1980s, Canadian psychologist Joseph De Koninck observed that his French as a second language students, who reported dreaming in the language they were learning, progressed faster than other students. He then began an investigation with psychologists and neuroscientists to try to understand the link between dreaming and language learning.

In the book “Dreaming in Chinese”, author Deborah Fallows states that dream fluency is a metaphor for becoming an insider. Another book, “Dreaming in Hindi” by Katherine Russell Rich, follows a similar narrative about the linguistic path to becoming familiar in a foreign country.

One study looked at 24 people with REM sleep behavior disorder, a condition that causes people to dream, walk, talk and sometimes act violently without waking up. Most of the people analyzed spoke fluently in their native languages, using the same tone of voice and gestures they used when awake. “When dreaming, these people speak to one or several people, leaving an appropriate silence as if they were listening to a response from their fictional interlocutor,” the researchers wrote. One of the researchers, Isabelle Arnulf, a neurologist at the sleep disorders center at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris said her patients mostly use their native language during sleep, although some use a learned language. That exception was a retired Spanish carpenter who had lived in France for 60 years and spoke in his sleep, mostly French. Only once did he use Spanish, to count time (uno, dos, tres) when dreaming that he was dancing.

The subconscious mind is capable of amazing things. There are cases like an American patient who was in a coma, forgot his native language and woke up years later speaking fluent German, a language he had never had contact with before. How to explain this?

‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep. — William Shakespeare — The Tempest

Scientists have gone to great lengths through their research and studies to explain the phenomena surrounding dreams. However, some answers can also be found beyond Science.

Dreams perform important specific functions, culturally speaking: for shamans, for example, dreams are analyzed to heal people and predict the future. In Ancient Egypt, dreams were seen as divine interventions and warnings.

The case of the American who was in a coma and came back speaking a language he had never had contact with is explained as xenoglossy. The term was proposed by Frenchman Charles Richet, professor, writer, physician, researcher of psychic phenomena, creator of Metaphysics and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1913.

Xenoglossy (from the Greek xen(o) = strange, foreign + gloss(o) = language) consists of speaking, spontaneously, in a language or languages, which were not previously learned.

For spiritism, xenoglossy is cataloged as one of the strongest evidences of the survival of the soul after death, thus confirming the existence of reincarnation. Such manifestation can be the result of a psychic or mediumistic process. Allan Kardec, known for codifying, systematizing and propagating the Spiritist Doctrine through the “Book of Spirits” in 1857, classified someone who has this ability as a polyglot medium.

For Christians, dreams can be divine messages. This experience is common with biblical characters. But even today they are received as messages that reveal the “language of God”. Dreams are full of meaning for life. Not only do they show how we are and what steps we should take on the path of maturation and transformation, but they can also point our inner consciousness and become a place of profound experiences.

Parapsychology explains that dreams bring us messages from the Past, Present and Future. They can be warnings so that we can take action in time, they can be premonitions guiding us on the right path, or trips to the past so that we can understand the present. British parapsychologist Keith Hearne demonstrated in the 1970s that someone in a lucid dream state could make deliberate eye movements, and additional studies by Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University have shown that brain activity during a lucid dream is different from that of an “ordinary” dream.

Legend has it that Queen Maya, mother of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, dreamed of a white elephant with six tusks descending from the heavens, and entered her womb. Upon waking, the queen told the dream to the king, who summoned sages to decipher the meaning of that strange dream. And the prophecy said that the queen’s son would be a great leader. His path would be to become a mighty and great spiritual master.

In one of his interviews, Paul McCartney tells of having dreamed about his mother, who died when he was 14 years old. She showed up to give him a message that said “let it be”. And so came the inspiration to write the successful hit.

Learning a new language is more than studying vocabulary and grammar. A person does not learn a language just to learn it. There is always an intertwined reason, a deeper desire that inspires to seek learning. Learn to make dreams come true! A new language unites people and cultures, conducts trips to countries that arouse interest, enables conversations, tasks, helps to understand and be understood. In this case, dreaming in another language can then be an expression of a desire for linguistic and cultural belonging, listening to and following a Call, enjoying the feeling of fulfillment and personal satisfaction that only a new language can provide.

Examples that invite us to reflect individually and develop our own interpretation of our dreams, depending on our beliefs, convictions and knowledge, based on how we interpret our Reality: In which language do you dream? And which theory best fits your Perception?


Book: The Interpretation of Dreams — Sigmund Freud

Book: Seminars on Dream Analysis — Carl Gustav Jung





Kátia Brunetti — English / Español

Owner itanaliafranco, Educator, Teacher, Translator/Interpreter, Writer, Speaker, Coach, Holistic Therapist. Medium PORTUGUÊS @ katiabrunetti3