What it means to dream in other languages
People sometimes talk about dreaming in a new language as a marker. It marks that the language is somehow now in you, lodged in your brain or your way of being. If your unconscious can access it, well, that’s something.
When I was learning Arabic in Morocco, my sleep was thrown by the particular challenge of learning a new alphabet – of uncoupling the sound /b/ from the letter “b” and allowing it to be associated with the letter ب . What mental gymnastics! Especially for someone who learned to read in English early and has scarcely gone a day without reading and writing English letters. I realized that my first alphabet was more than an arbitrary orthography for me; it was reality.
The result of learning the Arabic alphabet was frenetic sleep. My brain seemed to be working overtime to break down knots and smooth new pathways. I didn’t dream so much as hallucinate. The closest experience to it was learning to snowboard. Similarly, the first couple of nights after snowboarding, my brain went into hyper drive, essentially playing and replaying clips of snowboarding, like a video game, presumably in hopes that I would learn faster and not fall down so much the next time.
Turkish out of context
Lately I’ve been speaking Turkish in my dreams, but inappropriately. First, I dreamt that I was walking on a hiking trail in Spain – maybe the famous Camino de Santiago – when I entered someone’s hillside villa in search of a place to stay. A man came into the dining room, and I could only appeal to him in Turkish, though I knew he spoke Spanish.
More recently, I dreamt that I was in a bus station, trying desperately in Turkish to explain where I wanted to go, but failing to remember key words, including the destination town. Geographically, I knew that I was in Morocco, but Arabic was the last thing on my mind.
Preparation to travel?
The mixed up dreams might be related to my acceptance to a language internship on St. Paul Island, Alaska. Knowing that I will be learning a new language brings some anxiety, both in waking hours and apparently sleeping ones, too. What about improving my Turkish? What if I block other languages? Why am I delving into something new? At the same time, going back to the marker of a phase in language knowledge, I’m pleased by my mind’s insistence on using Turkish in dreams. I wake up and smile to myself, reflecting on how my brain has changed in these years of learning.