By Christa Chane
Multilingualism and cultural differences can affect how people dream. In 2016, a study was conducted on immigrants who had bilingual dreams. Whether they believed they had “bridge[d] conflict” or felt isolated from others who differed from them, the presence of the languages reflected their cultures’ influences on their identity. But what determines which languages even show up in your dreams? Is it fluency? Is it exposure? I set out to interview a few multilingual individuals to hear straight from the source:
Immigrant and International Experience:
My first instinct was to ask my mother about her dreams. Originally from Syria, my mom’s native language is Arabic, but she also grew up taking French in school. She moved to the U.S. “27 years ago” and is fluent in English. In her younger years, she only had dreams in Arabic; despite being fluent in French, since it was a language she only spoke in class, it never appeared in her dreams. It “took several a few years of living in the U.S.” before she started dreaming in English. Now, she has a combination of dreams in each language, although no singular dream includes both.
Orange Lutheran junior Emily Liao lived in China for the first “15 years” of her life, and her “first language [is] Chinese.” She moved to the U.S. “on Christmas [day] of 2021.” Nearly two years later, she began to dream and now has dreams in “both” languages, “depending on who [she’s] talking to in [her] dream.” Notably, she “remembers [a dream] more deeply if it’s in English” and less if it is in Chinese.
1st Generation American:
Senior Angelina Risnoveanu, born in America after her parents immigrated from Romania, has always spoken both English and Romanian. Her dreams are “typically in English,” but occasionally they occur “in both Romanian and English” or even “just Romanian.” Usually, the “strictly Romanian” dreams tend to be more ominous or “eerie” and involve family members.
Born to an immigrant father and American-born mother, Monique Gorgy, senior, “mainly partake[s] in [her] Egyptian heritage.” She speaks English and “a bit of Arabic,” being able to “understand” more of the language than speak it. Most of her dreams involve “a mix of English and just visual pieces.” She recalls rare dialogue in her dreams; when present, it can often be “very muddled between a mix of languages.”
2nd Generation American:
Senior Cassidy Cheng, a second-generation Taiwanese American, is fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese; she is also “passingly familiar with ASL and Spanish.” Her dreams “are mostly in English, but sometimes Chinese,” depending on the dream’s context. As “an ABC,” her “default language is English, and [her] dreams tend to reflect that.” Interestingly, however, she has occasionally had dreams that took place in a classroom, where she has “spoken Spanish or used ASL.”
Travel & Language Classes:
After teaching Latin “for 17 years,” OLu teacher Mrs. Sampson has had dreams “about teaching Latin.” However, she believes that in order to be able to dream about something, there must be a “certain percent of input that you’re hearing in that language” to be able to dream in it. Since she is “not immersed in that way,” she’s been less likely to have dreams with typical conversations held in Latin. She adds that while studying abroad in Italy, she had dreams in Italian. She “lived in Italy for one year” and was immersed in the language and culture; even though she still speaks the language, she “would never be able” to dream in Italian now.
One of her former students, Eric Chow, ’23, took Latin all four years of high school and spent vast amounts of time outside of class translating the language and learning about Roman history. As a classics major, he is fascinated by Greco-Roman culture and linguistics. During his time at OLu, he had “several” dreams in Latin, typically after “intense studying.” The “night before the AP [Latin] exam,” he dreamed about being “in the Trojan War” with “dialogue . . . in Latin” despite the Greek setting.
While these are just a few examples, they show that when someone is exposed to different languages—at varying degrees—these influences can be present in their dreams. For some, the setting type and mood of the dream were dictated by the language present. For others, learning a new language and being exposed to a new culture increased the number of languages they dreamt of. For those who learned or taught a language in school, it was more about continual immersion than their fluency or knowledge. Ultimately, these interviews highlight the uniqueness of each individual’s dreaming experience and the connection between language and cultural heritage, memories, and dreams.
Photo Credit: tudip.com