Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dreamers in Foreign Tongues

In today's New York Times Book Review, Michael Erard writes an interesting essay exploring the world of language in dreams. He begins with an anecdote from my book, Dreaming in Chinese, about the day I ran into heaps of frozen ham legs on a Beijing sidewalk. Thinking like the Chinese think (maybe just one short step from dreaming like the Chinese dream), I was sorely tempted to pilfer one of those ham legs.
I first dreamed in a foreign language, French, when I was about 14 years old and had been living for a few months with a French family in the south of France. That is reportedly the classic experience: total immersion in a foreign language, which kind of takes over your brain.
In the last year or two, I've been randomly polling people I run into about the language of their dream lives. What I've discovered is that any 7  people are likely to give 7  different answers. Here are some, in no particular order:

"I have never dreamt in a foreign language."
"Sometimes I dream in English; sometimes in Chinese." (bilingual person)
"My dreams are always silent."
"I never dream."
"I know I dream in two languages; I speak Mandarin when my Chinese mother-in-law appears in my dreams, and I speak English the rest of the time."
"I have no idea."
"I just can't remember."

While it is nice to think that we all dream vividly and loquaciously, it doesn't seem to be the case.

(Image from


  1. When I studied French in school, I got to the point of sometimes dreaming in French, but I haven't dreamed in a language other than English for 45 years.

  2. My family lived in France when I was a little girl. We lived in a French village, and attended the French schools and church, while my dad worked at the somewhat close Air Force base. My mom said we would talk in our sleep in French, or when playing at home together, and we couldn't think of the English word for something, would switch to French, and then continue in French for the rest of the afternoon. Towards the end of our stay, when my parents were arranging for my new-born brother to be baptized, we came up to them while they were talking to the priest. After we left, he asked my parents where we had learned English.
    I wish I were that fluent now..

  3. I dream in Mandarin after I watch a Chinese drama or movie :)

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