Sunday 24 January 2010

On linguistic dreams

A correspondent writes to tell me of a linguistic dream he just had. As follows:

'I had a dream the other night with Significant Linguistic Content. It started out as the standard nightmare (mercifully infrequent these days) that I was teaching in a secondary school, as was the case long ago. But things improved and softened: the kiddies (11-year-olds, I’d say) were nice, and their music teacher, a fiftysomething German lady, came in and asked me would I mind if they practised the song that they were working on. I assented readily, and they sang a couple of verses of a song in German, about which I can remember nothing save that it was very sweetly done. I thought they deserved complimenting and encouraging, so I said to them “Ihr singet sehr gut auf Deutsch”.
I should explain that my German is far from good (I came to it very late), but they seemed to understand, and smiled and giggled pleasedly. I followed that up with “Wie heißt das Gesang?”.
Quick as a flash, the music teacher corrected me. “Der Gesang”, she said, entirely amicably; and I remember nothing after that.
Now, I was under the impression that German nouns that start with Ge- were uniformly neuter, so when I woke up I thought I’d better check it out in a dictionary; and, blow me, it is der Gesang. Now, what I can’t understand is how it’s possible to dream a person who knows the rules of a language better than one does oneself! Any thoughts?'

Not really - which is why a blog post might help. The only thing I can think of is that my correspondent must have encountered this correction before, and it impressed him at the time (as it did in his dream), and he's now forgotten all about it.

It's certainly possible to forget whole chunks of one's earlier linguistic life. I remember meeting an aphasic patient in his 70s who had lost his English very largely but who was able to produce some words in a foreign language. He himself denied he knew any of this language, and his wife had never heard him speak it, nor had they ever been to a country where it was spoken. But it eventually transpired he had lived in such a country for a while as a young child. And there was an interesting paper in the Journal of Child Language last year suggesting that some components of early childhood language memory can remain intact despite many years of disuse.

Sad to say, I don't recall ever having had a linguistically interesting dream. I can't be trying. But I'd like to hear of any others. I can't think of anything in the literature on this topic. Do phoneticians dream in accents? Do grammarians dream grammatically? Do lexicographers dream alphabetically? It's a whole new research domain: dreamlinguistics.

There's a thought. All those students who fell asleep in my lectures, over the years. Maybe they were doing research all the time.

And maybe that's what Chomsky's 'sleeping furiously' really meant.


Anonymous said...

While it seems to be coincidental, the German word for 'Song' would be 'Lied', which actually is neuter.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I used to have very odd dreams when I was studying Russian, in which my vocab list would feature prominently and squirrels spoke Russian to each other. Other than that, nada. But then, I generally don't remember my dreams, so who knows?

Amy Stoller said...

Dialect coach here: I have occasionally had dreams in accents. I'm a very vivid dreamer, and remember dreams frequently.

Baby Giraffe said...

Very interesting. I quite often have dreams in which I seem to be speaking fluent German (when awake I am intermediate but certainly not fluent) and frequently wake up wishing I had a pen and paper nearby. But then, perhaps the fluent German in my dreams is actually gobbledegook (sp?) - how would I know? Hmmm...I feel I should hurry back to university to do another dissertation...

lau said...

My mother tongue is Spanish and I'm a translator (into the English language). Many times I have dreamed about dialogues in English, but I guess that's normal. What happened the other day was that I dreamed I was speaking in "jeringozo". Don't know if you're familiar with this. It is a kind of ludic variety of the Spanish language that we speak in Argentina. It consists in adding a syllable that starts with P followed by the same vowel the original syllable has. For instance, "Hola, me llamo Pablo" would be: "HoPOlaPA, mePE llaPAmoPO PaPAbloPO". It was a funny dream I think, I rarely speak Jeringozo, it's a sort of childish game.

Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

When I was learning Spanish intensively while passing a summer in Barcelona, I would often have dreams in which I was surrounded by fluent Spanish speakers whom I did not completely understand, but who seemed to be speaking (naturally) perfect colloquial Spanish.

This was wierd, but also cool, and inspired me a lot. I thought: the Spanish is in there already, it's just it won't come out nicely...

It's also interesting, because for me at least, aural comprehension is the aspect of a language that I find most difficult to acquire, and lags my own written comprehension and spoken expression by many months.

Megan said...

