Almost every adult who’s spent time learning another language knows what it’s like to have a couple drinks and then see their speaking skills magically improve (or seem to). Somehow the words come to you quicker, the sentences assemble themselves, and you’re having a conversation that you’d struggle to hold completely sober. So what gives?
Researchers from the Netherlands and the UK had the same question — albeit dressed up more academically — and it turns out that you do speak a language better when you’re inebriated. Keep reading to find out more about the original study, and what happened when we at Babbel decided to run our own case study on the topic.
Your Brain On Alcohol
Based on everything else we know about how alcohol affects the brain, one would expect that drinking alcohol would make second language performance worse, not better. Researchers have gathered this expectation from two points: First, this is how alcohol affects speaking in our mother tongues. When we consume alcohol, we are less coherent and our pronunciation worsens with increased consumption. Second, alcohol negatively impacts our executive functioning — which is the function in the brain that bilinguals use to decide which of the competing words should be used for any given term. This decision-making mechanism is impaired with alcohol, like all other executive functions.
Of course, this cold, hard science is in stark contrast to the lived experiences of adult language learners: We frequently feel that we do better after a beer or two. But the key word here is feel. When we’re inebriated, our perceptions and memories are necessarily impaired, so we could be merely over-assessing our skills rather than actually speaking better. The researchers were wary of this bias, so they also tested whether alcohol made individuals overconfident.
The Hard Science
Participants were gathered from a pool of German students enrolled at Maastricht University who were learning Dutch as a foreign language. The researchers gave half of the participants the equivalent of one alcoholic beverage and the other half water, as a control. Both groups were asked to talk about a specific topic for two minutes. Their responses were recorded and then Dutch native speakers assessed their language abilities.
So what happened? In an affirming moment for language learners everywhere, the group that had been given alcohol outperformed the control group across all categories: pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and argumentation. Better yet, the buzzed group’s pronunciation skills were determined to be statistically significant (i.e. something that can’t be attributed to chance) compared to the control group. This means that your pronunciation of a second language does actually improve after a drink or two. We’ll toast to that!
Furthermore, the participants who had received a drink didn’t rate their language skills any higher than the control (meaning it wasn’t just an issue of confidence). If that’s true, why is alcohol positively impacting performance? The researchers theorized in their paper that, while they didn’t test for it, it could be a decrease in language anxiety. This would make sense, as it’s commonly known that alcohol can temporarily relieve anxiety and inhibitions.
Our Case Study
Now, testing the effects of alcohol on language learning in a controlled environment is fine and good, but what happens in real life? We at Babbel decided to hold our own (very unscientific) case study to test just that. Check out the video below to see how our three participants fared:
It’s clear to see that all of our subjects rated their German skills around average at the beginning (for those who are keeping track, it’s Colin at 5.5, Grace at 5 and Craig at 5). In the sober round, all of the participants can express themselves but with small hurdles. When moving to the “tipsy” round, you’ll probably notice that everyone sounds better, but they’re also making more mistakes. (You also might have noticed that our “tipsy” round had our participants drink more than the individuals in the study.) Grace in particular experienced difficulty choosing German words consistently, as almost half of what she says is in English. This is in line with the information above that states that alcohol impairs executive functioning — and therefore correct word selection — in the brain. Meanwhile, Craig says that he feels like he’s speaking more fluidly, and all participants rate their skills higher (with Colin at 6, Grace at 5.5 and Craig at 7.2).
In the final, “wasted” round (for science) our three test subjects make even more mistakes than the previous round — perhaps the positive relationship between language learning and alcohol has its limits. Even though Craig gives a beautiful, confident rendition of the Backstreet Boys in German, Colin can’t remember the German word for “left” (links) and he also admits that his grammar is completely gone. For the final tally, the results are much less conclusive, with Colin rating himself at 5, Grace at 5.5, and Craig not giving an answer, but drawing a diagram to demonstrate that he thinks he’s getting better.
While alcohol clearly does have an impact on foreign language performance, the positive effects are limited. Sure, it’s fun now and then to practice your language skills in a bar (you’re learning to have real conversations with people, right?), but it’s no way to learn new terms or develop a healthy confidence about your speaking abilities. A better way to get over language anxiety is to practice speaking regularly — and to accept that mistakes are part of the process! This mindset builds confidence that lasts longer than a buzz.