Sleep has been shown to improve the retention of newly learned words. However, most methodologies have used artificial or foreign language stimuli, with learning limited to word/novel word or word/image pairs. Such stimuli differ from many word-learning scenarios in which definition strings are learned with novel words. Thus, we examined sleep's benefit on learning new words within a native language by using very low-frequency words. Participants learned 45 low-frequency English words and, at subsequent recall, attempted to recall the words when given the corresponding definitions. Participants either learned in the morning with recall in the evening (wake group), or learned in the evening with recall the following morning (sleep group). Performance change across the delay was significantly better in the sleep than the wake group. Additionally, the Levenshtein distance, a measure of correctness of the typed word compared with the target word, became significantly worse following wake, whereas sleep protected correctness of recall. Polysomnographic data from a subsample of participants suggested that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep may be particularly important for this benefit. These results lend further support for sleep's function on semantic learning even for word/definition pairs within a native language.
Keywords: Consolidation; Declarative memory; Language; Sleep.