Alcohol and foreign languages: A small amount can make you speak better, but not too much.

Alcohol Really Does Make You Better at a Foreign Language (Sometimes)

Alcohol Really Does Make You Better at a Foreign Language (Sometimes)

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Nov. 3 2014 1:03 PM

Alcohol Really Does Make You Better at a Foreign Language (Sometimes)

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Language proficiency doesn't come in a pill (yet), but might it come in a bottle?

Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

Drunk-dialing exes, picking fights with bouncers—alcohol's tongue-loosening properties are all too familiar. But it turns out that alcohol's ability to lower your inhibitions is also good for speaking a foreign language.

If you've ever tried to dust off your college French while on vacation in Paris, only to have your tongue turn to mush as you're stared down by the snooty French waiter, you've realized the importance of emotions—such as stress, anxiety, ego, and fear—in learning and using another language. Fear of messing up or sounding silly makes us stutter and hesitate, mix up our verb tenses, and flub our pronunciation. Alcohol can lower your inhibitions enough that you feel more comfortable making mistakes, which makes you less tongue-tied in the first place.

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It's that post-sangria effect of increased Spanish fluency: In one study in the 1970s, college-age English speakers were asked to perform a pronunciation test in Thai, a language they had no experience with, after drinking different amounts of alcohol. What happened? Those who drank 1.5 ounces of alcohol performed better on the pronunciation test than those who had drunk an alcohol-free placebo. An ounce and a half of alcohol was apparently the perfect amount to relax the subjects' egos enough to not feel silly while trying to produce the sounds of a language very different from English. But those subjects who drank 1.5 ounces of alcohol also performed better than those who had consumed 2- and 3-ounce drinks.

Indeed, several other studies confirm what you probably already know: Drunk people slur their words, even in their first language. For example, apparently drinking seven shots of 86 proof bourbon was enough to make participants shift their "L" to "R" and their "S" to "Sh," even when they were native English speakers speaking English. At a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent, participants’ speech was slower and contained more pauses than when they were sober. So while a single drink may loosen the tongue for the better, getting drunk could tie it right back up again.

So a drink can make you speak better in a foreign language, but what about drugs? A similar study was carried out using Valium instead of alcohol, but the drug wasn't found to affect performance on the pronunciation test: Valium just doesn't seem to lower inhibitions in the same way. As far as I know, there aren't any studies on other types of drugs, but then again, it might be a difficult topic to get a university ethics board to approve!   

But you don't need to carry around a hip flask just to be able to talk to people: There are other ways for a language learner to overcome paralyzing negative emotions. Some learners develop strategies to lower anxiety and raise self-esteem, like doing relaxation activities, listening to music, watching funny videos, or keeping a journal, and many report taking on an alternate, more confident identity in the language they’re learning.

Another useful tip is to rehearse in advance potentially nerve-wracking interactions, such as interviews or ordering in a restaurant, which can help you calm down about them. If you're taking a class, look for a skilled teacher who creates a supportive classroom environment where learners feel comfortable taking risks as they practice speaking. Class or no class, you can bolster your confidence by seeking out low-stress practice contexts surrounded by positive people—this could be face-to-face with friends, using one of the many online platforms for language exchange, or even just speaking out loud to your pet! And a thick skin, sense of humour, and positive outlook are key traits for any language learner.

The flip side is that for some, a bit of anxiety can facilitate your language skills. Just as some musicians or athletes shine under pressure, a bit of nervousness may keep you on your toes and cause you to perform better. But no matter how graceful you are under pressure, speaking a new language in real life just takes courage, whether or not that's the liquid kind. 

Jennifer MacDonald has degrees in linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and is head ESL teacher at Dalhousie University. Her doctoral research and blog deal with the interplay between language, society, and teaching.