We’ve often heard that when a person has had a few drinks, their verbal abilities in a foreign language increase. But to what extent is this true?
It’s well known that alcohol consumption impairs human behaviour, including cognitive and linguistic processes. The speech of a person under the influence of alcohol can often be used as an indicator of how intoxicated they are.
Several studies have been carried out to determine the extent to which alcohol consumption can affect verbal abilities in a foreign language. Some of the more significant studies on the topic include the following:
In 1972, Guiora and colleagues conducted a study in which a group of people were asked to repeat words in a foreign language after consuming varying amounts of alcohol. Researchers found that at low levels of alcohol, pronunciation was slightly better than that of a sober control group, but that as the amount of alcohol increased, articulation decreased considerably.
In 2014, E. Tisljár-Szabó, a member of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Debrecen University, carried out another study entitled “The Effect of Alcohol on Speech Production” in which he asked Hungarian speakers under the influence of alcohol to repeat a difficult sentence in Hungarian containing words in a foreign language. Speakers under the influence of alcohol made more errors than those who had not consumed alcohol, but pronunciation of the foreign words was apparently unaffected.
In 2018, researchers from the University of Liverpool and Maastricht University in the Netherlands conducted a study to test the effects of acute alcohol consumption on verbal performance in foreign languages in participants who had just learned the language. They set up a group of native German speakers who were learning Dutch as a foreign language. The study comprised two groups, one in which participants were given water to drink and the other in which they were asked to consume alcohol. Each person was instructed to have a casual, two-minute conversation with an interviewer in Dutch.
Participants who consumed alcohol scored significantly higher conversational scores than those having consumed water. There were no significant differences in scores for grammar, vocabulary, or reasoning.
According to the researchers, this result may be attributed to the disinhibiting effect of alcohol, which reduces participants’ language anxiety and therefore increase proficiency, enabling them to speak a second language more fluently. For some experts, this conclusion is unsupported, as no measurement of anxiety levels was carried out during the study.
One of the most recent studies was published in 2020 in the journal “Language and Speech.” This study was carried out by researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Macquarie University, Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and the University of Potsdam in Germany. The aim was to assess the effect of alcohol consumption on native versus second language pronunciation as a function of native accent level.
The results obtained were as follows:
It was observed that at higher levels of alcohol intoxication, native language pronunciation was more impaired than second language pronunciation. This can be attributed to a reduction in fine motor control under the influence of alcohol. The more foreign languages a participant spoke, the better his or her pronunciation scores were in both Dutch and English. No significant relationship was shown between alcohol consumption and English pronunciation, nor were there any significant changes in language anxiety levels.
The researchers presented two hypotheses to explain these results. The first concerns language articulation. The subconscious language rules governing the pronunciation of one’s mother tongue always have an influence on the pronunciation of a second language, as speakers use their native pronunciation patterns when speaking a second language, resulting in non-native accents. As alcohol consumption impairs one’s ability to speak in his or her native tongue, the influence of one’s native pronunciation on a foreign language also decreases. The second hypothesis is that bilinguals have a different pronunciation system for each language they know, thereby increasing their performance across the board, even while intoxicated.
An interesting finding of this study is that the more foreign languages a person speaks, the better his or her pronunciation score. According to the researchers, this suggests that multilingual people have more developed fine motor language skills.
In conclusion, we cannot state with certainty that moderate alcohol consumption improves our ability to speak a foreign language. It may affect the way we speak our mother tongue, by modifying speed and articulation, but it does not substantially affect speech in a foreign language. According to researchers, this is more likely to be influenced by factors such as the speaker's grasp of the foreign language in question. However, we can’t ignore the fact that having a glass of wine might make us feel less self-conscious about speaking a foreign language and more willing to engage in relaxed conversation in a foreign tongue.
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