What Language Do Polyglots Dream In?
I have been studying languages for years and can now consider myself a polyglot. Even though I have only been able to speak four languages for three years, this has changed my life significantly. Something that I noticed when I started to learn Spanish, my second foreign language, was that my brain was no longer the same.
Oftentimes, finding the right words in Italian or English is a challenge because I speak in Italian, English, or Bresciano, my brain suggests words in Spanish. I do not know why, but Spanish seems to have taken over my brain. Me pregunto cómo eso ocurrió…
What I know is that my dreams have changed forever! And here, I will provide you with everything you need to know to understand what language polyglots dream in, how dreaming works for polyglots, and what triggers a language change during a dream.
But please, try not to fall asleep while reading this!
My First Dreams in Foreign Languages
Beginning to dream in English took time. Maybe it was because it was the first time I was studying a foreign language, but I had to fully immerse myself in the language, and it was not until I reached a C1 level that I started to notice that the characters in my dreams were no longer speaking in Italian or Bresciano.
The first few times, dreaming of people you know speaking a language they would naturally never speak is weird. But I slowly got used to it. Now, the situation has reversed, and I find monolingual dreams tedious and sometimes even annoying. When you sleep you want action and amazement, not the banality of everyday life!
What I noticed was that each dream took place in one language. There was no code-switching effect during my dreams, and I had to wait for one dream to end to hope that the next one would be in another language. But when I started to study Spanish, something changed and this is no more what I experience while dreaming.
So, let’s now try to delve deeper into how dreaming works for polyglots.
What Does a Dream Look Like for a Polyglot?
Dreaming is by definition an oneiric experience and feels magical, exciting, and even ineffable. Well, multilingual dreams are even more amazing! But sometimes they leave you baffled, especially during moments of lucidity when start wondering why people surrounding you speak a mix of different languages without continuity.
Imagine dreaming of your family members, friends, and colleagues speaking in a foreign language fluently or code-switching between multiple languages as if it was completely normal. And what is even weirder is that it can feel totally natural to you. An ordinary experience.
I ask something in Italian, and they answer in Spanish. I code-switch between the languages I know, and they talk back to me in Spanish. I see a billboard, and it is written in Spanish. Well, my brain loves Spanish, I guess. Es claro que el español me ha jodido el cerebro.
Recently, the actors of my dreams started to code-switch and my sleep sessions have become more confused than ever. Sometimes I wake up wondering what was going on, and above all why. I do not know how it feels to be on drugs, but I think that it must be a comparable experience.
However, instead of finding myself at the mercy of all this, I decided to study the phenomenon to try to understand what triggers multilingual dreams, especially considering that they do not happen every time I sleep. This leads to the next question.
What Triggers a Dream in a Foreign Language?
This is a question I asked for months, expecting the answer to be as complex as the dream world. Well, it turned out to have an easy answer. At least for me.
Before going to sleep I always practice English for at least 30 minutes, optimistically one hour, and if I have free time left, I watch some series in Spanish. When I study English or watch a movie in English right before going to sleep, my brain is still working in the English mindset and my dreams start in English. This does not mean that all my dreams will be English. The night is long, after all. On the other hand, when I watch a Spanish TV series before going to bed, my dreams are mostly in Spanish.
So, the language in which my dreams are in primarily depends on the language I was using or experiencing before I fell asleep. This is what happens to me, and might not be a general rule for all polyglots. Yet, this phenomenon makes sense if you think about it. Just like when you have been speaking a language for a while and are struggling to switch to another language. The brain needs time and prefers to stay in the current condition.
Or maybe my brain is just a lazy Italian brain.
My Personal Experience With Dreams as a Polyglot
I typically forget almost everything about what I dreamt of during the night, how long each dream lasted, what happened, and who the protagonists were. I generally have no clue about my dreams. Still, I have experienced that multilingual dreams are easier to remember, probably because of their unique nature.
My dreams in my early days as a polyglot were simpler and consisted of just one language. Now, things are a bit spicier, and the main characters of my dreams love to code-switch, use as many languages as my brain allows them to, and remind me that Spanish is my brain’s favorite language. Such dreams can be a grueling experience, comparable to speaking a foreign language for hours.
Still, I love dreaming in different languages, and I truly think that is one of the most amazing side effects of being a polyglot!