Regular readers of this column (or just casual glancers at my bio) know I live abroad in Cyprus, a small Greek-speaking island in the Mediterranean. That means I've spent the last several years trying to master Greek.
It's been hard. I've taken various classes, engaged the help of tutors, googled language learning advice, and taken comfort in the fact that being both middle aged and an English speaker makes mastering a second language more difficult. But few of these efforts have really helped me speak more fluently with less anxiety.
You know what I've noticed does help? A glass or two of wine. Much like my bowling game, my Greek abilities seem to miraculously improve with a bit of alcohol before crashing precipitously if I overdo it. Am I just delusional? Does my Greek only sound better to me when I am half drunk?
I'm happy to report new science offers a definitive answer to this question, and I'm not crazy. Drinking a glass or so of your tipple of choice really will improve your second language abilities for a little while.
Get yourself some Dutch courage.
My new favorite study was carried out a few years ago by a group of European researchers and published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. To test the anecdotal evidence that a bit of "Dutch courage" temporarily improves language ability, the team rounded up 50 Germans who had recently learned Dutch. All in the name of science half of these volunteers drank a little less than a pint of beer (adjusted based on their body weight), while the other half got water.
Both the tipsy and sober participants then chatted away in Dutch. The researchers recorded their efforts and then handed the tapes off to independent native Dutch speakers to evaluate. What was the verdict of these impartial judges?
"Participants who had consumed alcohol had significantly better observer-ratings for their Dutch language, specifically better pronunciation, compared to those who had not consumed alcohol," the researchers found.
Why that might be isn't too hard to guess. Large amounts of alcohol, as we all know, makes you sloppy and dumb, but a drink or two is great for killing anxiety, and anxiety can be a huge stumbling block for those learning a foreign language. Essentially, a drink stops you from overthinking verb endings or worrying about sounding foolish, unlocking hidden language skills.
Other research suggests this explanation is right. Another study out of MIT highlighted by the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog found that worrying too much about grammar actually causes people to learn a new language slower. "If you're listening to another language, don't over-analyse it," is the blog's summation of the findings. It's very difficult to overanalyze anything after a glass of alcohol.
Which might also be why other studies have shown that similar small amounts of alcohol are also good for unleashing our creativity. Our anxious, controlling brains can get in the way of new ideas the same way they can get in the way of putting together a fluent sentence in a foreign language. A beer turns down the volume on that anxiety.
The inevitable caveat
I for one will keep this study in mind every time I am facing some social event where I need to speak Greek. Having that glass of wine really might help, and I have the science to prove it. But if you're planning on following my lead, I have to stress the inevitable caveat from the researchers: one beer is great. Four will just make you incoherent.
"It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol. Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects," Fritz Renner, one of the researchers behind the study, cautions the over-enthusiastic.
So use this study as a license to indulge a little without guilt. But only a little. Drinking in moderation really will make you a magically better foreign language speaker.