Talking in Your Sleep

William Stimson sees a role for dreams in second language acquisition

Some years back, I was asked to give a course about dreams at Yang Ming National Medical University in Taipei, Taiwan. I was invited to teach a dream course not for its real merits, but to train graduate students in English. It served that purpose remarkably well. Each semester, new students came in hardly able to open their mouths and hazard a few English words to introduce themselves, beyond the invariable, “I’m afraid my English is not good enough…” But then, no sooner did we begin work with the dreams than they forgot all about English. The material emerging from the dreams, minute by minute, was just too startling to them — and too close to their own most personal experiences. Week after week, it came as a surprise to learn that yet another graduate student faced a situation similar to one they themselves faced — someone they never would have suspected was so like them, because that person’s social façade hid everything going on inside. By working with each other’s dreams, the truth of all their lives came flooding out. They found that what was deepest in their own heart was what they all shared in common. Its life-giving substance fertilized the arid superficial intellectual connections that had previously held them together as a merely artificial academic community — and transformed those into real personal bonds that forged the group into an authentic emotionally-connected community of impassioned social work professionals. The more they learned about each other and about themselves, the more tightly, and the more deeply, they bonded together — and the more they respected and cared about one another, and themselves. The pursuit of graduate studies came to be seen by all of them not just as a prerequisite for professional employment, but as a real preparation for a deeper, truer life. English was the language in which all this happened. Is it any surprise that midway through the semester they were all chattering excitedly away in it perfectly intelligibly?

Where did this sudden fluency in English come from? An ancient Chinese Buddhist story provides a hint:

China’s greatest calligraphy master was having a new arch put up at the entryway to his temple. He sat cross-legged at his low work table with brush in hand, dipped it into the ink, and with deft strokes created on a sheet of rice paper the specimen of master calligraphy that would be burnished into the wooden cross-beam of the arch. His top disciple stood immediately behind him, looking over his shoulder. “No, master,” the disciple said. “I’m afraid that’s not quite it.”

The master saw the truth of what his disciple said. He took a fresh sheet of paper, dipped his brush anew in the ink and made a second try.

Again, the disciple found cause to point out how it was still not quite perfect.

This went on for some time, as again and again the disciple found minor flaws in the master’s work.

Then, in an urgent voice, the disciple bowed to his master and begged to be excused just a moment so he could run off to pee. He was only gone briefly, but in that time the wise master quickly snatched a fresh sheet of paper and hurriedly executed the calligraphy. When the disciple came running back, his eyes fell on the finished masterpiece, which even today adorns the archway to the temple.

“Perfect!” he said.

On the surface this story illustrates the obvious truth that nobody does their best work with someone looking over their shoulder. But this story also illustrates a deeper truth about the unconscious creative function and the way we learn. We have a critical faculty, and we have a creative faculty. The critical faculty is, to be sure, necessary for the creative faculty to optimally express itself. But the critical faculty, if it comes in too early, interferes with the creative one, which needs to operate on, and draw its resources from, deeper, more unconscious levels than those on which the critical one operates. The great calligraphy master could only do his best work when the disciple with the critical eye wasn’t present because only then could he dip down to that deeper level. The students in the dream class can only attain fluency in English to the extent they completely forget about how good their English is, or is not. They need to forget about English to master it. It needs to be allowed, like the art that the learning of any language really is, to slip down into those unconscious levels where all kinds of things connect that we don’t know about, to make the language pop out right, like it does eventually from the mouth of every child everywhere in the world who masters his native tongue.

In the dream class, one student after another removes their safe mask, and has the opportunity, maybe for the first time in their life, to show others and themselves who they really are. The reason that students in the dream class can forget they’re speaking English is because every single class systematically opens up a dream that gives them a glimpse of the real life of a human being and what they see, what startles and moves them so, and makes them understand themselves also on deeper and deeper levels, is the greatness that constitutes the very fabric and core of each and every one of us. This is so exciting an experience, and so all-engrossing, that it shoves English right off the podium and down into the unconscious, where the proper soil exists for it to sink its roots and blossom into fluency.

Professor Herng-Yow Chen of the English Corner, not a department but a space that hosted programs where students, faculty, and even community members from outside the university could come to practice speaking English, showed interest in the program, and soon, I began leading a weekly dream group there.

