Speaking a foreign language is one of the most ego-threatening situations you can get into. All your self-confidence suddenly dissolves in the toxins produces by your struggling with conjugations brain, and there you are: feeling small, stupid and useless.
And if you’ve ever found yourself in that situation, you probably know that about the escape route called “go have a drink and put an end to this agony”. Before; not after. For some reason, the alcohol – with all its well-known negative effects on memory, learning, and attention – helps people speak a foreign language better.
Does alcohol helps you to speak a foreign language better?
This belief seems to have lived forever in the mind of avid language learners. However, you can imagine the scepticism with which it was received in the scientific world.
Alcohol. Better pronunciation. In foreign language. Rrrrrrrrright.
I would rather believe in leprechauns.
Nevertheless, in 1972, a bold team of psychologists lead by Alexander Guiora decided to test this hypothesis and explore the marvelous effects of the alcohol on the foreign language pronunciation skills of students from the University of Michigan.1
Alcohol effects on speaking a foreign language
This research team chose about thirty undergrads and offered them some cocktails. Depending on individual luck, each participant gulped down either one, one-and-a-half, two and three ounces of liquor or a “virgin” version of a beverage.
I must say that professors went about the bartending art very seriously. They selected 90-proof varieties of rum and cognac and garnished their cocktails “with a cherry and a twist of lemon peel“. (No joke, I’m citing the original article here).
Once again, applauds to the faculty.
After enjoying their cocktails, students were taken away and tested on their ability to pronounce Thai words. Neither of them actually spoke Thai before (and it is not the easiest language to learn, in any case). But that’s precisely what scientists were assessing: the ability to pick up a native-speaker pronunciation in a random foreign language.
And that’s right! Acute doses of alcohol (namely, 1.5 oz) made “impaired” students speak a foreign language better as compared to sober ones! Precision mattered, however. Just another 0.5 oz dissolved in the learners’ bloodstream already affected their pronunciation adversely.
But hold on pulling out your jigger; there is a second part to this story.
The Dutch courage: real and perceived effects of the alcohol
Another paper on the alcohol and language learning came out fairly recently (in 2017). Masstricht University in Netherlands decided to replicate Guiora’s study and dig a bit deeper into the causes of “the jigger effect“. 2
They found 50 bilingual PSYC students, all native speakers of German with a decent proficiency level in Dutch. The history repeated itself. The lucky half of participants enjoyed a long drink (Smirnoff & Bitter Lemon, uh-huh) while their less lucky counterparts tasted chilled water. After that, both groups had a short one-to-one interview in Dutch… about animal testing. (I wouldn’t want to deal with this even after a shot.)
When it was over, students were asked to fill a self-assessment questionnaire on how they felt about their foreign language abilities in general and pronunciation in particular. Researchers really hoped that “drunkards” would overestimate their Dutch conversation skills. This would turn the “drinking-leads-to-fluency” phenomenon from a scientific mystery into a mere perceptual bias of impaired language learners.
But what a disappointment! Both groups were equally fairly precise in their self-reports. Thus, the theory that alcohol simply plays with learners’ perception failed to prove right. In reality, the alcohol does much, much more…
(Also, if reading this kind of studies makes you thinking that you chose a wrong university to study in, you are not alone.)
How alcohol makes you speak a foreign language better?
So both studies demonstrated that a small dose of alcohol helps in achieving a native-like pronunciation. It also increases conversational fluency and leads to a better performance on oral production tasks.
But I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard a totally different story. Like that the alcohol drugs the hypothalamus and leads to executive function impairment, shut-downs of inhibitor control and memory blackouts. And all this is supported by scientific studies as well.
So what’s the matter with this sudden enhancement of your Spanish conversational fluency after a shot of tequila in that shady bar on the periphery of Mexico-city?
Alcohol, ego permeability and language learning
It doesn’t have much to do with the executive function per se (on the prescribed 1.5 oz level, of course). Rather the alcohol alters your ego functioning or, to be more specific, a psychological variable called “ego permeability“. The latter is responsible for empathy (which is your ability to “give up separateness of identity from others”).
Interestingly enough, empathy as a personal trait and the ability to “speak like a native” were found to be positively correlated. And it makes perfect sense. Learning another language is, in some way, like taking on a new identity. It comes down to associating yourself with a new culture and accepting new behaviours.
And this is there this shot of tequila comes into play.
By lowering inhibitions, the alcohol temporarily alters ego boundaries which, in turn, makes your a more empathic person. At least for a while! But during this “little while” you enjoy all the benefits of individuals with high ego permeability, including more authentic pronunciation.
This positive picture should be followed by a word of warning, though.
It all d-d-d-depends: one shot later
First of all, it all melts down to choosing a right shot glass and downing a precise portion of the alcohol.
And this portion is not six pints of Heineken, sorry.
You may speak a foreign language better after having a cocktail containing 1 to 1.5 oz of your favorite liquor. What you don’t want to do, however, is asking a bartender to repeat. Already, at 2 oz, the performance of Guiora’s students dropped way below the “control” level. And even if they felt that Thai words flew out of their mouth like birds on a sunny day, in reality, it certainly wasn’t the case.
So being drunk doesn’t make you fluent, believe it or not.
And second, small doses of the alcohol do loosen your tongue but only temporarily. No one, obviously, even thought about measuring how long these marvelous effects tend to last for – which is a terrible oversight, of course. But what can you do?
So instead of blindly betting on a magic potion, you’re better off dealing with the problem responsibly. And there’s indeed a number of ways to lower inhibition together with the affective filter in foreign language speaking situations. Practicing with an online language teacher, going to the Polyglot club or just routinely annoying your Spanish-speaking friends with “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” are only some of such ways.
And accepting the fact that it’s fine feeling stupid and useless when you speak your L2 will make you even a greater favor.
Image credits: Photo by Bobby Rodriguezz on Unsplash.
- Alexander Z., Guiora, et al. “The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study.“ Comprehensive Psychiatry, vol. 13, no. 5, 1972, pp. 421-428
- Renner, Fritz, et al. “Dutch Courage? Effects of Acute Alcohol Consumption on Self-Ratings and Observer Ratings of Foreign Language Skills.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 116–122, doi:10.1177/0269881117735687.