I have been asked to answer the following two, separate, questions:

  1. What is your dream?
  2. What is your dream in life?

I am confused by this, because they look almost identical to me, and I cannot figure out what the difference between them should be (English is not my native language). My answer to both would be the same: I want to have my own shop.

What, if any, difference would a native speaker infer from the way these two questions are asked?

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    As a native speaker reading those questions, I'd say they mean the same thing. Good luck on your dream! – Gerger Dec 24 '14 at 15:42
  • 3
    But of course the answer is "42". – Hot Licks Dec 24 '14 at 15:46
  • I'd say the only difference would be that the first question might mistakenly be thought to refer to an actual dream someone had when they were asleep (although the context in which the question was asked would almost certainly make the meaning clear), while the second question is clearly asking about someone's "dream" as in an ambition or goal. – Nicole Dec 24 '14 at 15:48
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    @kitty I have edited your question to ask a more specific and on-topic question that is less based in opinion. If I have misunderstood anything, please feel free to re-edit the question to remove any misunderstandings. In any case, you should edit the question to add in what context these questions were asked—by a career counsellor, on a survey, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 24 '14 at 16:07
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    There's no way to tell for sure, but I wonder if the first question has to do with a utopian dream (a la Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech), while the second has more to do with a life goal. If my interpretation is on the mark, then, your dream might be "World Peace" and your dream in life would be "Owning My Own Shop". – J.R. Dec 24 '14 at 16:20

As a native speaker of American English, these two phrases have an identical meaning as they stand. However, the meaning of the first one can vary based on the context it is used in, and the second cannot. The first sentence below can only be an answer to the first question, while the second could be an answer to both:

Martin Luther King Jr's. dream was that all men would be treated equal.

Martin Luther King Jr's. dream in life was to get all men to be treated equally.

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I think that some people may very well have different things in mind with "my dream" versus "my dream in life." Most significantly, "my dream" can include wishes unconnected to reality, such as

My dream is to ride a white dragon like the one in that Anne McCaffrey book.

as well as more down-to-earth ones such as

My dream is to buy an inexpensive 1992 Toyota Tercel with all four hubcaps still in place.

and ones that fall somewhere in between such as

My dream is to become a key member of Justin Bieber's entourage.

In contrast, "my dream in life" seems most appropriately tied to a long-term aspiration involving career or love or artistic fulfillment. Of the three "dreams" listed above, only the one involving membership in Justin Bieber entourage—which, remarkably, combines aspirations for career, love, and art—would qualify as a "dream in life," strictly understood.

Of course, many people may not feel constrained to use "dream in life" only in connection with attaining some life goal, as opposed to describing some magical or mundane dream of the moment; but the distinction is available to them if they choose to make use of it.

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If you must use the word 'life' regarding the dream, try 'your lifelong dream'.

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