Ask any non-native speaker and, chances are that they’ll swear their language skills improve once they’ve had a couple of drinks. Sure, one might be willing to believe that just for the great excuse to combine beer with your language practice sessions, but is there any science behind it?
We decided to take a look and give you some advice on whether it is worthwhile to improve your target language at the bar.
Alcohol makes you worry less
So, is there any concrete evidence that alcohol really makes you more fluent? The science seems to say yes, in a limited way at least. A study from the University of Michigan with the brief title of “The Effects of Experimentally Induced Changes in Ego States on Pronunciation Ability in a Second Language: An Exploratory Study” introduces the concept of a ‘language ego’, an identity built around the language you speak and suggests that to learn a new language is “to take on a new identity”.
Like your body image, most people’s language identity is firmly rooted and hard to change. The study suggests that most adults have trouble learning a new language because they are “reluctant to give up control over self presentation”. In simple terms, people are shy and worry about what people will think if they make a mistake while speaking in another language.
And that’s where alcohol comes in. It’s well known that alcohol lowers your inhibitions. After drinking you’re more willing to move out of your comfort zone and interact with others around you in a foreign language. You worry less, speak more and, at least theoretically, learn quicker.
Improve your pronunciation with a drink
The researchers from the University of Michigan noted that pronunciation is always the hardest thing to master when learning a new language and hypothesised that this is one of the most strongly rooted parts of someone’s language ego. They decided to run an experiment to see if alcohol would make it easier for people to pronounce a word correctly in a foreign language.
They took a group of students and told them that they would all be served a cocktail and then asked to pronounce words in Thai. Some got stronger drinks than others and some got no alcohol at all, but none of them knew which. Those given alcohol performed better than those without and these results lead the researchers to conclude that small amounts of alcohol are indeed beneficial to language learning.
You might speak better but you won’t learn the language
But do you actually learn quicker when you’ve been drinking? Sadly, that’s not really the case. The bad news is that alcohol also inhibits the hippocampus, a part of the brain related to memory and learning. Simply put, any new words you learn while intoxicated might not stick. Episodic memory (your ability to retell a story from your past) is particularly affected. So, if you drink a lot there is even a good chance you won’t even remember that you were speaking your target language more fluently. Wave goodbye to the confidence boost as well!
Add to that mix the effects alcohol abuse can have on your memory in the long term, it might be that the costs outweigh the benefits in this case. Additionally, even though your conversation partner might be impressed with your language skills, according to at least one study, alcohol doesn’t have any effect on your self-rating. Essentially, you’ll still feel like you’re messing up, even when you don’t care.
Conclusion – You’ll get a boost of confidence but be hindered in the long run
With this in mind, while being drunk might make the occasional conversation in English more interesting, we definitely don’t suggest turning up to your English lessons with a bottle of wine. In fact, Benny Lewis, one of the most hyperactive language learning bloggers on the internet doesn’t drink at all and he does just fine.
The conclusion of the research by the University of Michigan was that one shot of hard alcohol with a mixer is the right amount. Any more and your memory and ability to speak clearly starts to deteriorate. Any less and you’ll still be too nervous to speak freely. Oh, and go easy on dinner as the study also found that students who drank after only having a light snack performed the best.