If you are multilingual, are your dreams multilingual also?
July 26, 2008 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Multilingual MeFites, tell me of your dreams! When you dream, do you only dream in your first language, or do your dreams tend to vary in the language that they use (as in, say, English one night, French the next)? Do you have dreams where multiple languages are used? And if you tend to have dreams in different languages, does the setting/scenario of your dream change based on the language, or is it all still just totally random?
posted by Effigy2000 to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
i don't remember having language in dreams, but i'm lousy at remembering dreams anyway. paulina, my partner, says she has dreamt in both english and spanish, but generally if there is "talk" it's not in a specific language (ie it's meaningful, but there is no concept of language associated with the communication).

which covers pretty much every base, i think :o)
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 7:38 PM on July 26, 2008

I picked up Japanese in college & living there for 8 years, and dream (very) occasionally in it.

But when I do, I'm *much* more fluent in it than real life.
posted by yort at 7:42 PM on July 26, 2008

I dream in both English and Spanish. And I am not a native speaker (of the latter). They are overwhelmingly in English but there are definitely times when they are not.
posted by AquaAmber at 7:43 PM on July 26, 2008

Language - it can be a single language kind of dream, a dual, or multiple language kind of situation. I've even had dreams where people were speaking in languages I've never learned to speak, and I could not understand what exactly they were saying, but I somehow knew in the dream what language it was.

Location - does not matter what language is used, usually totally random.
posted by kirstk at 7:43 PM on July 26, 2008

My wife says that when I talk in my sleep I always do it in Spanish (my first language), not in English (our common language, and that of where we live).

The only occasions I remember dreaming in a particular language is when I have dreamt of traveling to France or Germany: these dreams are always related to my being unable to express myself very well.
posted by kandinski at 7:46 PM on July 26, 2008

They warned us before we went on student exchange that the first time we dreamed in our host language, it would freak us out. They were right.

I don't dream in Portuguese anymore since I haven't kept up my practice of the language, but by the end of my year there, most of my dreams were in Portuguese.

Interestingly, there are still things about the time I spent there that I remember in Portuguese, as well. Not just the dialogue, but the whole story of what happened. I think they must have been anecdotes I told to friends there before I left, and thus built my narrative around them in Portuguese, and when I try to tell those stories now, in English, I struggle to find the right words.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:08 PM on July 26, 2008

I dream mostly in English, unless the situation of my dream takes place in my childhood, in which case I tend to dream in the language of my childhood, Bosnian.

When I'm working on a language, I will have dreams in that language, especially when I am in the relevant country. A week after starting Hungarian classes in Hungary, I had Hungarian dreams. How is that possible when I knew so little of the language? My dreams were silent or "thoughts," except when I knew the word or phrase. So my dream might be something about wandering around Budapest by myself, and then having an interaction with an old lady on the street, up to the point of my then-abilities - Jó napot kívánok, hogy van? - then back to a sort of silence. Pretty pointless dreams, and I'm sure I had them primarily because I was concentrating on the language os very heavily during awake hours. It would be magical if I woke up in better "practice" than when I went to sleep, but it doesn't seem to work that way! And oddly, once I am more learned and comfortable with a language (except English, because I live with that), the dreams in that language become less frequent.

Sometimes, I get to speak a lot of languages in a day. So speaking, say, French, Romanian, English and German will produce dreams that night of pure mishmashed language, and these are enjoyable. I tend to dream of simple things like making tea or walking - nothing too surreal or strange. The multilingual dreams tend to be random language chatter and nothing more, but they're pleasant. I'm talking a lot and I feel alive. In my dreams, I talk to people in the "right" language - the same one I'd use with them in daytime.

My Russian used to be good, and I can also "speak" Serbian and Croatian (I put that in quotes, because they are really the same languages as Bosnian, with slight spelling and pronunciation differences and a few local words.) But I have never dreamed in these other Slavic languages or dialects, and I wonder if it's because they're too similar to my native language. But you can't really ask that and expect a good answer, can you?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:32 PM on July 26, 2008

I mostly dream in English now, even though that is not my first language. But occasionally I dream in Dutch. As far as I remember never in French nor German, even though I live in a French-speaking province.

