Some people remember their dreams every single night. Other people have no recollection whatsoever. I sometimes wonder about the language in which we dream in, and if multi-lingual speakers dream in one language or various. I took to instagram to ask my multi-lingual followers which language they dream in.
My instagram poll asked the question “multi-lingual speakers, which language do you dream in?” consisting of two response options — “your native language” and “other”, with the option to respond in a message. 58% responded that they dream in their mother tongue, whereas 42% said a combination of their languages. Dreams are hard to measure as not everyone remembers their dreams when they wake up, and our memory of it may not be as accurate as we think. This post will mainly be based on hypotheses on language rather than a measured research-based study.
I tried to take account for the backgrounds of the people who participated in my survey, and their language proficiency.
1. People who fluently speak their first language and alternate between their languages based on social circles or geographical locations.
2. People who learned their first language early-on but rarely use it.
3. People who learned their second-language later in life and are proficient but are not fully bilingual.
People in group one (who fluently speak their first language and alternate between first and second) had a mixed response. Take someone who moved to Canada at age 11, who speaks their mother tongue at home but mainly uses their second language, including in social situations and at the workplace. A majority of individuals in this group dreamt in both, many of whom mainly dream in their first language — even though they spend a majority of days in their second. The second group who learned their second language early-on voted that they rarely dream in their first language (more on this below). Finally, the third group all dreamt in their first language.
Often when we are planning or thinking about something in our heads, we actually don’t use language at all, a process called “Mentalese” (Narasimhan on Pinker, 1997). We start to think about specific language when we are planning on speaking. Depending on the dream and situation (ex: people who you are speaking to in the dream) we will use one language or both.
One aspect which is really interesting, involves the second group of people who participated in the survey. These people have a knowledge of their first language, but are not strong in it as they rarely use it. These people rarely dream in their first language as they never use it. Although when it is in their dreams something interesting can happen. Multi-linguals have reported that in dreams, their knowledge of language increases. For example, if you are an intermediate Italian speaker you may dream that you are fluently speaking Italian — something which is not accurate in real life. This may be the case if your receptive language (comprehension of a language) is much stronger than your oral ability.
Another aspect that could be interesting to analyze is the influence of dominant language on “inner speech” — the language you count in, think in and naturally go to in situations that don’t require thought (the moments when you accidentally bang your leg on a chair). This could drive the language of your dream.
Dreams are said to reveal elements of our lives that we are underlyingly thinking about or feeling. It is interesting to see how dreams reflect the language that you are listening to, speaking in and thinking about. If only our fluent language dreams became a reality.
Narasimhan, R. “Steven Pinker on ‘Mentalese’.” World Englishes 16.1 (1997): 147–152.