18 January 2012

Learning While You Sleep

In my childhood, each night before a school test, it was my habit to smuggle the relevant textbook to bed and place it under my pillow, believing I could absorb the information by a kind of osmosis.  Because I tended to receive OK results, the strategy appeared to work. 

Wind forward a few years to university and a degree based not on continuous assessment, but totally on final exams.  How could anyone in their right mind not stuff English-French dictionaries, English-German dictionaries, texts on Baudelaire, Racine, Kleist, and Goethe under the pillows?  During that fraught exam week, my books were piled high on the bedclothes then coralled under the meagre bolster.  Talk about a crick in the neck - it was like permitting your body to go to sleep in the basement while subjecting your head to a pummelling on the ground floor.

But my learning methods have moved on, thanks to an interesting discovery made when I began to use a radio alarm and John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme to wake me up in the morning. What tended to happen was that, rather than springing up out of bed, I would doze off again with the programme still on in the background, and experience dreams that were frequently interwoven and embroidered with snippets of news.  I know this because I've checked on Radio 4 Listen Again and found how entire dreams have been constructed from a sparky interview with David Cameron or turgid item on Eurozone debt restructuring.  Clearly I've been listening, though seemingly asleep.

Could this also be applied to language learning?  For study purposes, I've defected to Spain’s Radio Nacional for my wake-up call, in the full knowledge that listening to a foreign language that you haven’t fully mastered can be dispiriting.  You think you are making strides.  You embrace the radio.  And there be gibberish. 

And yet, nowadays when I wake, then doze off, to the dulcet tones of Juan Ramón Lucas, lots of Spanish invades my dreams.  A couple of weeks ago, I dreamt I was holed up in a pub while at the far end of the bar my normally monolingual partner gave full vent – in Spanish.  In fact, his Spanish was so brilliant (gosh, I said to the wine-sipping friends beside me) that in the dream, I got out a recording device just to prove it to the folks back home.  

But, this is the potentially interesting part: he happened to be talking at length about crime, and even demonstrated robbers’ disguises by pulling a stocking mask over his face.  Was this being discussed on the radio at that very moment?  Did my snoozing brain actually understand more than my awake brain would have?

On the one hand, the ability to listen has, of course, everything to do with concentration.  We tune out when something bores us, tune in when we’re interested.  To learn to catch every tenth, then every fifth, then every second word in a foreign language requires extraordinary effort. 

On the other hand, the dozing or semi-dozing state – territory of hypnotherapists in accessing memories or releasing conversation – may be free of the stress that curtails concentration, allowing the brain to take in more.

Have I checked that Radio Nacional España was talking about crime on that occasion, I hear you cry.  Well, having only just today discovered its listen-again facility, I have yet to wade through the numerous news items and pinpoint the suspect, so to speak. 

But it is an ongoing experiment.  Stay tuned…

En días como hoy

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