But almost always in wide screen Technicolor, with beautiful crane shots. I'm sooo waiting for that "connect your brains to a recording"-device...
posted by maremare at 8:37 PM on July 26, 2008

I speak English natively, French very well, and Latin poorly. Most of my dreams are in English, but French creeps in an a surprising amount, even though it doesn't get a lot (if any) day to day use in my waking life. I've had a few nightmares about declensions, but Latin has yet to show up meaningfully in a dream for me in the way that French often does.

Dreams where I'm speaking French, I often find that I can do so remarkably well, thinking to myself in the dream that vocabulary and syntax are coming to me very easily. Oftentimes I'll wake up with the last few sentences still in my head, think back through them, and marvel at the fact that I managed to put such complicated grammar together at all, let alone while sleeping. This leads me to think that at least sometimes, the dreams really are IN French, not just me dreaming that I'm speaking French and understanding/speaking it because it's my dream.

Setting wise, I don't think there's any particular trend, but that could be because I learned my French sitting in classrooms and haven't spent any significant time there, just a few days. I'd wager that if I'd not learned French the same way I learned calculus and all of that other pesky high school knowledge, it might correlate with dream patterns/settings to a greater degree.
posted by Rallon at 8:38 PM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I do; most often I'll dream in an L2 when the dream involves someone that I usually use that L2 with. (Similarly, for people I code-switch with, I usually use a similar pattern of code-switching to the one I use in real life, though I'll be more fluent in my L2 than I am in real life.) I've also been told, by my roommate, that I occasionally have nightmares that result in babbling or yelling in German - which I only speak a little of now. Whether that means I remember more in dreams (which is possible, since I speak it better when I'm less inhibited) or that I'm just yelling nonsense that sounds like German to my non-German-speaking roommate, I don't know, as I don't remember those dreams.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:43 PM on July 26, 2008

I should also add that the L2s I dream in tend to be the ones I learned through immersion - the ones I learned in a classroom, I don't usually dream in. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that I speak the former better than the latter, though, so it may not mean anything.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:45 PM on July 26, 2008

Every once in a while I will dream in Polish. When that happens I reach near-lucidity as I notice it and find it remarkable in the moment.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:55 PM on July 26, 2008

When I lived in Germany in 1995-96, I began dreaming in German after a few months. I also dream in French from time to time, beginning in 1989 when I was studying the language intensively, but especially after spending a year in France in 2004-05. Sometimes the dream calls attention to the fact that I'm speaking this language. I'm a native English speaker, and I was 20 when I started learning foreign languages. I also know Latin, Dutch, Italian, and some classical Greek and Spanish, but I have never dreamt in those languages; it seems to take a period of immersion for me and I've never spent more than two weeks at a stretch in Italy or the Netherlands, and even then I was dealing a lot in other languages. When I was in Germany I had a German roommate who didn't speak much English, so we talked in German, as I did with many of my colleagues. In France I used French extensively on a daily basis. If I've been watching a lot of French movies I still dream in French. I haven't spoken much German since 1996, though I still read a lot of German texts, and I seem to have stopped dreaming in it.

Unlike Jacquilynne, it didn't freak me out when I started dreaming in foreign languages. It felt more like a vindication, since I had been spending so much time and effort mastering the grammar, vocabulary, and idiom. I felt as if I had arrived, in some way.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:56 PM on July 26, 2008

I had a dream once where I was traveling in Italy and speaking Italian, even though I don't know any Italian past "pizza" and "chianti". Weird.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:05 PM on July 26, 2008

I mostly dream in English as it's the language I'm most fluent in. If I'm having a particularly emotional dream, such as a dream that is a replay of a breakup, then sometimes the dialogue will be in French (a language I grew up speaking). I'm not quite sure what the connection is there, or why certain circumstances would trigger the French. And no, nothing in the dream changes if the language does.

