Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. In fact, it impairs all kinds of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So it really should make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language.
However, as Fritz Renner of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, point out in a new paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “contrary to what would be expected based on theory, it is a widely held belief among bilingual speakers that alcohol consumption improves foreign language fluency, as is evident in anecdotal evidence from numerous discussions in social and popular media.” And in welcome news for holiday drinkers (not to mention language students) everywhere, it turns out that, at least at moderate levels, this belief seems to be right.
To test the effect of alcohol on foreign language skills, Renner and his fellow researchers recruited 50 German students in their second year of an undergraduate degree in psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Maastricht is close to the German border and the university attracts many German students, all of whom must pass a Dutch language exam before they can attend.
To begin, the students drank either 250ml of chilled water or 250ml of bitter lemon and enough vodka to generate a moderate blood alcohol concentration of about 0.04 per cent (the precise amount of vodka varied, according to gender and body weight). About 15 minutes after finishing the drink – by which time alcohol would have been absorbed into the bloodstream – the students were instructed to argue either for or against animal testing in Dutch, for two minutes. Two native Dutch speakers, who didn’t know which students had drunk what, rated the students’ language performance in terms of overall quality, understandability, vocabulary, pronunciation, word selection and fluency. Finally, the students completed an arithmetic task.
Renner and his colleagues predicted that while alcohol might increase the students’ perceptions of how well they’d spoken in Dutch, they would in fact perform worse, based on the judges’ ratings, than the students who’d drunk water.
But this isn’t what they found. The vodka drinkers didn’t rate their own language performance any higher than the water-drinkers did. Neither did they do any worse on the arithmetic task. But they did receive better scores for their Dutch language skills, both overall and specifically for pronunciation.
Why might this be? Some people feel nervous when speaking in a foreign language. It may be that the anxiety-reducing effects of a relatively small amount of alcohol improved their performance, but this needs further investigation.
“The findings of this study need replication in future studies, testing participants learning languages other than Dutch and varying the amount of alcohol that is consumed to further explore the effects of acute alcohol consumption on foreign language proficiency,” Renner and his fellow researchers concluded. At least, it shouldn’t be too tricky to find students willing to volunteer.
As the researchers noted in their paper, however, the amount of alcohol will be important in determining effects. The level in this study equated to a drink or two. As anyone who’s ever drunk more than that knows, at higher levels, slurring sets in.