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Community & Culture

Tulo Means Sleep In Chichewa

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that tulo is the word for sleep in Chichewa, a language spoken in Malawi and Zambia. But what if you haven’t been paying attention — what if you’ve been sleeping this whole time? If you’ve been asleep this whole time and you still know that tulo means sleep, then it’s possible you’ve been dreaming in a foreign language.

Of all the experiences you can have while you’re asleep, dreaming in a foreign language can be among the strangest. Typically, these dreams happen when you’ve been studying a foreign language long enough that you’ve attained a degree of fluency. At this point, your brain is forging connections and consolidating information for use in the long term. That’s good!

Science Says


Scientific inquiry into the subject of dreaming in foreign languages suggests that the sooner a foreign language appears in your dreams, the faster you will acquire general fluency. A Canadian study published in 1990 tracked students who were taking an intense, immersive French class. They kept dream journals and recorded when the French language made an entrance. Students who made the fastest progress reported dreaming in French earlier than their counterparts.

Truly bilingual people report dreaming effortlessly in the different languages they know. They report no strangeness about it. People who speak two or more languages typically say they switch languages in dreams based on context— who they’re talking to in a dream or where they are. Researchers also found they could influence the language bilingual people dreamed in simply by talking with them in one language or another before sending them to sleep. If they said gute nacht, for example, the subject would probably dream in German.

Dreaming in Languages You Don’t Speak

Some of the more intriguing anecdotes about dreaming in foreign languages are reported by people who have no experience with the languages they’ve dreamt in. One common experience is that subjects speak in a language which even in their dream they know they don’t really know. “How can I be dreaming in Chichewa?” your dreaming self may wonder. “How do I know the definition of tulo?” How, indeed? Some truly extraordinary explanations might be hypothesized in cases like these.

  • You once heard that tulo means sleep incidentally and unconsciously, and your dream is playing that memory back
  • You are psychically connected with a speaker of Chichewa who knows the meaning of tulo
  • You spoke Chichewa in a past life and have known tulo’s definition for a long time
  • You are otherwise possessed by an entity that wants you to know the meaning of tulo

But when you dream in a foreign language, it’s possible to check whether you were using it correctly. Consult a dictionary after a such a dream, and you’ll probably find you weren’t using the words or even the language you thought you were using. And at that point you will realize, if you haven’t already, that no matter what languages you dream in, dreams don’t really make any sense.

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