Can you really learn a foreign language while you sleep?

It really seems so easy. Just put on the CD or tapes, relax in bed, and learn English (or another foreign language) while you sleep. Have you ever seen those ads that say “Learn English while you sleep” or that promise to learn the language “effortlessly” by listening to a tape or CD while you relax or take a nap? With the continued increase in the study of English as a foreign or second language (EFL, ESL) progressive TEFL English and foreign language teachers, foreign language learners, and educational administrators need to be aware of the implications of “learn English (or another foreign language) while you sleep” claims.

What is sleep?

The dream state is generally defined as “the state of rest in which the body is not active and the mind is unconscious.” Webster’s New World Dictionary (3rd Edition, 1989) offers a longer definition; “sleep: a natural and regular condition of rest for the body and mind, during which the eyes are usually closed and there is little or no conscious thought or voluntary movement, but intermittent dreams.”

Sleep is also compared to death. In the Holy Bible (TNM, 1981) in John 11:11 Jesus says: “Lazarus or friend has gone to rest, but I am going there to wake him from sleep.” Then in verse 14, Jesus clarifies his meaning of “sleep”, “At that time, then, Jesus said to them openly: Lazarus is dead.” Describing death, the Bible goes on to say in Ecclesiastes 9:5, “The living are aware that they will die, but the dead are aware of nothing.” Sleep, then, is characterized as a condition typically devoid of conscious thought. Have you ever slept through a severe thunderstorm, a series of car alarms, an explosion, an earth tremor (minor earthquake), or loud barking dogs at night? Completely unconscious, right? For even more clarification, here are some characteristics of human sleep.

sleep characteristics

The characteristics of sleep in humans are:

or lying down, if possible, although sleeping is possible in almost any position according to studies carried out on astronauts and in sleep study centers

o Eyes are closed, but sleep can occur with eyes open in an environment without light and/or distraction

o Hears nothing or does not consciously respond to external sounds based on level, depth, or stage of sleep

o Slow and rhythmic breathing pattern (which can be altered during the sleep stage)

o Muscles are completely relaxed except for disturbed states of sleep or reaction to dreams or abnormal physical conditions

o The person may occasionally turn when changing position

sleep stages

On average, a person goes through five stages or levels of sleep. Each of the stages has distinctive characteristics and determines what the brain and body are capable of.

o Stage One – 4-5% Light sleep. Muscle activity slows down

o Stage Two – 45-55% Breathing and heart rate slow down. Lowers body temperature

o Stage Three – 4-6% Deep sleep. Slow Delta waves begin

o Stage Four – 12-15% Very deep sleep; the brain produces delta waves

o Stage Five – 20-25% Rapid Eye Movement (REM); sleep occurs

Why do we sleep?

For the most part, sleep allows various vital functions to take place. It is an essential physical and mental state that we cannot do without. Our dream allows us:

o To repair muscles and other tissues

o To replace dead or aging cells

o An opportunity for the brain to organize and archive memories, that is, in part, to transfer data and memories from short-term to long-term memory.

o Decreases energy consumption (balance of enzyme production is achieved, i.e. blood glucose levels, electrolyte levels, etc.)

o To recharge the brain (the decreased supply of fluids and enzymes in the organs and the lymphatic system can be replenished during sleep)

How much sleep?

Most young adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but the amount of sleep required can vary based on age, daily activity, diet, nutrition, and other physical and/or psychological factors. Sleep deprivation can directly affect:

or short term memory


or Efficiency

or physical health

o Emotional health

With 30 to 40 million Americans suffering from severe sleep-related disorders, the effect of sleep on learning and cognitive skills is of great concern.

In the next segment of this series, “Learn a Foreign Language While You Sleep: Theoretical Approaches,” we’ll look at recent and current language learning theories and approaches and how some might apparently provide some support for these claims.

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