MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

What language(s) do you dream in? January 19, 2012

Photo by Lize van Dyk

Our family is bilingual (English and Afrikaans) and we’re trying to add Spanish to our language mix too.  I’ve enjoyed reading François Grosjean’s book, Bilingual, to put names to all the things we experience and wonder about. Do you have to be equally fluent in two languages to be bilingual? Why do my kids keep switching languages, or translate words directly? Can you learn a new language later in life?

One of the most interesting chapters for me was to read about how bilinguals dream. After 17 years in the USA, I still dream in only Afrikaans. Our girls tell me they are dreaming in English, Afrikaans and Spanish. My sister has had fluent conversations in Spanish while dreaming after only a few Spanish classes.

Prof. Grosjean says this is all part of the spectrum of experiences. He did a survey and found 64% of bilinguals and trilinguals say that they dream in one or the other language, depending on the dream. The place that the dream takes place in, or the people in your dream, may influence what language you dream in. Some people even dream in no language at all! Steven Pinker calls this the “language of thought”.

I’m still hoping to dream in another language one day. Let me know what languages you dream in!

ps. Christopher Moore writes in “In Other Words”:
“What are we to make of the fact that languages such as Spanish and Italian have the same noun for ‘sleep’ as for ‘dream’, while others, like French and English, differentiate between the two? Do some nations sleep differently than others?”


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