If you're in the midst of learning a new language, speaking can be the hardest part. Conjugating verbs and thinking up vocabulary on the fly isn't easy, even if you've been studying a foreign language for a while. A new study suggests that a little Dutch courage can go a long way when it comes to speaking in a new language, though, as Time reports.
The new research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, asked 50 German-speaking students who recently passed the university's Dutch-as-a-second-language exam to get their drink on in the lab to see if they would be better or worse at speaking once they were drunk.
Part of the key to speaking a foreign language has to do with the brain's inhibitory control abilities. To speak a second language, your brain has to filter out the words you would use in your first language. Since drinking lowers your inhibitory control, it would stand to reason that booze would make your language skills worse rather than better.
For the study, some of the participants were given Smirnoff vodka and bitter lemon to drink, while others drank water. They then were breathalyzed to see if they had reached a certain blood alcohol level (around 0.4 percent, or about half of the legal limit for driving in the U.S.) and asked to talk about animal testing with a Dutch experimenter for two minutes. The conversation was recorded, then played back for two native Dutch speakers who graded the speakers on their speaking skills. The participants self-rated their speaking performance at the end of their speech, as well as taking a self-esteem test before and after. And to make sure their change in skill level was language specific, they also had to do some arithmetic for two minutes.
The students who got tipsy before speaking Dutch fared "significantly better" than the sober students in the eyes of the evaluators, who couldn't tell from the audio who was drunk or not. (They did not get any better or worse at arithmetic, though.)
Drunk people are apt to overestimate their own abilities, but in this study, the improvement wasn't in the participants' heads. In fact, they didn't perceive themselves to be speaking better when asked to self-evaluate. But according to the native Dutch speakers grading them, they were better speakers and had better pronunciation than the sober volunteers.
The researchers suggest that the improvement could be due to reduced anxiety over speaking a foreign language. Previous studies have found that students who are really anxious about speaking a foreign language tend to perform worse than students who aren't as anxious about it, so a little alcohol might loosen you up just enough to let you get past your fears of mispronunciation and botched cases to actually have a conversation.
The alcohol level was so low, though, that it's hard to extrapolate whether the result would be the same if people got more drunk; slurring your words certainly isn't the key to better pronunciation. And the study only tested Germans learning Dutch, so the results might not apply to all languages. Both languages are Germanic, so there are some similarities. It would be interesting to see whether the results would hold up across languages that aren't as closely related, like perhaps Punjabi and English or Chinese and Finnish. However, a 1972 study [PDF] on English speakers' drunken ability to pronounce unfamiliar words in Thai, a language that they had never studied, found that a little bit of booze can have a positive impact on foreign pronunciation, so it's not out of the question.
Notably, this is the first study to look at people's ability to drunkenly bumble through a language they had actually spent time studying. The case for getting a little tipsy with your language tutor just got a little stronger, though.