A new study shows that small doses of alcohol can improve bilingual speakers’ ability to talk in a non-native language. However, the team points out that larger doses could actually impair this ability.

Beer.

Image credits Artur Czyżewski.

Anyone who’s ever become inebriated can attest that alcohol throws a wrench in your brains’ efforts to think and keep control over your body’s movements. Particularly affected are the brain’s ‘executive functions’, a set of processes that include attention, memory recall, or the ability to discern between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and inhibit the latter. Given that executive functions are important in higher cognitive processes — which include talking in a foreign language — it should follow that alcohol would impair your ability to talk another language.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case

Researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University, and King’s College London, have shown that low doses of alcohol can, in fact, help your tongue loosen up.

The team tested what effect a low dose of alcohol would have on participants’ self-rated and observer-rated ability to talk in a foreign language. The trial included 50 students, all native German speakers studying at the Maastricht University who had recently learned to speak, read, and write in Dutch.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first were given a low dose of alcohol to drink, while the control group received a non-alcoholic beverage. Alcohol doses varied depending on each participant’s body weight and were equivalent to 460 ml (just under a pint) of 5% beer for a 70kg (154lb) male. Afterwards, each participant was asked to hold a conversation with a native Dutch speaker for a few minutes.

The conversations were audio recorded, and each participant’s skill at Dutch was rated by two native speakers who didn’t know if they had consumed alcohol or not (observer ratings). The participants were also asked to rate their own proficiency at speaking Dutch (self ratings).

Loose-lipped

Overall, the team reports that the participants in the alcohol group received significantly better observer ratings for their Dutch. In particular, observers said they had better pronunciation compared to the control group. The team reports there was no similar difference in self-ratings.

“Our study shows that acute alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language in people who recently learned that language,” says paper co-author Dr Inge Kersbergen, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.

“This provides some support for the lay belief (among bilingual speakers) that a low dose of alcohol can improve their ability to speak a second language”

The team, however, notes that the participants consumed only a low dose of alcohol and that higher levels “might not have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language.”

Dr Fritz Renner who was one of the researchers who conducted the study at Maastricht University, said: “It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol. Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language.”

“We need to be cautious about the implications of these results until we know more about what causes the observed results,” says Dr Jessica Werthmann from Maastricht University, the paper’s corresponding author.

The paper “Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills” has been published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

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