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Subliminal Language Learning – Fact or Myth?

by Sophie Anderson

Being an enthusiastic traveler has definitely taught me a few things about language learning. How many times have you caught yourself being curious about a language while cruising to exotic locations? Some people say that traveling is the best way to get the feel of a language and learn a few basics by simply interacting with the locals. True, but wouldn't it be great if you could learn at least some basics of a language all by yourself while actually being stuck on a plane, train or ship? In fact, traveling often gets me wondering about the potential of subliminal learning – the process of learning a new language without being conscious of it. Effortless learning during a travel – why not? But is subliminal learning real or is it a complete myth? Read on to find out.

What is subliminal learning?

Generally speaking, subliminal learning refers to the ability of learning complex regularities that underlie a foreign language without even realizing what we're doing. This is a sort of implicit language learning – a process that powers language acquisition of children, who seem to simply soak up this skill and barely need to use grammar or pronunciation guides.

In adult language learning, the process is usually far from effortless and success isn't guaranteed. That's probably why many people (and researchers) are curious whether the ability to learn a language subconsciously is still within the reach of adult learners.

Learning in your sleep

One of the most popular ideas behind subliminal learning technologies is learning in your sleep. The idea is to put on a set of headphones with words and phrases of a language playing during the whole night, but quietly enough not to disrupt our sleep.

While the technique definitely won't work for those who expect to fully learn a new language in a matter of several nights, learners who participate in active language learning exercises during the day might find those repetitions useful.

Learning in sleep tested

A recent study supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation revealed that listening to newly-learned vocabulary while sleeping has the power to solidify the memory of those words.

Scientists had a group of German students learn new Dutch words in the evening and half of them went to sleep listening to those words. Woken up in the middle of the night, students had to perform a test on the new vocabulary. Apparently, those who listened to Dutch while sleeping performed much better at recalling those words.

Pattern recognition

A joint study by two scholars from the University of Cambridge and Hong Kong revealed yet another interesting finding about subliminal learning. The scientists included artificial language forms in English phrases and the majority of participants were found out to pick up on correlations and hidden meanings on those phrases. This even if the participants of the study had no idea where the knowledge about correctness of certain grammatical forms came from.

What I find particularly interesting about this study is that if a hidden pattern is somewhat counter-intuitive or linguistically unnatural, the implicit learning process won't allow us to spot the correlation. Does this mean that are brains are wired to detect certain patters and not others? Only researchers will find out.

Learning a foreign language without being conscious of the process is possible – but only to an extent, at least with the technology and knowledge we have now. Adult learners should take an active part in learning and complement their daily routine with some nightly vocabulary and grammar repetitions. If anything, research shows that the technique of subliminal learning can help us refine our language skills and that's something really valuable. So, if you are planning to learn some of languages in your travels, be sure to do your job during the day and let your subconscious boost your knowledge during the night.

About the writer

Sophie Anderson - a traveler with a great passion for adventure and visiting new places all around the world. While not currently on some tropical island or in an old city somewhere in Europe, Sophie works for Cruise Agency where she shares her stories with others and help them plan their own holiday

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