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A little booze gives an edge to students learning a foreign language

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Drinking and learning do mix, up to a point. Photo: Getty


Alcohol — in moderation — helps with learning a new language.

This counter-intuitive notion makes sense from at least one angle. A drink can lower inhibitions, which may make it easier for some people to overcome nervousness or hesitation.

But alcohol also impairs cognitive motor functions, memory and attention. It also leads to overconfidence and inflated self-evaluations.

{ Related: Learning a new language without paying attention )

To bridge these realities, British and Dutch researchers conducted an experiment, published the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Subjects in the study really did speak more fluently after a low dose of alcohol — even when they didn’t think so themselves.

The study included 50 native German speakers who were studying Dutch at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands near the border with Germany. They all said they drank alcohol at least sometimes, and, because their classes were taught in Dutch, had recently passed an exam demonstrating proficiency in the language.

Each person was asked to have a casual, two-minute conversation with an interviewer in Dutch. Before that chat, half were given water to drink, while the other half were given an alcoholic beverage.

Not much booze, but just enough for their weight. A 150-pound man, for example, drank just under a pint of beer.

The conversations were scored by two native Dutch speakers who weren’t aware which people had consumed alcohol. The participants were also asked to self-score their own performances.

Surprisingly or not, the low dose of alcohol had no effect on the speakers’ self-evaluation. But the blind judges awarded higher fluency and pronounciation scores to the ones who drank.

Grammar, vocabulary and argumentation were similar between the two groups.

Researchers note in their paper that drinking too much can have the exact opposite effect on fluency and speech.

What we don’t know is whether the effect was biological or psychological. Previous studies have shown that people who think they’re drinking alcohol can experience similar levels of impairment as those drinking the real thing.

“Future research on this topic should include an alcohol placebo condition,” the authors write, “to disentangle the relative impact of pharmacological vs. expectancy effects.”

This research supports a 1972 study that concluded small doses of alcohol improved Americans’ pronunciation of words in Thai.

It’s possible that a low-to-moderate dose of alcohol “reduces language anxiety” and therefore increases proficiency. “This might enable foreign language speakers to speak more fluently in the foreign language after drinking a small amount of alcohol,” they conclude.

Source: Time

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