Drinking alcohol can help with foreign language skills, study finds

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Anna Brech
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Mezzo litro di vino rosso, per favore

Ein Bier bitte

Un kir, s'il vous plait

It’s funny how our foreign language skills seem to come into their own a few wines down. In the morning, we’re a bit awkward and stutter-y just ordering a latte. But come evening, somewhere north of aperitif time, and we’re suddenly doing our secondary school Madame proud.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence; a new study has found that our pronunciation prowess improves with a small amount of alcohol.

Though we know booze impairs cognitive function, the research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that less than a pint per person is enough to enhance pronunciation in foreign languages.

alcohol helps fluency foreign language pronunciation
One glass of vin rosé, and suddenly she was fluent

Researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King’s College London studied 50 native German speakers who were studying in the Netherlands, and had recently learnt to talk Dutch.

The group were given either a low-alcohol or non-alcoholic drink, before being asked to take part in a conversation with a Dutch experimenter. The exact dose of alcohol varied depending on participants' body weight, but it was equivalent to just under a pint for an average-sized male.

The exchanges were recorded and subsequently rated by two native Dutch speakers who did not know whether the volunteers had consumed alcohol or not.

The results showed that those who had consumed an alcoholic drink beforehand had significantly better pronunciation than their sober counterparts.

"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 Dr Inge Kersbergen, from the University of Liverpool's Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.

Which, yes, does mean that you have to have already learnt the language (wine may be delicious, but it’s not magic).

alcohol helps language skills
German women celebrating the country's annual Oktoberfest festivities

The results are interesting because we know that drinking alcohol impairs our executive functions, such as accuracy in memory and paying attention. Obviously, both are important in learning a language.

You might assume that the false sense of confidence provided by booze helped to enhance participants’ foreign language ability. However, the volunteers also rated their own language skills, and interestingly, this rating did not change whether they’d been drinking or not – suggesting self-confidence did not play a role in the results. 

Though Dr Jessica Werthmann, one of the researchers who conducted the study at Maastricht University, speculates that the low amount of alcohol may have reduced social anxiety – thus improving pronunciation. “One possible mechanism could be the anxiety-reducing effect of alcohol,” she says. “But more research is needed to test this."

Before you go knocking back the tequila shots in the name of fluency on your next trip abroad – take heed. 

"It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol,” says Dr Fritz Renner, another researcher from Maastricht University. “Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language.”

To which we say: santé.

Images: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.