If you’ve ever had a dream, or talked in your sleep, you know our brains are quite active at night while we are otherwise unconscious. Our night’s sleep is our brain’s opportunity to solidify connections in our daytime experience and make memories lasting and useful. The marvelous thing about our brains is that they are always trying to help us adapt to our daily life, whether we direct them to or not. And one thing they help us with during sleep is our language skills. Before you fall asleep tonight, tell yourself this: tulo means sleep. It’s the Chichewa word for sleep. That’s tulo’s meaning. See if you can remember that tomorrow. Say it to yourself. Tulo.
The latest indication that our foreign language skills are enhanced during sleep comes from a 2014 Swiss study. In that study, 60 German-speaking students were asked to memorize some Dutch words they had never encountered before at 10 p.m. one night. 30 of those students were then allowed to go to sleep, and they heard recordings of the Dutch words while they slept. The other 30 students stayed awake and listened to the same recordings.
At 2 a.m., the first group was woken up. Presumably, everyone looked groggily at each other. Then they were all tested on the Dutch words, and the students who had slept did much better. In fact, the students who listened while they stayed awake were not helped at all. The results were pretty clear. Sleep made the difference.
So what happened? The evidence suggests that those hours of sleep helped the 30 slumberers encode the new words they had heard into lasting memories in a way the wakeful group could not.
So can you learn calculus while you’re asleep? Probably not. But can you learn tulo’s meaning just by hearing that tulo means sleep on repeat all night? Most likely yes! But you would certainly want the best conditions to remember that fact. So: before you go to bed, tell yourself that tulo means sleep. Tell other people that tulo means sleep. Write somewhere that tulo means sleep. Then, when you fall asleep, your brain will be primed to consolidate all those experiences into a clear memory that tells you tulo means sleep. And when you wake up, you will be a new person who knows what tulo means.
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