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Bilingual dreaming March 2, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings.

Q: A Cleveland reader asks “I came to the United States when I was 10 years old, speaking only Croatian. Now, 30 years later, I find I still dream in Croatian and don’t ‘get’ jokes in English. People have to forewarn me that a joke is coming. Why this lingo lag for me?”

A: Bilingual folks report a number of interesting linguistic effects in their dreams. Some seem to stay with their native language for quite a while, whereas others switch quickly, even before becoming completely fluent, says Harvard Psychologist Deidre Barrett. Most common is for these dreamers to switch from language to language, often using their later language when dreaming of present issues and their earlier language when dreaming about people from the past, childhood emotional issues, etc. As to a bilingual’s response to jokes, some jokes that are very physical or rely on tone of voice may translate well. However, some forms of humor, such as puns, rely on such a subtle sense of a language that an adult learner may not get them.

This question and answer set brings up points most people don’t really talk about. Which language(s) do you dream in? When did you stop having trouble understanding jokes? I personally started dreaming in German about one year into living in Germany (11 years after starting to learn the language but the first year I was truly immersed in the language). I usually have no problems getting jokes, but if I am really tired or it contains some obscure cultural inference it might go right over my head. But then again, some British jokes go over my head too and they are in English 🙂 How about you? Any thoughts?



1. A-gu - March 4, 2009

I normally dream in a language based on whatever language I normally use when addressing the other actors in the dream, or whatever language I use when thinking about that topic.

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