The Effect of Alcohol on Language Learning

It doesn’t take long for some folks to get bored with what they’re doing and decide to throw alcohol into the mix. But do alcohol and language learning really mix?

Many humans are desperate to find any redeeming qualities of alcohol consumption; from the glass of wine a day maxim, to alcohol improves your sex life, to drinking helps you speak foreign languages better. Wait, what’s that last one? Actually, it’s true, the effects of alcohol on second language learning have been well documented and it turns out that small amounts can help; but before we all get tight on absinth and do foreign language tricks, let’s take a closer look at the research.

One of the most famous studies, and as far as I know one of the first, was conducted by Guiora et al. at the University of Michigan in the early 70’s. Back then they were emerging from under the umbrella of the audio-lingual method of language education, which overemphasized pronunciation in second language learning. Yet even though they were operating under a whole other TESOL paradigm in the 70’s, their findings are still of value. The groundwork for the study was this: They theorized that learning a new language was like taking on a new identity, and the more you were willing to adapt to this new identity the more accurately you would be able to pronounce the sounds of the language you were learning. They hypothesized that if a learner could increase their empathy toward their interlocutor they would more easily transition into this new identity and would therefore improve their pronunciation. The final element was they hypothesized that alcohol would induce this empathy in a subject. Thus the groundwork for an experiment is laid.

The actual experiment involved several university students who were given some basic instruction in a foreign language. Some of the students were then given alcohol and some were given a placebo (yes, this means they were given ‘fake’ alcohol and simply thought they were drunk) and they were given pronunciation tests in this new language. To be accurate, they had to choose a language that had very different sounds than English. Luckily there was a young Ph.D. student at the university, finishing up his dissertation, who had been born in Asia and was fluent in a Thai. This man was psycholinguist Tom Scovel. He taught the students some Thai and then monitored their pronunciation after they increased their empathy (my new favorite euphemism).

“I’m going downtown with the boys to increase my empathy”

The result was that after 1 or 2 drinks the subjects’ Thai pronunciation significantly increased. (That’s the statistical significance of course, and not a superlative.) So yes, at about 1 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol consumption we become better at pronouncing foreign sounds. Any more than that, and you can probably guess, our pronunciation decreases dramatically as we begin to slur our words. But what does that really mean? The experiment wasn’t actually designed to see if alcohol consumption improved pronunciation; it was designed to see if empathy (and by proxy, the willingness to assume a new identity) increased pronunciation ability. Alcohol was merely the tool they used to induce empathy. Of course when the study was published, it was immediately marketed by journalists as “alcohol helps you learn foreign languages!”, which isn’t entirely true, but I suppose if you’re trying to trick people into reading your article it’s the way to go.

So those initial effects of alcohol, where we feel friendlier than usual and maybe a bit less inhibited are good for language learning but we don’t have to rely on alcohol to bring that side of us out. Some people have a natural tendency towards the “language ego” and take up the identity a new language offers easily. Those who aren’t so open to identity-malleability may need help from language teachers.

Role play can be a key classroom activity to help students take on new identities; when students are pretending to be a different person (e.g. a waiter taking an order, a doctor diagnosing an illness) it is an opportunity for them to experiment with language identity as well. Also, teachers who can create a classroom environment where students feel safe in their language use (i.e. willing to make mistakes) will undoubtedly be less inhibited and friendlier. And for learners themselves, finding low stress situations to practice your language can help, such as speaking with anonymous strangers on the internet on language exchange sites.

Overall, second language acquisition is a complex thing with a lot of affective and social variables, adding alcohol into the mix probably isn’t the best thing. Instead, be knowledgeable and open minded about how learning a second language affects your identity, and use that knowledge and open-mindedness to be a more adaptive learner.

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