What Dreaming in a Foreign Language Means

In my first article for The Language Corner, I wrote about a few signs I consider to be reassurances that someone who is learning a new language is on their way to fluency. I’d like to retract having said that dreaming in a new language is significant—it denotes something different altogether.

Some of you know that I spent the last couple of years working as an ESL teacher in Spain. This week marks two months since I’ve been back, and although I’ve had little issue re-assimilating to my home culture, I’ve had a few unsettling dreams in which language–or lack of language–have played a focal role.

To better understand what’s been happening, I spoke with Anastasia Piatakhina Giré, a psychotherapist who specializes in work with immigrants, and who has personally lived in five different countries and speaks five languages fluently as a result. Her native language is Russian, though she considers French her dominant language. She also speaks English, Spanish and Italian, and as a pioneer for online therapy, has a clientele base across a number of countries and continents.

In some of my dreams, I speak gibberish Spanish—that is, I am saying Spanish words but the sentiment I am trying to express has no connection to those words—or gibberish Spanish is spoken to me. In others, my American friends and I are speaking Spanish to one another, or vice-versa for my Spanish friends with English.

The former, Anastasia suggests, might be easier to explain. “In every new country I went through a phase of active language assimilation, when mastering the new language became a clear objective, a way towards integration,” she says. “Every emigrant’s main preoccupation is to reconstruct his or her social links and to integrate within the new community.”

In other words, we are so aware that mastering a new language is a necessary part of successful integration that our dreams produce a new linguistic quality.

“Discontinuity of our social context allows confusion, which our unconscious tries to deal with during sleep,” she says. “Our brain processes the day’s preoccupations in this imaginative, free form.”

But of the latter dreams, Anastasia is interested in knowing more about what the idea of homeland means to me. “Homeland is a magical fantasy world, which often takes stage in our dreams,” she says.

“Home is always in the center of an emigrant’s preoccupation. No matter which position we cognitively take—the one of the idealization and nostalgia, or the one of rejection—we still evolve in our new world within this continuum.”

For that reason, we have emotional responses to the misappropriation or random distribution of language in our dreams. Like my dreams, Anastasia has had dreams where her Russian parents, who do not speak a word of French, appear in her dreams speaking French fluently.

“Sometimes this mismatch does not bother us in the dream, but we are conscious of it,” she says. “In the latter, we wake up in a state of confusion, which, I think, reflects any emigrant’s familiar sense of cognitive dissonance: social interactions that are recognizable to us but that now take place in a different, often unfamiliar language.”

To put it simply, emigration is a mix of establishing social relationships, mastering a new language, and reconstructing one’s sense of homeland. It makes sense then that this would somehow be represented in our dreams, in whatever form they may take.

“I don’t think that dreaming in a foreign language is a sign of linguistic fluency to come, as is sometimes commonly thought,” she says, “but rather that it is a clear sign of awareness and interest.”

For more information on Anastasia Piatakhina Giré or online therapy, visit her website at expatstherapy.com.

If you dream in different languages and would like to share your story, please contact Rachelle at karibunews@gmail.com.

Dreaming in Spanish is part of The Language Corner, a biweekly column with our resident linguist, Rachelle Toarmino. Rachelle is a Buffalo native whose writing has appeared in local publications and small poetry presses. She works at Talking Leaves…Books.

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