LINGUIST List 7.740

Fri May 24 1996

Sum: Foreign languages in dreams

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • 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 experiences.

    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 seekers).

    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