I have yet to dream in Vietnamese, though, which is another language I grew up speaking, but one in which I am not as fluent as the other two.
posted by blithely at 9:07 PM on July 26, 2008

I have dreams in different languages and sometimes (very rarely) there are several languages in one dream. The first time I noticed it was because in the dream I was speaking to friends from different countries, but no one was speaking their native language and I was speaking to them in a language different to the one they were speaking in the dream.

As a related anecdote, when I was studying Portuguese, one of the teachers told us that once you dream or do math in a language, it means you've mastered it.
posted by micayetoca at 9:17 PM on July 26, 2008

My "inner voice" tends to pick up the language/accent of whichever country I'm in, as long a I have a small amount of knowledge of that language and am mostly immersed in it.

For example, I'm pretty much fluent in French, and after about 2 days of being in a french-speaking country, I can no longer think or dream in English. Also, after a few days of being in England, my inner voice speaks with a British accent, although this accent does not translate into my spoken English.

This is really frustrating, however, with the languages I'm only semi-competent with. When I was in Spain a while ago, my inner voice insisted on speaking spanish despite only having a couple of years of the language, and not understanding it very well. This meant my inner dialogue was not terribly intelligent. I'm pretty sure the same thing will happen to me when I go to Germany in the fall, although it might be useful since the purpose of the trip is to learn more German!
posted by Planet F at 9:22 PM on July 26, 2008

I didn't dream in Latvian or Russian this past year while living in Riga, but in Indonesia the year before, where I was living a much more "immersed" lifestyle (interacting with locals a lot more, speaking a lot more Indonesian), I'd find myself dreaming with bits of Indonesian scattered through the English.

I found that my dreams there were also often incredibly vivid and verbal in both languages on the days when I was exhausted, and I'd wake up just as tired as I'd been the night before. Maybe it was the heat?
posted by mdonley at 9:25 PM on July 26, 2008

I dream primarily in English (my first language.) I'm somewhere between near-fluent and fluent in German, however, and after moving to Germany, I started to dream much more frequently in German. (I have yet to dream in Spanish, Latin, or French, which I'm less fluent in.) Sometimes it's a plot point (I am translating things for people at a flea market, or I find myself on a mountainside in Italy, and after speaking to the locals in pidgin Italian, I get to switch to German because it turns out I am in Südtirol, or whatever. They spoke Hochdeutsch in my dream-Südtirol, thankfully.) Sometimes it's just another dream, but one where I happen to be talking in German rather than English. As far as I can recall, when people that I know in real life appear in my dreams, I talk to them in the appropriate language, and this applies also in mixed-language situations. Sometimes, to be fair, I don't really know what language I'm dreaming in, but often enough the dialogue will have a turn of phrase or a situation that I remember very clearly, and from that I realize which language the dream was in. In other words, I suppose, the role that language plays in my dreams is similar to the role that it plays in daily life: sometimes a certain language is necessary due to a situation, and sometimes the language just happens to be the language that people are conversing in.

(And as brianogilvie says, dreaming in German didn't freak me out. My father became fluent in the language, and said that he'd realized he was getting comfortable with the language when he started dreaming in it; when I had my first dreams in German, I felt rather proud, actually: I'd been looking forward to it!)
posted by ubersturm at 9:33 PM on July 26, 2008

By the end of my year in Iceland and for a while after I came home, I would dream almost exclusively in Icelandic. I rarely do anymore, although every once in a rare while, I will have a dream that includes at least some Icelandic. The only time it has ever seemed odd was when I had an Icelandic dream while in Italy--that was a bit weird.

When I was dreaming exclusively in Icelandic, the setting and characters in the dream could be anyone anywhere. My friends and family back home in the US would appear and speak fluent Icelandic. Once I got home, I had some dreams where the languages were mixed in the same dream; I'd be speaking Icelandic and everyone else was speaking English and sometimes I'd be speaking a mix of the two. I can't remember the content of my last Icelandic dream. Like Meatbomb, I know I'm doing it while it's happening and that's all I remember.
posted by weebil at 9:36 PM on July 26, 2008

Though I'm hardly bilingual, I can pretend to speak Spanish from time to time, and when I was in South America I had a few dreams of being incredibly fluent in Spanish.

