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New study: can we learn new languages while we sleep?

Posted July 10, 2014
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing new in the fact that learning another language provides learner the ability to step inside the mind and context of that other culture. Firstly, learning any foreign language helps us to understand all the language better, helps to break down invisible barriers. Secondly, learning a second language can improve or develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain’s natural ability to focus and process information. But it’s not an easy thing – it is a long and slow process that takes a lot of time and efforts.

A new study at the universities of Zürich and Fribourg revealed a new method how to learn another language easier. This study revealed that memory retention is stronger for those people who are listening to the words recorded in the second language in their sleep.

This research has focused on the function of sleep to augment cognitive capacities, a function that will arguably receive more and more attention in the future. The authors of the study mentioned that loosing even a few hours of sleep can have significant effects on a wide variety of cognitive processes such as attention, language, reasoning, decision making, learning and memory. In this study, the results proved that sleep is really important and helpful process to enhance learning and memory.

To find these results, the researchers used 60 volunteers who were asked to sit and learn a series of Dutch words for the first time. Half of them were asked to then go to sleep, still under lab conditions, while the other half had to stay up. While the former were in non-rapid eye movement sleep, same words they learned before going to bed were played back to them. The other group also had the words played back to them while they were awake.

To see the differences between students who slept and who didn’t get sleep, to identify abilities to remember new words, the researchers awoke the sleeping volunteers early in the morning. Everyone was tested on the same group of words.

The results showed that the students only hearing the Dutch words in their sleep, could remember the German translation better than the group forced to stay awake. Besides, it showed that memory during the sleep is less ‘forgetting’ and retains higher stability.

This is also in addition to the fact that sleep is good for our health in general, and can help protect mental health, physical health, quality of life, and overall personal well-being. Thus it’s quite obvious that this study found another reason to get a good night’s sleep – good sleep plays the most important role in learning new information.

This study is a very new field of research and we are only beginning to understand which methods are best suited to use sleep for memory enhancement. Future research could extend the knowledge obtained from findings in the domain of learning and memory to other cognitive functions such as creativity, executive functions and decisions making.


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