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Alcohol and a foreign language: why we speak English better under pressure


Alina Prikhodko

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There is a very interesting myth among those who study English. Many people believe that a glass of wine or a glass of beer, drunk before class, improves the perception of a foreign language and generally helps to learn it. Habr investigated whether alcohol really improves a person’s ability to learn languages.

The topic of alcohol is so popular in the scientific community that there are more than a thousand large-scale studies of its effect on humans. And if excessive consumption of alcohol (over 30 grams of pure alcohol per day) is clearly harmful to health, then debates about its moderate intake are still ongoing. Note that the results are very different.

For example, research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that a glass of red wine a day reduces the risks of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis. But another study claims that the same glass of wine increases the risk of seven types of cancer.

Despite all the ambiguity, alcohol is considered an excellent socializer. Let's look at its action at the physiological level.

Alcohol: what happens to the body

In total, there are about 80 types of neurotransmitters in the human brain, which at the chemical level transmit signals in the nervous system. And each has its own type of receptor. Alcohol is one of the most psychoactive substances. It binds to most receptors and affects almost all neurons.

On the subject: Why is it easier to learn a third language than a second: how the brains of polyglots work

When drinking alcohol, the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor is the first to be activated. It is one of the brain's four "switches" that are activated during sleep. When it turns on alone, the body relaxes, anxiety decreases, and the person becomes liberated.

At the same time, the hormonal system is activated, which activates the production of the hormones dopamine, serotonin and endorphin. They are responsible for good mood, pleasure and an increased level of empathy.

But at the same time, alcohol is a powerful sedative. When the effect of the hormonal explosion stops, the person becomes sleepy. There is no point in considering the effect of alcohol in large doses. The harm to health will cover all the hypothetical benefits for learning English.

The truth about English "under the fly"

There are two main factors that, in theory, can help with English:

  1. A moderate dose of alcohol liberates a person and increases his sociality. Communication becomes easier. This is especially important if a person has a psychological barrier to speaking a foreign language.

  2. The hormones dopamine, serotonin and endorphin are an important part of the memory process. The more pleasure a person gets in the process of learning information, the faster it enters permanent memory.

We emphasize: it is a moderate dose. If the amount of alcohol in the blood is more than 1 ppm, the effect will be exactly the opposite. Instead of sociability, irritability and aggression will appear, and instead of improved memory functioning, it will completely turn off.


Dutch scientists conducted research, where the direct effects of alcohol on language abilities were studied. To test the hypothesis, they took 50 German students who were studying Dutch at Maastricht University.

It is important to understand here that the recipients already spoke Dutch at the C1 or Advanced level, that is, they could maintain a coherent conversation on complex topics. At the same time, they were not tolerant of alcohol - in the questionnaire, all students wrote that they consumed less than three drinks of alcohol per week, but were not convinced teetotalers.

The research methodology is quite simple. The Germans were divided into two groups: one was given doping in the form of several doses of alcohol, and the second took part in the experiment sober. Next, a standard “blind” discussion was held with native speakers. The natives did not see their interlocutors and could not assess whether they drank alcohol or not. The results were assessed in terms of speech literacy, constructions used and accent.

Next, the subjects reviewed their own recordings of dialogues and rated them according to the same criteria. It turned out that native speakers rated the language abilities of the doped Germans much better. Tangible improvements were observed in accent and speech coherence. There were no major differences in vocabulary or constructions used, and this is not surprising. At the same time, the subjects themselves assessed the dialogues “before” and “after” absolutely equally according to all criteria.

Interestingly, research into the effects of alcohol on language learning has been going on for at least 50 years. Eat research 1972, where Americans tested the hypothesis that alcohol has a better effect on memorizing words and articulation of a foreign language. For the purity of the experiment, they took Thai, which not a single recipient knew. The results turned out to be approximately the same: drunk people pronounced words closer to the original, but at the same time remembered them worse.

On the subject: Six funny English idioms that will make you laugh

In the year 2021 fresh researche about the impact of alcohol on learning foreign languages. In it, scientists analyzed the influence of alcohol-containing substances on both native and foreign languages. The results turned out to be extremely interesting: alcohol has different effects on the native and target languages. If with a foreign accent the accent is actually smoothed out a little, then with a native one, on the contrary, it becomes stronger. Why this happens, one can only speculate. This is a topic for a separate study.

To drink or not to drink: conclusions

After processing all the studies found, it can be argued that 1-2 doses of alcohol in most cases have a positive effect on speaking skills in a foreign language. The main reason is that with the help of alcohol it is easier for a person to overcome embarrassment and social boundaries. Yes, that very “language barrier”, which is formally considered a set of psychological restrictions.

However, there were some “buts”

  • Firstly, a person must already know a foreign language at a level that allows him to communicate freely with native speakers, that is, not lower than Upper-Intermediate. Otherwise, alcohol won't work. This is not a magic pill; he cannot suddenly increase his vocabulary.

  • Secondly, we are talking specifically about one or several doses of alcohol. If it is more, the effect will be the opposite.

  • Thirdly, you won’t be able to learn new words and grammar “on the fly.” At all. Alcohol depresses the part of the brain that controls memory. And even a strong hormonal explosion is not able to overcome the sedative effect. Under normal conditions, the combination of serotonin and dopamine has a great effect on memory, but this does not work with alcohol.

As for accent improvement, we have no idea why this happens—and neither do researchers.

One possible reason is that alcohol reduces the subconscious influence of the native language on the foreign language. “Turns off” identity, so to speak, so the articulatory apparatus better adapts to the accent of the speakers. But this explanation is too vague to be accepted as true. We are confident that this topic will definitely become central in future research.

So it turns out that alcohol can serve as a dope in order to speak a foreign language better. But you won’t be able to use it for study – it is still harmful to the body. So having a drink before class is a bad idea.

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