I've also had dreams where my English speaking accent is different for some unexplained reason.
posted by Admira at 9:37 PM on July 26, 2008

I occasionally dream in Hebrew. It usually happens when I've heard a lot of it recently (for example, during or immediately after a trip to Israel) but sometimes it will come out of nowhere. I am surprised every single time.

Do dreams with sign language count? It's my true first "language" as my parents are deaf, so I learnt it as a baby and have been fluent ever since. I suppose it still counts as English, but I sometimes have dreams with different (non-deaf) figures sign to communicate when in real life they are perfectly capable of speaking and hearing.

Mainly just English though.
posted by lullaby at 9:49 PM on July 26, 2008

I grew up speaking Polish at home and English everywhere else, and I dream in both. I'm more likely to dream in Polish when I've been speaking it more often. When I talk in my sleep, it's more likely to be Polish than any other language.

The voice in my head also goes back and forth, depending on which language I'm speaking or what I'm thinking about. Sometimes when I'm extremely tired, it feels like I lose one of the languages, and to speak it, I have to think carefully in the other language and then translate.
posted by capsizing at 10:42 PM on July 26, 2008

I lived in Switzerland for eight years and occasionally dreamt in German or Swiss-German. This could be due to the fact that I continued to speak English (my first language) throughout the day with my husband and German with everyone else. Every month or so I would have a dream wherein I spoke German and usually it would surprise me enough to realise I was speaking a foreign language and it would be more fluid to switch to English, so I would.
posted by Elli at 10:46 PM on July 26, 2008

Like lots of others, when I was studying French in college, especially the quarter I lived in Toulouse, I sometimes have conversations in French in my dreams. Years later, I still occasionally speak French in my dreams - and I am always quite fluent despite the fact that my actual ability has deteriorated to a French I level.

The odd thing that no one else has mentioned is that if anyone else in my dream is speaking a foreign language, say Russian or Japanese, I always reply in French and we understand each other perfectly (I guess to my brain, we are both speaking in a "foreign language" so it doesn't matter which one.
posted by metahawk at 11:03 PM on July 26, 2008

I dream in English or French or Greek or Italian or HTML or PHP. I am only truly fluent in English, but Italian was spoken in my home when I was a toddler, and I studied French and Greek and have travelled significantly in those countries.

The code dreams are the ones that freaked me out when they started - usually I'll dream a scene and the code will be scrolling over it as it happens. Crazy. When these start, I always try to take some time off.

I used to talk in my sleep a lot and have been told that it was not always in English. However, I am pretty certain I've never talked any kind of programming language in my sleep.
posted by annathea at 11:09 PM on July 26, 2008

I dream in whatever I've been speaking a lot of lately. Almost always English (native) but occasionally Spanish or Japanese or Russian, languages in which I'm barely adequate... usually this happens after sleep deprivation or a LOT of interpersonal dialog in a foreign language, to the point where my brain is exhausted/burning from all the hard thinking.
posted by rokusan at 1:43 AM on July 27, 2008

Born English speaker, lived in Japan for a while though I'm, at best, intermediate in language skill. I still dream in Japanese occasionally though I didn't before I lived there, even though I studied the language before moving. In general I only have Japanese speaking dreams when speaking to dream Japanese people or when I'm in dream Japan. And like others have mentioned, I'm more fluent in my dreams.

