LINGUIST List 7.740

Fri May 24 1996

Sum: Foreign languages in dreams

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Birgit Kellner, Sum: Foreign languages in dreams

Message 1: Sum: Foreign languages in dreams

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 02:44:37 +0900
From: Birgit Kellner <>
Subject: Sum: Foreign languages in dreams
The discussion is well on its way, so forgive me for the belated posting of
this summary. 
To my query on how to analyze the occurrence of foreign language in dreams
(which was actually prompted by somebody else's question on translation in
dreams), I have received numerous postings, almost all of which began with a
line saying "I don't know anything about research on this subject, but here
are some anecdotes". In short, I have not received a single message pointing
to already extant research, but quite a few messages relating personal

The messages basically contained the following features: 

* Foreign language proficiency in dreams is much higher than in reality: 3
(native Italian speaker - English; native English speaker - Chinese, French,
German; native English speaker - Czech ). All informants had these
experiences while they were living in the country in question (or, if they
also have such experiences "at home", they did not specify this).

Andrea Osburne (OSBURNEACCSUA.CTSTATEU.EDU) reports that she gets similar
accounts from students in her second language acquisition class. 

* Other people speak a language in dreams which they are incapable of
speaking in reality 
1 (native American speaker - German, a relative spoke German)

* Cannot usually remember language of dreams, but remembers content: (1 -
native English speaker, knows Chinese, French and German)

* In dreams, public conversations in the foreign language, private
conversations in native language: 1 (native English speaker, Czech)

* Language proficiency in dreams lower than in reality: 1 (native English
speaker - German, at the time frustrated due to lack of fluency). 

* Does not dream in foreign language at all: 1 (native American English
speaker - Japanese, adds that he does not remember his dreams very often)

N.B.: With some English speakers, I was not sure whether they were native
American English speakers, or British English speakers. 

Harold Schiffman ( linked this subject to
language usage in trance states, with the specific example of a "pidgin
Malayalam used by Todas in trance states" (cf. Schiffman's "Linguistic
Culture and Language Policy, Routledge 1996), and relates a short story
about a Tamil old lady who "lapses into a state of altered consciousness, a
kind of dozing, troubled half-sleep", where she shifts "from the usual
literary Tamil to a highly colloquial style". 

Joel Hoffman ( had also sent me the e-mail which he
subsequently sent to the list (probably because it took me such a long time
to compose this summary :), expressing his disbelief in the linguistic
nature of dreams. If I understand him correctly, he uses the information
that deaf people speak/hear language in their dreams as supporting the
a-linguistic nature of dreams. I don't quite understand this. Certainly,
deaf people know written language (one would think), and the language they
use in dreams may well be a processed version of what they know through
reading and writing (presuming we are talking about people who were born
deaf and have never ever heard anybody else speak). How can one conclude
that the language they hear/speak in dreams SHOULD be a "natural" language,
as heard and spoken by other people in their environment, but, because they
don't know this language AS ACTUALLY SPOKEN, it cannot be a language at all?

As for the question of whether the language in dreams is "language", I would
adopt a pragmatic solution: If somebody remembers language in a dream, we
can assume that there is a psychological reason for remembering THAT there
was language in the dream, and there is a reason for remembering it in a
particular way. Whether the remembered language is language in a linguistic
sense proper, or simply actualized forms or images buzzing around in
consciousness, seems to me a futile discussion, unless more specific
information on the neurological background is supplied. (Where's a
neurologist when you need one?) Also, one should probably add the
specification "language in dreams AS remembered", for at least I can't think
of any other way to access people's dreams than via what they tell based on
their memories (a sort of a "retrospective construcitivist's" view ...). 

It has been pointed out that dreaming in a foreign language marks certain
steps in the learning process. While this may be true, it would like to see
such dreams from a different and broader perspective, as not only related to
a learning process in general, but related to the experience of living
"abroad", i.e. living in a country where one's native language is not
spoken. (It would be interesting to see whether people who live abroad, but
stubbornly refuse to learn the country's language for one reason or another
sooner or later remember dreams in that language, too) The way the country's
language appears in one's dreams can be seen as indicating one's reaction
towards and position in that country as a foreigner - as one out of many
indicators of an individual's position in a foreign environment, and,
conversely, of the country's attitude towards resident foreigners. 

To quote from personal experience: Whenever I spent even a short time in a
foreign European country, I found myself rapidly dreaming in the language (a
language which I had studied before), or in the local dialect (in Berlin I
would have Berlin dialect in my dreams). In Japan, it took me a long time to
start dreaming in Japanese. I had learnt Japanese for about two years before
I came to Japan, and it took more than six months before I could remember
dreaming in Japanese (i.e. perceiving Japanese language in my dreams). I
think that this long period does not only reflect my struggle with the
language, but also my struggle with the environment, which I believe is
partly due to the general attitude towards foreigners in this society.
Insofar as embedded prejudices set general social parameters for behaviour
to foreigners, they also preclude expectations on foreigners'
ability/likelihood to learn/speak the language and thus have effects on
foreigner's (for lack of a better term) linguistic identity. On this
background, it is not only interesting to see what languages manifest how
and when in one's dreams, but also to look at the connection between
languages and the people who speak them. In my recent dreams, authority
figures (even Japanese ones) speak German, while friends (regardless of
their "real" language proficiency) have a tendency to speak either English
or Japanese. 

As I hinted at in the initial query, I would find it highly interesting to
compare dream-recollections of "wanted" foreigners (diplomats, scholars,
managers or otherwise socially accepted foreign residents) with those of
"unwanted" ones (illegal immigrant workers, prisoners, refugees, asylum

It came as a surprise to me that nobody has mentioned any research in this
direction. Maybe it's less of a linguist's task, and more of a
psychologist's (or psycho-therapist's) business. I would have expected,
though, that some research has been carried out on this subject - it seems
so common ...

Birgit Kellner
Department for Indian Philosophy
University of Hiroshima
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue