With words, syllables and letters that are often pronounced very differently to English, learning a foreign language can be difficult at the best of times. Yet, help may be near to hand. New research has found that a low dose of alcohol can perhaps help improve our foreign language skills.
While we all know how alcohol impairs both cognitive and motor functions, it also has an effect on ‘executive functions’ – such as the ability to remember, focus and prevent inappropriate behaviour.
Although alcohol impairs these abilities, which are essential when using a non-native language, booze also reduces social anxiety and increases self confidence. Some, including many bilingual speakers, believe this actually helps to improve their ability in the second language.
A group of researchers from the University of Liverpool, King’s College London, and Maastricht University in the Netherlands put these opposing beliefs to the test. 50 native German speakers studying at Maastricht, who had recently learned to speak, read and write in Dutch, were given either a low dose of alcohol (equivalent to about a pint of beer at 5% vol for a 70kg male – this varied according to body weight) or an alcohol-free drink before talking to a researcher in Dutch for a couple of minutes.
The conversations were recorded and were then rated both by the participants themselves and two native Dutch speakers, who were unaware whether those participating had consumed alcohol or not.
The two Dutch observers gave much higher ratings to participants who had consumed alcohol, especially with regard to pronunciation. The participants’ own ratings of their foreign language abilities were not affected.
According to the University of Liverpool’s Dr Inge Kersbergen, who was involved in the study, the results give ‘some support’ for the attitude among bilinguals that a low dose of alcohol can improve their second language abilities.
That’s not to say that you should go rushing to the pub before your next language class, however. Dr Fritz Renner, a Maastricht researcher who was part of the team conducting the study, stressed that participants only consumed a ‘low dose’ of alcohol, and warned that ‘higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects’.