Day 1: I've made the decision to learn English.
Day 2: I've already made progress!
Day 7: Wow, I just had my first conversation with a native English speaker who was genuinely impressed with my skills!
Ah, wouldn't that be perfect?
If only we could learn languages in our sleep, the polyglot heaven would be just a few naps away and we could have pen pals for ages. Imagine traveling anywhere in the world, being able to speak with the natives, and ordering any food you like without getting unwanted ingredients. Well, as it turns out, this is somewhat possible.
Over the last few decades, scientists have been scratching their heads over so-called sleep learning, trying to prove that learning while you sleep is actually possible. The myth has come a long way since then but even today, it's still not something that can be adopted as a solution. I mean, what does language learning have to do with practicing blinking routines right before falling asleep?
Be that as it may, there is still plenty you can do before or after you fall asleep to benefit your English fluency. In case you happen to dream about any of the following techniques, you can call it "sleep learning".
Learn Words in Chunks
Useful for: Vocabulary Building, Speaking
Here's a good game: try to learn 20 new words each day. If you practice each evening, sleep through the night, and remember just five of those words each morning, that's how much you've managed to learn in your sleep - five new words. This is a phenomenal result by any metric for any language learner. Revising all of the 20 words again will help you remember and memorize even more. It's really simple.
Suddenly, learning 20 new English words per day isn't that hard.
I always tell my students "you've only ever learned something once you've retained it over time". As to why, our brains are often regarded as "muscles", in the sense that we can train them to improve different cognitive functions. In the same way that muscles grow when they are resting, our brains retain information and essentially give us insights into how much new stuff we manage to learn.
That being said, learning new English words to benefit your fluency can be augmented by doing so at pre-set times, before and after sleep. There are plenty of ways to learn new English words - from flipping through the dictionary to practicing via mobile apps. Try it out as soon as tonight but remember to do so after you wake up, as well.
Read (or Listen to) Books
Useful for: Reading, Listening, Pronunciation
In all of the studies about sleep learning, a lot has been said about the positive effects of listening to educational material while sleeping. On the other hand, my version of before-and-after-sleep learning sessions involves digesting content but in a slightly different way.
The real question is: audibles vs. readables?
Essentially, it doesn't matter, as long as it benefits your fluency. If you read a book for 20-30 minutes each night and morning, that could equate to around 30-40 pages per day of any given book, depending on your reading speed. Not only will you improve your reading skills, but pronunciation, as well. In the case of audiobooks, your listening skills will benefit the most. Win-win, either way.
Just remember to have these book sessions regularly, before and after you sleep.
Write & Exercise
Useful for: Writing, Vocabulary Building
In the same manner as vocabulary building and reading or listening should be practiced, writing is the key skill that binds them all together. Since speaking to someone in English is rather hard to maintain over time, writing every night and morning is a technique that not only allows you to utilize the vocabulary you learn on a daily basis but also to address the "reader" you're writing to.
The goal is to make your writing "sound" native.
The choice about what to write about is yours. You can choose a topic each night or choose a single word and write whatever comes to mind first about that given word. You can also write about a single topic during multiple sessions in case you have so much to write about. Over time, the improvements in your writing - speaking faster, more freely, more confidently - will translate into your speaking.
As a result, this will help you sound more native in all aspects of your communication with others, which is the ultimate goal, right? Now, I don't know about you but I'm suddenly feeling a bit sleepy... and eager to learn!
The Verdict: It's Not About Sleeping
While the world is still aiming to debunk the sleep learning myth and get some stone-hard evidence that it actually works, that doesn't mean your English learning journey should suffer. You can still do so much to learn and improve your English in the meantime if you follow the techniques covered in this article.
In conclusion, it's not really about sleeping but what you learn before and after sleeping that matters. What you can do is use your time wisely, make sure your sleeping schedule is aligned with your learning, and do the best you can to take your English to the next level even while you're drooling all over that pillow.
The key: remember to keep doing so both before and after you sleep.
Until next time, happy learning! Oh, and remember to get some sleep.