Yes, you can learn a foreign language in your sleep, say Swiss psychologists

Study played newly-learned foreign vocabulary to students and compared their memory with those who were played the words while awake

Subliminal learning in your sleep is usually dismissed as pseudo-science at best and fraud at worst, but a team of Swiss psychologists say you can actually learn a foreign language in your sleep.

Well, not from scratch, but a research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex by the Swiss National Science Foundation claims that listening to newly-learned foreign vocabulary while sleeping can help solidify the memory of the words.

In the study led by biopsychologist Björn Rasch, sixty German-speaking students were asked to learn some Dutch words that they had never seen before at 10pm. Half of the group were then allowed to go to sleep, with the words played back to them, while the other half were kept awake to listen to the words.

The first group was then woken at 2am and all sixty students were tested on the new vocabulary. The scientists found that those who had listened to the Dutch while sleeping were much better at recalling the new words.

The study - first reported by Wired.co.uk – also considered the fact that the group that was kept awake were simply performing worse because they were sleep-deprived, using EEG measurements of the sleeping leaners to show increased activity in the parietal lobe – a part of the brain important in processing language.

This isn’t the same as going to bed with a ‘learn French’ CD and waking up with ‘comment ça va?’ and ‘omelette du fromage’ on your lips, but further testing could confirm that stimulus in our sleep helps consolidate memories.

In fact, in a study from 2012 by the Weizmann Institute of Science scientists were able to condition subjects to associate smells with certain sounds – even while they were asleep.

The researchers concluded: “This acquired behavior persisted throughout the night and into ensuing wake, without later awareness of the learning process. Thus, humans learned new information during sleep.”

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