“On the one hand, we know that alcohol consumption has negative effects on executive functioning and cognitive functioning which is necessary for language production,” Fritz Renner, lead author and a post-doctoral student in emotional disorders at the University of Cambridge, told Seeker. “[But] there is a popular belief among foreign language learners that alcohol improves their foreign language. There are two seemingly opposing positions that makes it interesting to test.”
Study participants included 50 native German speakers who are students at Maastricht where they recently learned to speak, read, and write in Dutch.
For the trials, each participant drank a beverage that was either alcoholic or non-alcoholic without knowing which one they were consuming. The amount of alcohol consumed by a subject was adjusted to the person’s height and body weight, but was equivalent to a 154-pound-man drinking a little less than one pint of beer.
Afterwards, two native Dutch speakers, who did not know if the subject had consumed an alcoholic drink, observed the students speaking Dutch. Each subject also rated their own language skills.
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Nearly every participant who consumed alcohol before speaking Dutch was given a higher rating than those who did not. The native speakers rated them particularly high on their pronunciation.
“The [speakers] received higher ratings on an overall rating scale,” Renner said. “But when looking at specific ratings, pronunciation was higher in the alcohol group.”
The alcohol did not affect self-ratings. People rated themselves on their language skills the same with or without alcohol.
It’s a long-held assumption that we can speak a foreign language better after a few drinks, the study authors noted, and this research partially supports that idea. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the dosage of alcohol was very low. Drinking more may not have the same benefits. Researchers have studied the effects of alcohol on speech for years, with most studies showing that intoxication causes a speaker to slur their words and make errors even in their native language.
Speaking a foreign language proficiently requires a certain level of confidence, particularly in front of native speakers. The study concludes that alcohol’s ability to reduce anxiety may be one reason it seems to help language learners, but more research is needed.
Renner said he doesn’t plan to personally study the effects of alcohol on speech further but, “replication by other researchers will be important.”
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