The story of this odyssey to get one dream group into one university in one very remote place in the world illustrates what is wrong and what is right not just with foreign language acquisition but with education in general. As the ancient Chinese story of the calligraphy master suggests, and as any deeply creative individual knows from experience, there are two components to a full human intelligence. The ancient Greeks personified the one as the God Dionysus, whose creative impulses surge spontaneously out with drunken abandon from unknown and uncharted regions at the borderlands between the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind. The other, whom the Greeks envisioned as Apollo, is the opposite. He works in a sober, controlled, and fully conscious way, bringing everything that arises from the dark depths into greater clarity and definition in the full light of day. The ancient Hindus, whose gods were also metaphors for human attributes, offer us a different but comparable pair: Shiva and Vishnu. The Chinese have their two sages: Lao Tzu and Confucius, the one enlightened, the other a follower of convention. Even modern America weighs in with its own unique pair of opposites — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Each of these pairs represents, in one way or another, a dual functioning that co-operates in anything we learn and everything we create — for proper learning is not really different from creativity. It carries us beyond what we were conscious of being taught and empowers us to rise to levels of understanding and execution greater than we could have imagined. When this happens it is called mastery — as essential for producing great art as it is for the art of learning a language.

I learned from Professor Herng-Yow Chen that in the field of second language acquisition, these ideas find expression in the work of Stephen Krashen, of the University of Southern California. Krashen states in his acquisition-learning hypothesis that there are two independent ways in which we learn a second language: (1) acquisition is the same unconscious process by which children acquire their first language by meaningful interaction in the language; and (2) learning is the conscious process we all know from school, which results in conscious knowledge about the language, and involves the correction of any errors that violate its rules and grammar. We learn a language by acquisition, and polish our use of that language by learning. The benefit of the dream group in a second language acquisition program at a university is that it can so powerfully provide the acquisition aspect to balance out the learning aspect over-emphasized in the other courses.

Krashen goes on to state in his input hypothesis that we acquire a language only when we receive comprehensible input, like students sitting in a dream group and listening to another pour out their heart about the same profound inner drama that they themselves are going through. The input in a dream group is from a source so deep, so close to the heart, that it is always to a large extent shared. The same feeling that one student pulls out of the darkest depths, the others immediately recognize. None of them speak English that much better than any of the others but each knows certain things that the others don’t, and so they all improve from each other just a little bit, and then a little bit more, and then still a bit more. In the beginning, between them all — they may master the language. By mid-semester each of them, to some extent or other, masters it.

In his affective filter hypothesis, Krashen explains how negative emotions or even boredom can function as a “filter” that interferes with second language acquisition. Since childhood I had a passion to learn French, which I felt sounded so exquisite. Then in college, I ran up against a French teacher who was so overly obsessed with compulsive, repetitive grammar drills that his class was utterly without life or feeling. I found this kind of French bored me. I dropped out, never did learn the language, and never again wanted to. Even to this day when I hear it spoken, it sounds pedantic to me. I don’t like the sound of it. Many of the Taiwanese who come into the dream group have had this kind of damage done to them by a long sequence of English teachers. In the dream group, this disaffection with the language could never survive because the bond that forms between group members exposing their inner lives openly and sincerely to each other is so strong, so exciting, and so positive; and the feelings, always, that emerge from the depth of a dream are of such a richly inspirational, even “peak experience” nature that the affect filter is nonexistent. A learning takes place in the dream group, and a bonding, on the same deep level where language functions. Speaking when in this state is exciting, and the language, accordingly — even a previously hated or feared language — rises excitedly to the occasion, like a flag suddenly unfurling, beautiful and proud, in the snapping wind.

Who cannot love a language when it waves so proudly and tall as the banner of our innermost being, when it speaks for the person we really are in our heart and soul? When I was a child, my family moved to an isolated island off the southern coast of Cuba. There, in that exotic setting, we lived close to nature in a thatched roof house and I had my earliest intimations of wilderness, love, sexuality, and intellectual discovery. Spanish was the language I learned in that place and to this day, though I am only barely fluent in it, it speaks my deepest heart. It is the language I love. I use it whenever I can. And every time I do, it enriches me. Language teachers so easily forget that this is what we most want to impart to students, that the function of language is to discover who we are — to know our own heart and world in ways that are ever deeper and richer. Language is exciting. We teach nothing important if we do not teach to love the language like we do.

I can’t imagine a better way to get this aspect of language instruction across than the dream group. It works especially well in a place like Taiwan where regiments of ruthlessly efficient language instructors pound the rudiments of English into the young year after year so mercilessly that the students grow up unwilling to speak it because they know they will make mistakes. The initial stages of the dream group process, in which group members take the dream as their own and look into it for feelings and metaphors, demand a creative willingness to make the mistakes that will let a dream open up of its own accord. These exercises give the student back a respect for the creative function of mistake making, set them free again in the English language to say things in whatever way they can, and return to them not only their own deepest and most secret creative power as human beings, but give them back everything their English instructors ever taught them, re-organized unconsciously in ways that they can and do now effortlessly make use of it. In the dream group, English becomes a language of liberation. And they learn that the only real mistake they make is to be afraid to speak it.

For step-by-step instructions on how to conduct a Montague Ullman experiential dream group, visit

In Taiwan, William R. Stimson, Ph.D. leads experiential dream groups at National Chi Nan University’s English Corner. He trained in the dream group process under the late Montague Ullman, M.D., the originator of the method and a close personal friend.