‘Santé!’ Wine May Improve Foreign Language Skills

A recent study finds that a small amount of alcohol could give new meaning to the phrase “Dutch courage”
‘Santé!’ Wine May Improve Foreign Language Skills
A glass of Champagne may help your tongue remember French. (iStock/Anyakerbut)
Nov 17, 2017

Next time you want to impress others with your knowledge of trockenbeerenauslesen, you might want to take a few sips of one before you attempt to pronounce it. A small-scale study published Oct. 18 in the Journal of Pharmacology shows that drinking a small amount of alcohol could improve fluency in a foreign language, and offers some insight as to why.

It might seem counterintuitive that alcohol—notorious for affecting memory and impairing motor and cognitive functions—would be helpful with mastering a second language. But booze is also known to boost confidence and lower inhibitions, thus providing the push one might need to overcome nerves and show off linguistic abilities.

For the study, a team of researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands recruited 50 native German speakers studying at Maastricht University, located in the Netherlands near the German border. Each participant had learned to read, write and speak in Dutch, and had recently passed an exam to prove it.

Participants were asked to hold a two-minute, recorded conversation in Dutch with an interviewer. Before the chat, half the participants were given some water to drink, while the others were given one alcoholic beverage. (Exact measurements of alcohol varied by each participant's gender and body weight.) To avoid bias, the interviewer was not informed who drank water or who drank the alcohol.

Immediately after the conversation, participants rated their own performances based on vocabulary, pronunciation, word selection, understandability, fluency and overall quality. Though the researchers hypothesized that the "liquid courage" would cause the group that consumed alcohol to overinflate their performance, their scores did not significantly differ from those of the control group.

But it seems the alcohol drinkers might not have given themselves enough credit. After the tests concluded, the conversations were played for two native Dutch speakers to evaluate. Blind to the test conditions, they scored each recording based on the same criteria used in the self-assessments. As it turns out, those that had the alcohol performed "significantly better" than the control group, especially when it came to pronunciation.

But why did a bit of booze help with this particular task? Thanks to the self-assessment portion, we know that the participants who drank didn't necessarily feel more confident than those who did not, so we can't attribute all of their success to "Dutch courage."

However, the study authors speculate that alcohol's tension-reducing properties may help alleviate language anxiety, which is associated with feelings of unease and apprehension when learning or using another language. The researchers are calling for more studies to test this theory further.

In any case, it sounds like a good excuse to try out the local lingo on your next wine-country adventure abroad, non? Or as the Dutch say, nee.

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