I studied Spanish in high school, 35 years ago, but was never fluent. Occasionally I will have dreams that seem to be completely in Spanish.

Dan Hubbard said...

I've had this happen to me almost exactly as in the post. I made a grammar error while speaking German in a dream and suddenly as if from nowhere, my high school German teacher appears and corrects me. I don't remember the error now but I do remember that I checked it afterward and, of course, it was the teacher who got it right. Obviously, whatever grammar lesson it was stuck well enough that after making the mistake I could correct it.

Upthorn said...

It's simple. You were exposed to the information when you were learning German, and it stuck around in your subconscious mind even though you lost conscious awareness of it.

A Pi said...

I sometimes dream in languages I don't know very well, barely know, or don't know at all.

Here are some examples of linguistic dreams of mine, from my dream journal:

(Portuguese) 'I said "cerrado" and corrected it soon after to "fechado".'

(Portuguese) 'I sent out an email to everyone with the subject line in bad Portuguese "no ingles." I realized later that it should have said "a Inglaterra," but it was too late to correct.'

(Spanish) 'but I didn't know the word for cataract. I explained it to her and she told me how to say it in Spanish.' (The word wound up being correct - "catarata")

And here are some misleading dreams:

(Portuguese) 'I learned that "arroyo" was "arrogo" in my Portuguese class, even though it sounded wrong to me.'

(Italian) 'At one point she called her a slut, and I was amused that the word for slut was the same in Italian [as in English].'

(Italian) 'while the narrator talked about the "posto" that his grandfather had that he would never forget. I took it to mean "box".' (This entire dream was narrated in Italian, and I'm inclined to say it was accurate Italian with the exception of a few words)

(French) 'Val told me that she knew how to say she was on her period in Italian. I listed to the recording and noticed it was actually in French "Je suis dans ma période". Funny that "period" was nearly the same in French, I wouldn't have thought that.'

(Romanian/Japanese) 'I had decided to start learning Romanian so I downloaded some mp3s and listened to the first one. For the most part it was similar to Italian, but "train" was "denwo," similar to Japanese "denwa" (instead of "densha".)'

(Polish) 'I remembered that "oi" meant yes in Polish, and she would say it to her friend every once in a while.'

These are just dreams with individual words that I remember. I've had dreams in French and Arabic (languages I've had some exposure to but don't speak), but since I can't recall any specific words from those dreams I don't know if any part of the dialogue was accurate or not.

Leslie said...

I did three years of French at school and was only moderately good at it. About three years after I dropped French in favour of German, I read a translation of the plays of Corneille before I went to bed. That night I dreamed in French in rhyming couplets - and when I woke up next morning I was still speaking rhyming French for about half an hour, much to the bemusement of my family.

Sulci Collective said...

I don't dream in foreign languages, but as a writer I experience far less 'visual imagery' dreams, but instead experience them as narratives that either I am narrating, or are being narrated to me.

This is an absolutely fascinating topic. It does raise that thorny old question of the function and purpose of dreams themselves. If it is in fact a clearing house for all the bits of data our minds cannot fit readily into the conformist patterns that structure our conscious perception, this would tie in with your commentator's point about learning a bit of language and it remaining in the memory banks even if buried under decades worth of the dust of neglect. Some other ill-fitting word or concept (something to do with vocals or voice, yoked together through the dream with teaching memories or German specifically) was dredged up and maybe the brain tried to ram the two together to find a place to situate them within a recognisable framework.

marc nash

Ice Karma 「氷宿縁」 said...

I grew up in an English-speaking part of Canada, and started learning French at around age ten. I've definitely dreamed in both real French and an imagined gibberish language I felt positive was French. I've also had a few dreams where I seemed to be fluent in a language I don't speak at all, such as Mandarin.

Christy MacHale said...

As the dreamer of the original dream, I’m delighted at the discussion that it’s generated, and grateful to those correspondents who’ve tried to account for it. I’d be inclined to agree with the “you’d-been-told-it-in-the-past-and-forgotten-it” theory, were it not for the fact that I’m sure that I barely knew the word ‘Gesang’. In waking life I would have used ‘Lied’, which, as Anonymous pointed out, is the normal word, but in my dream I couldn’t think of it (you know how dreams are!) and had to grope around for an alternative. Now, as readers with a knowledge of German will know, there’s a great deal of syncretism between masculine and neuter nouns, with the result that, in many contexts, it’s impossible to tell which of those two genders a noun belongs to. I seem never to have developed an intuition in the matter, with the result that I’m always choosing wrongly and having to be corrected by German-speaking friends. It now occurs to me that this has happened so many times that perhaps my subconscious expects me to get it wrong – which could account for my having to be put right by the music teacher in the dream!

