Dreaming, speaking and thinking in another language

Cristina Di Loreto
October 2, 2014

"To have another language is to possess a second soul."



The experience of studying or living abroad is an experience you treasure forever, and learning the language of that country can make all the difference. Likewise, those in their home country who are learning a new language for work or personal reasons find it rewarding—if challenging. Achieving fluency in another language is a long, intensive process. But there are important milestones along the way. The moment you catch yourself thinking in another language marks such an important achievement in learning. To what extent does this indicate fluency?


If you are learning Italian, for example, you might soon find yourself looking at the Arno at night and suddenly thinking, ‘fantastico!’ An Italian learning English might be wandering absent-mindedly through San Lorenzo market and suddenly find himself thinking, ‘Well, where am I?’ instead of ‘Ma dove sono?’


If you have experienced such a moment, you know the feeling of accomplishment. If you are thinking or speaking to yourself in your second language it means that you’ve achieved a degree of fluency. For example, recent research by Denise Klein and Kelvin Mok has shown that learning a second language can modify the brain’s connections. Although much depends on when in life language learning takes place, it is commonplace to start thinking and speaking to yourself in the second language after spending a considerable amount of time immersed in it.


Another common event for language learners and those in a new language environment is to dream that you are speaking the other language perfectly. Alas, the experts agree: dreaming ‘in’ another language does not equate with fluency or any level of linguistic mastery. For example, François Grosjean, a professor at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland who has studied bilingualism extensively and debunked myriad myths about it, maintains that this subconscious show is actually wishful thinking. Truly dreaming in another language occurs only if you know both languages perfectly—having learned the second language as a child and if you are bicultural.


However, if you stick with the study of a new language and find ways to immerse yourself in it, then the most amazing things begin to happen. You write in your native language and don’t realize you have substituted words from the other language. You start to talk to your Canadian friend in Italian and with your Florentine friends in English. You meet up with other Italian-speaking native-English pals and phrase your English incorrectly, look at one another and say, ‘Hold on, that’s not right. But you know what I mean!’ That’s when you are nearly bilingual!







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