Dreaming in Another Language

When I moved to Stockholm and started learning Swedish, it seemed to occupy all my time and thoughts. It was an intensive course, 3 hours every day via the communicative method with the focus on talking and practical use of language, plus homework in the evenings. One day, my friend asked me “So, do you dream in Swedish already?”.

I didn’t quite get the question, so he explained: “When I was in the process of learning English, starting from some moment, I could see dreams in English. In those dreams, I could talk and understand everyone, even the thoughts that I had during those dreams were in English”. I laughed and answered that I was yet too far from seeing such advanced dreams in Swedish. It was something incredible and unreachable – not only to start speaking fluently, making an effort to keep in mind all grammar and rules but also to discover that the mind itself copes freely while dreaming without any strain or control at all.

Three years later, I automatically say “Prosit!” when someone sneezes at home (normally we speak Russian at home all the time), argue with my computer when it’s too slow (“men hallå! kom igen!”), listen actively to my Mom with the whole palette of available intonations (jaha? Asså? Eller hur? Men nej!) and come up with lots of other spontaneous things without even thinking, as I’m completely covered, surrounded and wrapped up in Swedish language.

Although now I feel quite comfortable when talking both at work and with friends, expressing even the simplest things can still be tough sometimes – there are endless situations when my colleagues can’t help laughing, like once when I tried to explain something about seaweed using a chain of associations with “sjön” (sea, lake), “gräs” (grass), “vatten” (water), “älg” (elk, moose) and algae, complementing all this with wavelike hand movements and a pleading look.

This happens all the time; the moment our discussion changes its direction from the usual work/daily routine topics to something really interesting: music, culture, movies – everything which requires a little more of figurative language and a larger vocabulary. It’s like the Alias game, where I’m always the one who’s showing and others try their best to guess. Luckily, my colleagues are quite patient and never mind a good laugh.

Speaking of movies, by the way. “Arrival” – which at some point became almost obligatory for viewing for all team members at work – is not only an excellent movie (but let’s leave this for movie critics to prove), but also a remarkable example of learning a new language in contact and interaction with native speakers.

The main character, Dr. Banks, in response to a simple request of the military commander about when they will be able to learn the purpose of the arrival of the aliens, sketches a general yet quite correct scheme that shows how far one needs to learn the language and which steps are required to get the answer.

Moreover, it’s not restricted to language – even if it’s alien language – you need not only to find a translation for each word, but also the corresponding notions or concepts, to which these words are attached. Without these links a language is not truly alive, it’s these ties that make the everyday Alias game possible.

Dr Banks also tells a story – the moment when I almost jumped up from my chair in the movie theatre, anticipating her to say “Gavagai”, but it was kangaroo instead. Never mind. All linguists are probably familiar with this one, but still: when a linguist studies a new unknown language and works in the field, he or she usually writes down and makes notes of everything he or she hears from the native speakers. On such a day, a rabbit suddenly jumps out of the bush and runs away. The native cries out “Gavagai!”, which at this very moment can mean a dozen of different things: “Watch out!”, “Danger!”, “Food!”, “Look!”, “Catch it!”. To understand the actual meaning the linguist needs context. And who doesn’t?

According to “Arrival”, the language we speak and learn affects our way of thinking – it fills our minds with new words, meanings, concepts and ties up new connections. It brings new context and gives the words to describe the events or phenomena that we never could have imagined before. It sneaks into our dreams and spontaneous reactions, it becomes a part of us, and we, in turn, become a part of the language as new native speakers.

In the age of automation, everyone buzzes about machine learning. How great it would be if a machine could understand your mother tongue (and not only English) and all the words’ relations behind it.

But what if you don’t have all that time, patience and equipment to teach a language and all it’s nuances to someone? Especially, if it’s a machine?

Well, we’ve already done that for you!

We taught our Gavagai Explorer more than 30 languages, and we keep adding new ones. Explorer knows everything about context, synonyms and connections between words and concepts.

It digs teenage slang, internet neologisms and emoji, feels one’s pain and other emotions via sentiment analysis and what’s more – it leaves a space for you to interact and work with data in your own special way.  

Just go and check out the newest version here while we go back to work.

If Arrival happens for real, we’ll be prepared.

(c) Paramount Pictures

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