DC said...

My thanks too to contributors. It's one of those topics that is conspicuous by its absence in the linguistic literature, and it's good to see all these examples.

Anonymous said...

Being a high school AP English III teacher who grades gargantuan piles of essays daily for nine months of every year, I find I have begun to dream about grading papers. My dreams are very specific, and I am very aware of marking the papers, even down to the details of misspelled words and punctuation errors! In the dreams I fret over student ineptitude, but then again I also celebrate the brilliance of some answers as well.
In waking life I also mark errors in published books as I read them!

Anonymous said...

I had a dream last night that I was getting a new pair of eyeglasses and that two of the optometrists helping me (a husband and wife) were speaking Danish.

When I was paying attention and could make out what they were saying, I excitedly yelled "på Dansk!" They just stared at me oddly for a second. Then the woman said "uh, yes," and then began to speak to her husband in Danish again.

It has probably happened other times, with other languages, but it's not as common to remember specific phrases.

Anonymous said...

I had a dream last night that I was getting a new pair of eyeglasses and that two of the optometrists helping me (a husband and wife) were speaking Danish.

When I was paying attention and could make out what they were saying, I excitedly yelled "på Dansk!" They just stared at me oddly for a second. Then the woman said "uh, yes," and then began to speak to her husband in Danish again.

It has probably happened other times, with other languages, but it's not as common to remember specific phrases.

doogla531 said...

After spending some time studying Spanish in Mexico I found that I consistently had dreams where I was speaking very mediocre Spanish, which was not surprising. However, I was much more entertained to find that I could create the Spanish background noise some other commenters have referred to.

Also, I have recently been editing a great deal of content for use in a TEFL context. I have frequently found myself dreaming about the best way to simplify a sentence while keeping it authentic. I spent one night waking up every hour in a near panic over the difficulty of choosing just the right words.

Paul Frank said...

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud remarks, "Vaschide even maintains that it has often been observed that in one's dreams one speaks foreign languages more fluently and with greater purity than in a waking state." (Joyce Crick trans, 1954, p. 12). I've been reading and speaking Chinese for almost three decades, and translate professionally from Chinese, but my Chinese pronunciation is poor, except in my dreams, when (or where?) I have a very good Mandarin accent. My Brazilian Portuguese is also much more fluent in my dream life than in my waking life. My dad once told me that he'd dreamed in fluent Portuguese several months before he could actually speak the language. Incidentally, the 16th-century polymath Gerolamo Cardano claimed to have learned Latin in a dream.

ray said...

Awesome last line.

Zenith said...

Strange that - I used to use the 'sleeping research' method...By Thursday afternoons sleeping only once every 72 hours, Psycholinguistics lectures were just too much. I used to leave my dictaphone running to record the lecture and doze throughout. By the time I got to taking notes from the recording, I would think 'I already know that'!

Although trusting that method to get through a degree isn't exactly recommendable :S

Mrs. Doring said...

I sometimes dream in Spanish, but I read voraciously, and often dream about the books I'm reading. Ever since I was a child, I have periodically had dreams where I dream up the next portion of the story (usually an alternate ending). I actually dream the words on the page, and read them in my sleep. Sometimes when I get back to the book the next day, I am surprised that an event didn't happen, because I can specifically recall reading the words!

mceupc said...

This has been a delightful topic indeed.
It happened to me several times (while staying in Britain)I woke up from dreams in English. A colleague of mine often reminds me of something she had listened to...
I was talking to our students, giving them some advice in English.
Within this context of linguistic dreams, we would like to dedicate these lines to David Crystal (and all Readers here)

Night Dreams

They come and quickly go
Revealing joy, concerns,even cries.
Incredible stories we did not know
Lively unfold before our eyes.

Past experiences may be shaped
In new contexts around,
And every image created
Has the power of a life bond.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting mostly because I have had enough dreams lately in languages I have never heard or seen written yet somehow I was able to speak fluently and Identify PROPERLY in my dream ...point in question Farsi and a dialect of Mandarin Chinese. Where does that come from?