Best Time before Bedtime? Effect of Sleep on Improved Language Learning.


Best Time before Bedtime? Effect of Sleep on Improved Language Learning.

Sat, 17 Jun 2017 14:46:52 +0000

By Geralde Vincent-Bancroft

When learning, we all want to have a magic wand and quickly assimilate all the material for our final exams; but we are all aware that this is a fool’s dream. We must invest hard work ( time, patience, and commitment ) to reap the benefits. Still we would like to optimise our learning experience. This is the reason why a great deal of scientists have taken the time to study ways to improve learning. They came to the conclusion that sleep plays an important part in this process. I will explain, but first, for the sake of this exercise, let’s get all clear about the definition of sleep.


Sleep is defined as ” a natural and reversible state of reduce responsiveness to external stimuli and relative inactivity, accompanied by a loss of consciousness.”[ About sleeps role in memory; Physiol Rev 93:681-776, 2013 ]. In lay terms, we are mostly unaware of what is going on around us and the only activity we do is to toss about all night long provoking our partner’s dissatisfaction, if we have one.

The role of sleep in language learning

So, how does sleep help learning a language?

To answer this question we have to know how we make our memories. I can almost see your eyes wide open and muttering “what?” Don’t fret. Let me explain.

For a memory to be, the information received goes through three actions called: encoding, consolidation and retrieval.

Encoding is when an information produces in the brain the formation of a memory trace.

Consolidation is when that fragile memory trace is stabilised with constant repetitions, for example, and this strengthen and integrates the memory into the pre-existing knowledge network.

Retrieval occurs when the sorted memory is accessed and recall.

It appears in all the studies that the sleeping brain provides optimal conditions for the consolidation of memories.

” How?” I hear you timidly exclaim.

Well, way back in 1885, a scientist called Ebbinghaus realised that forgetting occurs rapidly in the first hours after learning and levels after several days. He noticed as well that learning in the evening before sleep resulted in less forgetting 24 hours later.

Another scientist called Gaals came to the conclusion, in 2004, that not only visual memories are improved after a night sleep, but also auditory skills learning.

The experiment

In 2006, Stephen Gais and Brian Lucas published an article in the magazine LEARNING MEMORY. They described two experiments which are the mother of them all.

For their language learning experiment, they selected two groups of teenagers who never studied German. They gave them a list of vocabulary to study. Group 1 studied them during daytime and group 2 a few hours before bedtime. They noticed a higher rate of forgetting in the morning-learning group than in the evening-learning group.

They put in place another experiment to test whether the beneficial effect of evening learning found in the first experiment could be whether due to sleep after learning or was related with the time of day.

Group 1 was sent home after language learning and had 8 hours sleep. Group 2 was kept awake throughout the night either watching TV or playing video games. They were sent in the morning where they slept for 6 hours and had also their regular sleep at night. Both groups were tested 48 hours after initial learning.

People in group 1 remembered clearly more of the learned vocabulary because they had slept during the night following learning. The group who stayed awake remembered less.


They concluded that sleep following language learning have a beneficial effect on memory consolidation and enhances long term retention and more so consolidation is enhanced when the interval between language learning and sleep is short.

My advice to you is to try and learn your language course not too long before bed to reap the benefits sleep provides.

Take the Vocabulary Challenge: Click below to get the list of New vocabulary. Study them before going to bed. Test yourself in the morning and see how many you did remember. Feel free to post your result in the comments.

Click here to get Vocabulary PDF+AUDIO

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