News You Can Snooze

by Translation Guy on March 21, 2011

I admit that the last post put many of my readers to sleep. Which is both the point and the problem when offering advice to the awake on how to get some sleep. But the teaser in that previous post was that the bedtime story was actually related to language. So it’s time to stop counting sheep and get to the sleepy-time payoff.

Once upon a time, long before the end of the world, I was an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University of Foreign Studies, planted in the rice paddies between Osaka and Kyoto. Back then, the exchange student population was a mixed bag, the very scrapings of American academia. And the most disreputable of us all was this guy, Doug, I believe his name was. His most notorious achievement was when he stole the chancellor’s shoes. A visiting academic from a sister school in the States had removed his fine black oxfords to enter one of the buildings, and Doug, who needed a pair of black shoes for an upcoming modeling assignment, lifted them, and managed to move them from shoe locker to shoe locker while the entire university staff conducted a building-by-building search. A real reprobate. There’s nothing quite as low as a shoe thief in Japan.

Anyway, one day, our Japanese instructor asked each of us how much time we spent on our studies, no doubt to shame the sluggards (by my estimate 75% of the class). Doug claimed 8 hours a day, since he listened to language tapes in his sleep. We scoffed, but I secretly wished it so. How great if the repetitious drudgery of language learning could be multi-tasked with a nap.

But it turns out Doug may have been onto something. Recently, Melinda Wenner reported on a study at Northwestern University that suggests that what we hear when sound asleep can strengthen memories of what we learn while awake.

“We were certainly surprised,” says co-author of the study, Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern. Paller and his team taught 12 subjects to associate 50 images with specific positions on a computer screen. When subjects saw each image (e.g. a cat), they heard a noise (e.g. meow). Then they took a nap. “While they were in slow-wave sleep (a deep-sleep phase marked by slow electrical oscillations in the brain), the re­searchers played the noises that matched 25 of the images they had been studying. On waking, the subjects were asked to perform the same image-matching task.” And surprise, noise cues administered during nap time made a big difference in their abilities. Study subjects were much better at correctly placing the images associated with the nap-time noise cues. Subjects claimed not to have heard the cues while asleep and were clueless when tested on which cues were played while asleep.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on stand-alone sleep-time learning. The downside of Paller’s discovery is that you’ve got to learn while awake, too, which means that if you want to learn while you sleep, you’ve got to cram for it during the day. Doug would not have approved.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Da fragt man sich beim Überfliegen ja schon, ob man nicht komplett bescheuert war. Dankeschön für deine Einsichten

    • Ken says:

      This was such a curious spam I had to let it through.

      Comment: One wonders when flying over already if you were not completely stupid. thank you for your insights. (google translate)
      Response: Read in detail and wonder no more.

      • Gone Native says:

        see comment!

        • Ken says:

          Thanks for the MT correction, Gone Native. Good comment on the limits of MT.

        • Gone Native says:

          You might have sensed it as spam, but note the person, the text is only referring to himself, to the writer of the comment, not to you!
          I am not so sure about the translation of ‘bescheuert’ with ‘nuts’.
          It is a term used among people who know each other well, siblings or good friends, and has a fun note to it, like I say about myself sometimes; ‘Yo soy un poco loco’. (only when talking to my wife, who agrees with me!)

          • Ken says:

            The URL was the giveaway, Gone Native. The reason I posted was because the MT got it wrong and I was intrigued by the mis-translation. The kind of palaver you so correctly translated in German is written carefully to stir the ashes of a blogger’ narcissistic heart, and insure the survival of the link they place. Not on my watch!

  2. Gone Native says:

    There one wonders, already when skimming the text, if one was not completely nuts.
    Thank you very much for your insights.
    Note the difference when using google translate
    Gone Native Translations

  3. something more productive to do while sleeping besides sleeping? That woud be to forget why nature invented sleep In the first place. To try to circumvent or pervert
    its proper uses might be to ask for trouble: actually all the evidence shows that to be true.

  4. Yes. There have been a number of studies about this. The one you are referring to here Ken, is nothing groundbreaking.

    • Ken says:

      Then at least I am in alignment with the TranslationGuy Blog motto: “A day late and a dollar short.”

  5. Jacob says:

    If one could magically learn a language by listening to a tape at night why would there still be spanish classes taught in high school? Why wouldn’t everyone be instructed to download an MP-3 from a schools website and wear a headset at night if this technique had any documented success?

  6. Rosie says:

    What success has anyone had with hypnopaedia- (Sleep Learning)?

  7. Does it trigger something in your subconscious mind? Or does it just bug you at night? I’m looking for whether it could benefit you or not… not teach you while sleeping…

  8. I’ve listened to all-Czech audiobooks while I’ve slept the past two nights. (I know perhaps 30 words in Czech.) I figure it’s best to use my sleep time to build subconscious experience of the language’s sounds, for developing good accent- and word-recognition, and my active study for vocabulary and grammar. Now Czech speech sounds a bit slower, and I can differentiate between words more easily. But I’ve always been averse to memorising translations. I like a more “French In Action” approach.

    • Ken says:

      My daughter was going to try it to memorize a speech for her Japanese class, but by the time she made the recording and got it set up to play all night, she fell asleep before she could turn it on, which was OK, since the prep she had done before she went to sleep was the kind of rehersal she might not have done otherwise.

  9. I have an iphone and I listen to ocean waves while falling asleep. I find it really does calm me down. But, I also sometimes feel sea sick :-)

  10. Louisa says:

    It’s only really effective in learning how to repeat things parrot fashion. In subjects where you need actual understanding, such as science, then sleep learning is useless.

  11. I didn’t know you studied there Ken. I was staying at the original Katahoko campus in the late 70’s. Where were you housed?

    • Ken says:

      Lived with a very wacky Japanese family in Nagao in Hirakata. I was there Spring of ’80. I understand that the campus is lovely, now that they took over the old Komatsu factory.

  12. Hello everybody, I have a quick question regarding auto suggestion and MILD.

    In his book, Stephen La berge, says to resolve to wake up after every dream period and recall your dream. What exactly does that mean? Ive been telling myself before sleep “I will wake up after every dream, and remember my dream.” That’s not working so well.

    But later on, theres a chapter about auto suggestion, it says something about auto suggestion being uneffortful and then the prospective memory part is more efficient.

    Well, when he says, resolve to wake up after every dream and remember the dream, doesn’t he mean tell your self a bunch of times that you want to do that? Which sounds like auto suggestion to me, but he calls it “remembering.”
    It also confuses me because in step 3 of the MILD, he tells you to keep telling yourself to notice your dreaming, over and over, until you fall asleep, which sounds like auto suggestion, but he calls it, “remembering” to notice when your dreaming.

    So, while I fall asleep, I tell myself “I will wake up after every dream, and remember my dream” is that wrong? It’s also not working at all.

    -Any help is appreciated, thanks!

    • Ken says:

      I’d sleep on it, Brent. I’m sure things will be clearer in the morning.

  13. Simba says:

    This sort of thing reminds me of hypnosis….

  14. Margaret says:

    Sleep Learning is no good for fact memorization or concepts requiring abstract/analytical thought.

    It is good for suggestions for simple behavior changes, getting an overall deep-down “feel” for a foreign language (still have to be awake for the vocabulary learning and practice part), and so on.

  15. Erika Harmon says:

    There is no way to learn the material without putting conscious effort into the activity. Here is the wikipedia article that should have been linked:

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