Falling Asleep to Languages

I like to experiment with different ideas that come to me, and see which ones work out. Sometimes they end badly (a word to the wise: putting herbal teabags into the wash with your laundry doesn’t actually make your clothes smell like peppermint or chamomile or whatever you expect it to do).

Usually the ideas end up taking a lot of refining and reframing before they come anywhere close to working. But often, the results do end up being worth the time spent in self-experimentation.

I recently started listening to foreign languages while falling asleep. This combines two strands of experimentation: listening to text while falling asleep, and learning languages. Let me quickly say something about the first of those two.

I discovered in college that I can generally fall asleep more quickly when I am listening to an audiobook or a lecture or a podcast or something along those lines.

I also discovered that it has to be just the right program, though. I have to be interested in what I’m listening to; if it’s something I find boring or irrelevant, it becomes an annoyance, and it keeps me from falling asleep. It can’t be too interesting either, though; if I’m listening to a Dan-Brown-esque page-turner of a story, then I can be up all night wanting to know what happens next. And it can’t be too challenging; if I’m listening to the Critique of Pure Reason and trying to understand each word and keep track of each step in the argument, then I’ll be working much too hard to be able to slide away softly into sleep.

And finding the listening material that is just the right balance is always tricky, because for some mysterious reason, it changes from one night to the next. The very same book that was perfect for putting me to sleep yesterday might have somehow become too boring or interesting or challenging to work tonight.

Still, most of the time it only takes a few minutes of browsing and sampling to find the right book, and most of the time I do fall asleep much more quickly with the right book than I do without it, so in the end it’s still worth it and I continue to do it.

So that’s the story with listening to texts before bed.

I’m also trying to learn some languages. I’m focusing on German right now, but also dabbling a bit here and there with French, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian. Mostly that means using two apps, Duolingo and Drops. I do a little bit of reading as well, slowly and laboriously and with a dictionary for now, though hopefully not forever.

I have fairly poor listening comprehension for anything beyond the most basic sentences. I remember last summer I tried listening to John 1 in Greek, at about half speed. My brain still ached from trying to keep up with it and make sense of it.

Last week though, I had an idea. What if I tried listening to something in a foreign language while falling asleep, without trying to understand it?

So for the past several days, that’s what I’ve done. I listen to Rousseau in French, or Nietzsche in German, or the Old Testament in Hebrew. (And all for free, on LibriVox! What a marvel.) I just let it wash over me. I do catch some words or phrases, even the occasional short sentence. But mostly I just hear the rhythms of the language, and the patterns within the sounds that it tends to use.

First off, I’ve found it to be great for falling asleep. It holds my attention (so far — we’ll see how long this lasts), and doesn’t have me eager to hear what’s next or straining to keep track of what’s come before.

There’s even a sort of meditative feel to it once I get into the flow of the reading. I’m listening pretty intently, enjoying the sound of it, but I’m also not understanding what I hear, just calmly resting in the moment.

And secondly, I think this might eventually help my brain start to wrap itself more fully around these languages that I’ve already begun studying. I can’t give any proof of that possibility, but observing what was going on in my mind during the time when I was listening in the last few days, I did feel like my brain was gently seeking to make meaning out of this half-familiar wash of sound.

After all, that’s primarily how our brains relate to language, as far as I can tell: through the ears, trying to find meaningful patterns. That doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it gives me hope that maybe this could be helpful in time.

Now, maybe foreign languages will become a hindrance to sleeping, an annoyance, and will also not help me learn the languages. Or maybe it will not help me learn but will nonetheless continue to be a pleasant and effective way to find sleep.

In the first case, I can just go back to what I was doing before and I haven’t lost anything. In the second case, I’d probably thank my lucky stars and go on sleeping well.

But maybe this idea will both help me sleep and also help me learn the languages. That’s what I’m hoping for! How amazing would that be? Wish me luck. I’ll plan to provide an update in a future post, once I have some more experience with it.

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