Had a girlfriend who was born speaking Mandarin who was completely fluent in English (unaccented even). She said she often had English dreams, but she always spoke Mandarin in her sleep.
posted by Ookseer at 2:07 AM on July 27, 2008

I dreamed in Spanish when I lived in Spain. When I came back to the US, the dreams continued to be in Spanish for a while. It's been quite some time since then, and though I speak Spanish often still, I now dream in English.
posted by Stewriffic at 4:36 AM on July 27, 2008

I'm fluent in Mandarin, but grew up speaking English, and I use both in daily life, as well as a lot of code-switching with professional contacts. But I'm also a HUGE music, movie, and fantasy geek, and most of my imaginative space is spent in those worlds. So, when I'm dreaming of the more "practical" side of life, I tend to dream in both Mandarin and English. But when I'm dreaming of something imaginary, it's almost always in English.
posted by saysthis at 5:40 AM on July 27, 2008

I haven't had dreams that switch languages within the dreams, but I've certainly dreamt in French or German before. Interestingly enough, while I was living in Iceland I had a dream that I spoke Icelandic - and the dream was "in" Icelandic (I think it was just a dream gibberish language), even though in actuality, I can't speak it at all.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:55 AM on July 27, 2008

I often dream in German, but always I am extremely conscious in the dream that I am speaking in German. Sometimes this is a trigger that tells me I am dreaming (aha! I am speaking perfect German, therefore this is a dream). This is because in waking life my German is no longer perfect.
posted by nax at 8:56 AM on July 27, 2008

While intensely studying Spanish I was told I spoke it in my sleep. I don't remember any dream though.
posted by 4Lnqvv at 9:47 AM on July 27, 2008

I live in Montreal and, while of anglophone background, I speak some amount of French daily, and have definitely had dreams in which there was dialogue in French.
posted by zadcat at 10:30 AM on July 27, 2008

Sometimes I will dream a little in Spanish or Portuguese but I am always saying the wrong thing. The person will understand what I "mean" but when I wake up I realize that I was not saying anything remotely close.

I'm not even close to fluent in either language though.
posted by thisisnotkatrina at 1:58 PM on July 27, 2008

I dream primarily in English, which is my second language. But when I've spent a lot of time speaking Swedish (like right now, since I just got back from two weeks visiting home) I dream primarily in Swedish for a few weeks afterward. When I studied German I would occasionally dream in German, and when I was studying Mandarin and living in Taiwan/China I would dream in Mandarin.

I sometimes dream in Mandarin still - usually when I'm dreaming of work, since that's where I sometimes speak it. I never dream in German anymore, though. If I'm talking in my sleep, or if I get woken up from a deep sleep, I pretty much always speak Swedish.

The dream locations are totally random, it doesn't have any correlation to the language, as far as I can tell. It's the situations, not the locations, that determines the language of the dream.
posted by gemmy at 3:32 PM on July 27, 2008

I dream both in English and Icelandic. When I talk in my sleep I usually speak in nonsense which sounds like Icelandic (Dreamlandic, if you will) but sometimes I speak Dreamlish (nonsense which sounds like English).
posted by Kattullus at 10:05 AM on July 28, 2008

When I knew french better, all of my dreams were exclusively in french.

All of the follwing occured regardless of locale:

After a few months sans french classes, my dreams ended up where all external conflict resolution(talking to other people, as well as other people talking to me and/or eachother) took place in French, and all internal apostrophes were in english.

Later, the roles reversed; External talks in English, internal talks in French. I think this is because more external words were said, so my brain realized that it was easier to let the external conversations be in english.

Sometimes, eople in my dreams spoke french words that are not in my active french vocabulary! As in, dream-world Jane used the word "glas" in french, which dream-world me realised meant "death-knell" though awake-world me would never remember that word to use in an every-day conversation.

Sometimes, dream-world people used French words that I simply didn't know. I accepted that this is my sunconscious making up french-sounding nonsense.
posted by cmchap at 10:26 AM on July 28, 2008

I dream in both languages in which I am fluent. My ex is fully tri-lingual and talked in his sleep. If I was awake and asked him "what?" in the same language that he was talking in while sleeping he would answer me, but if I asked it in another language he wouldn't answer.
posted by kenzi23 at 7:19 PM on July 28, 2008

i remembered this thread after a dream last night. in the dream i was talking to a poet. we talked in spanish but the poet used english when quoting poems.

(this says a lot more about my life and reading habits than it does about the relevant languages!)
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 8:34 AM on August 19, 2008

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