Learning a new language is all fun and games until somebody asks you to speak it. Spanish class, 4th period, every day for three years. We started out with the basics, of course—I learned all of the colors and animals; then we moved on to elementary verbs; and then to verb tenses and phrases and suddenly I’m learning about famous Spanish artists like Frida Kahlo, because I’m so fluent there’s not much left to learn.

‘Well then, let’s hear it!’ the very words that froze me to my core, spoken by my friend at lunch one afternoon. He wanted me to demonstrate my self-proclaimed expertise in front of everybody. But all that managed to come out were a few phrases—well, that along with visible hesitation and a self-doubting voice.

I was confident in my Spanish-speaking abilities on paper, but I was self-conscious when confronted with the opportunity to actually speak it. What could have increased my self-confidence and reduced my social anxiety, which both proved detrimental to my delivery? At the time I was only 16, but in present day, a very small amount of alcohol just might do the trick. A new study “Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills” published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology shows that consuming a small dose of alcohol can improve an individual’s ability to speak a second language.

The fact that alcohol impairs our cognitive and motor functions, such as our memory and ability to act appropriately, is a well-known one. Now, considering this fact, many assume that alcohol would also hinder one’s ability to speak a second language. But others hold the opposite hypothesis: that alcohol may improve someone’s ability to speak another language, due to an increased self-confidence and reduced social anxiety. Researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University, and King’s College London decided to settle the debate and put these two predictions to the test.

This team of researchers recruited 50 participants, all of whom were native German speakers learning to speak, write, and read Dutch. Some were given small amounts of alcohol, while others were given a control drink with no alcohol, and then they each spoke with a researcher in Dutch. It’s important to note that the exact amount of alcohol varied based on each individual’s weight; however, it was comparable to just under a pint of 5% beer for a 155-pound male.

Each conversation was recorded so that two native Dutch speakers could then listen and rate the subjects’ Dutch-speaking skills—they did not know which participants had consumed alcohol and which hadn’t. The subjects also rated their own foreign language skills displayed in their conversation. Upon analyzing the results, the research team found that those who had consumed the alcoholic drink were rated more highly by the native Dutch speakers; more specifically, they had better pronunciation than did those who didn’t consume any alcohol. Alcohol did not, however, appear to have an effect on self-ratings.

“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,” explains one of the authors of the study Dr. Inge Kersbergen from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society. “This provides some support for the lay belief that a low dose of alcohol can improve [bilingual speakers’] ability to speak a second language.” There is, however, a need for further research to identify and explain what exactly caused these results. Was it, indeed, because of the confidence boost and anxiety relief that alcohol provides? This is not yet clear, but future studies are sure to delve into the possibilities.

Source: University of Liverpool “Dutch Courage: Alcohol Improves Foreign Language Skills.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 October 2017.

Original Research: Abstract for “Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills” by Fritz Renner, Inge Kersbergen, Matt Field, and Jessica Werthmann in Journal of Psychopharmacology. Published online October 18 2017 doi:10.1177/0269881117735687