To achieve the impossible dream, try going to sleep. ~Joan Klempner
Oh well, after reading the quote you must have guessed already what I will be writing about today. It will be sleep, good and bad. What has it got to do with language learning, you ask? You will see. Soon, I promise! Keep reading.
There are lots of sayings and quotations about sleep, like the one up there under the post title. Many of them are about insomnia, or lack of sleep.
I bet that at least once you have looked at your worn out self in the mirror after a sleepless night, and maybe a day after it, and maybe yet another night, and hoped it was not you. You aren’t five years older and don’t have those blood-shot eyes! What you may have seen is a result of severe sleep deprivation: your body craves sleep but doesn’t get it. You feel bad, your head hurts, thoughts fall down on themselves and you wake up in strange places, not knowing how you got there. This is a rare condition and doesn’t happen too often. You can just sleep a lot afterwards and be as good as new.
But there is another case of sleep deprivation which you may not be totally aware of, because you live with it every day. It is chronic sleep deprivation, and it’s much worse than the previous one, because you stop noticing it after a while and think that things are the way they should be, which, of course, is not the case.
What is really bad about it is that even if you lack just one hour of sleep a day, chronic sleep deprivation takes you by the throat. I know, I’ve been through it. The effects are similar to those of total sleep deprivation, when you don’t sleep for a day or two at a time, but are not so pronounced, and that’s why you stop noticing them after a while. We are all subject to it with our busy modern lives. What are the symptoms? There are lots, actually: weak memory, irritability, frequent headaches, sleepiness, obviously, but most importantly — lack of creativity and energy, and an overall feeling of being a drone.
Weak memory and lack of creativity are the worst. Where a fully alert person would blaze his or her way through a word list or a hard exercise and get everything right the first time, a sleep-deprived would grind through the task and be deeply dissatisfied.
What happens while we sleep?
Lack of creativity and poor memory are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. I’ve read through some research, and most of it says that during sleep brain replays events and all the new information acquired during the day, storing all of it in the long-term memory, making the ‘buffers’ clean and fresh for the next morning.
While brain can store enormous amount of memories, its daily capacity for new ones is severely limited. Our brain is not designed neither for the sheer volume of information we process each day, nor for long hours without sleep, which we throw at it all too often. A cup can’t hold more than it is designed for: if you pour more than it may hold, it overflows! Brain works the same way, and for a reason. Our ancestors back in the Stone Age had less experiences in a month than we have in a single day.
What that means is that if you throw too much information at the brain, not all of it will stick. You may say that occasionally you had to work or study long hours, including for creative activities, and everything was fine, no memory lost or creativity impaired, usually the opposite. Yes, that is true. For short periods of time brain may compensate for the lack of sleep: once a week you may work on something for long hours, and you’ll be fine. But we are talking here about a chronic condition, and brain can’t cope if you sit long hours each and every day.
How does sleep improve my language learning?
As you see, constant lack of sleep may dramatically affect your productivity and memory — in a bad way. That’s why you should make sufficient sleep your top priority. I’m sure you won’t regret it after you wake up one morning after a whole week (even better, a month) of quality, refreshing sleep, feeling like you could conquer the world. As J.D. Moyer put it, “One thing we both noticed was a huge boost in mood — moments of unexplained, unreasonable joy would strike us at random times during the day.”
But what use it is if I’m learning a language, you ask. During sleep memory banks, filled during the day, are emptied into long-term memory, and after a good night’s sleep you wake up with your head magnificently empty with no random thoughts from the previous day buzzing around. You can now fill it anew, and a lot will fit in if you slept well.
Learning a new language is all about new knowledge — lots of it! If you’re short on sleep, you will grind through it and lose half in the process. Remember? Poor memory and no inspiration! But when you’ve slept well, you’re inspired and can move mountains around — even if those are mountains of your own notes :) Don’t forget, that we often act like we perceive, so if you feel great and are eager to study, this will be the case, new material will actually be easy! When you’ve slept well, you forget about the grind, new knowledge seems to fit into your head all by itself, and no force is necessary. This is a great feeling.
Six steps to quality sleep
Now that you know that sleep is of top priority, I will tell you how exactly you can make it more refreshing and satisfying.
- Have enough time to sleep. This is the one most neglected: many think that they can get away with a couple of hours less sleep, than they actually need, but it just doesn’t work like that. You can get away with it, but only once or twice. Then it’s chronic sleep deprivation, which turns you into a zombie. You wouldn’t want that, would you? So make enough time for sleep, which is around eight hours for most people. One more thing to remember: if you think you can do more by sleeping less, you are wrong. As I said, it’s much better to have enough sleep and then blaze through the day, than to have little sleep and then grind through the day in the illusion of being more productive.
- Do not eat for several hours before going to bed. Several means at least two, better four or more. Eating before going to bed is not a good idea anyway: you don’t use up the energy and your body stores it for the future as fat instead. And in the morning you have more food. At night, instead of keeping a steady blood flow for the brain to process memories, your body is busy digesting. Going to bed hungry is not good as well, you won’t fall asleep easily. You can have a light snack, preferably fruit, and a glass of water: it will punch hunger in the face, and you will fall asleep fast.
- Read a book just before sleep. Just be sure it’s not too engaging! I think you’re familiar with lying awake for hours with your mind racing, unable to sleep. Reading a book (make sure it’s fiction) tricks brain into slower thought patterns. After fifteen or twenty minutes of reading you will feel your eyes closing — put the book away, turn off the light and enjoy sleep in five minutes of less.
- Maintain a schedule. Our body is adaptable, but it likes stability. Going to sleep and waking up at different time doesn’t let all the necessary processes fall in sync, and we feel beaten. Make sure to go to bed and wake up at the same hours for at least two weeks, and you will leap out of bed before the alarm clock rings — every time. After a month you won’t need an alarm clock any more!
- Have a pre-sleep routine. This is another way of tricking your brain into proper thought patterns. Performing the same actions every day before you go to bed, like a simple “wash the dishes, brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, read for a while” routine, will tell your brain that you will sleep soon, and it will be ready. I had a lot of trouble with that: sitting at my computer and then lying down did not trigger the brain to go to sleep, instead it began to come up with new ideas, and I had to get up again to write them down and get them out of my head. Falling asleep took much effort. After implementing a simple routine I now tell the brain to sleep when I begin the routine, and by the time I finish it, it stops thinking and lets me sleep.
- Make sure it’s dark and quiet around. Again, this is from old times. Our ancestors slept at night, when it was dark and quiet, and woke up with first rays of the sun. Artificial light changed everything, and brain does not know when to sleep: there’s always too much light around, be it a table lamp or a computer screen. Light, as well as sound, triggers brain activity, and we can’t fall asleep. To the brain, it doesn’t matter that there is no danger around and that it’s not Stone Age: it did not change a bit since then. Darkness and quiet make the brain calm and sleepy, so go for it.
Things to remember
Sleep is too often neglected these days, but you now know that simply getting enough of it every day will supercharge your inspiration and memory, allowing you to learn and do more, every day. It also makes you feel good!
Thanks for reading! And sleep well :)
As of today, I will be posting every other day. Lots of things to cover!
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