Alcohol and linguistic abilities

When I first arrived in England and I was struggling to understand and speak English, I noticed that my fluency increased noticeably after drinking some of the warm beer that my new friends seemed to like so much. I always assumed that it was because alcohol reduces inhibitions: you’re more relaxed, you don’t care so much about making mistakes and as a result, communication becomes easier.
Now I’m not so sure about my theory, however. Before my game on Wednesday with my new football team, I could scarcely understand my goalkeeper, born and bred in Leeds, who speaks with a very strong Northern accent, whereas afterwards, while celebrating our victory with a rehydrating beer, I spent a happy hour bantering with her without the need for an interpreter. I did a quick search on the Internet but couldn’t find any study on the relationship between alcohol and linguistic abilities. Anyone has any ideas?

By | 2008-06-30T11:52:01+00:00 June 30th, 2008|Language|11 Comments

About the Author:

Celine
I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

11 Comments

  1. Olli June 30, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Perhaps it has something to do with brain activity, which I guess is faster with alcohol. I had the same experience in Sweden while I was learning Swedish. When I was sober I couldn’t barely understand anyone, but with four or five beers, I could even talk a quite good swedish…
    Don’t know how it works. But if somebody studies this, I would like to collaborate as guinea pig (in the drinking part of the study :D)

  2. Tony June 30, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Well, maybe, but there is another factor: it’s like being witty—the more you drink the wittier you THINK you are but the more boring you are becoming, and if those around you are drinking level with you the more they laugh. So when you think you are gaining fluency in another languages, the chances are that you are actually becoming incoherent and so are your companions, but nobody cares because you’re all feeling good.
    And I am sorry to hear you repeating the calumny about warm English beer. You were probably drinking lager with students, which bears the same relationship to proper English beer-drinking that eating in McDonalds bears to eating at The Waterside Inn. Please go to http://omf.blogspot.com/2004/03/warm-beer.html to see who started this wicked lie.

  3. Manolis July 1, 2008 at 4:47 am

    You know when you’re daydreaming/thinking something through in your head and you think you’ve hit a eureka moment, as if everything falls into place, and then you go and write it down, tease the idea out, and realise it’s bonkers?
    Everything sounds better when it is not presented to the rational mind clearly and remains purely as a loose conglomeration of stuff.

  4. céline July 1, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Hang on a minute. This is not about me thinking I’m hilarious after a few beers (which I am, but that is another matter). I’m talking about the difference between not understanding a word of what someone says when I’m sober and being able to have a flowing conversation with her under the influence of a little bit of alcohol. Next game is tomorrow, I’ll see if the same thing happens again.
    Also, the warm beer. The beer I was used to in France was definitely colder than the beer that I started drinking in England, but that is probably due to the fact that I went from having continental lager (served around 4-7C) in France to ales and stouts (served around 8-12C – cellar temperature as Tony says in his informative post) in England. To me, the difference meant that it felt and tasted like warm in comparison to what I was used to. Or maybe I found it warm because I bought into the myth and I was expecting it to be warm.

  5. Tony July 1, 2008 at 9:45 am

    A graceful and entirely acceptable explanation, Céline, of why English beer struck you as warm.
    In case I come across as a miserable old spoilsport, I must tell you that nearly all my happy memories are of occasions when I was moderately or profoundly under the influence of booze. So there.
    But subjective impressions about what alcohol does to your brain are misleading. All research has shown beyond any doubt that it slows reflexes and impairs virtually every cognitive function, though we all know that we feel more capable in every way after we’ve had a few; this accounts for the increased confidence it gives us in speaking another language. And in everything else: a couple of G&Ts for the road and then we KNOW we are driving with more than our usual skill and élan, don’t we?
    Cheers!

  6. céline July 1, 2008 at 9:57 am

    It’s not just driving, Tony: I find my translations are greatly improved by the addition of a glass of wine or two in the creative process (To any potential client who may read this: JOKE. This is a JOKE.)

  7. gorka arce July 1, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    hi there!
    i experienced the same feeling while learning german. At the parties I could even make jokes in german sound funny (maybe everyone was drunk around me too). I definetely agree with Tony´s comment: The perception that you can speak better, because your brain is working in a more relaxed way, and also your self-censorship levels drop down as the beer keeps dropping in 🙂
    cheers
    gorka

  8. Daniel Hinge July 2, 2008 at 8:36 am

    You can sit next to Stuart on Friday evening Celine and test your theory out further…

  9. céline July 2, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Great idea! If I can understand Stuart, I can understand anyone in these parts.

  10. Jess July 4, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    I’ve noticed this effect, too – I call it “The Three Beer Rule”. When I interact with people across a language barrier, I find that the conversation is much more fluent, and we can access more complex ideas, when we’ve had a few drinks. My completely subjective theory is that it has something to do with the affective filter – when people are speaking a non-native language, there’s a tendency to try and mentally translate, rerouting through the L1 rather than immersing and flowing in L2 without L1 interference. But if you’re drinking, then your inhibitions are down, and you can access that L2 part of your brain more easily, without emotional interference. Your perceptions about L2 ability don’t affect your ability so much. I don’t know – what does everyone else think?

  11. xensen July 15, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Decades ago I read about a study that concluded that a certain amount of alcohol improves foreign language fluency — it “loosened the tongue.” But the study also said there is a fatal limit where the effect goes precipitously in the other direction.
    My experience is like yours — a glass or two of wine can indeed improve conversation in a second language. I don’t think this is just spirit-fueled delusion: you know whether you are understanding someone or not. Unfortunately, neither is it a magic pill: you can have a couple of drinks and still fail to call up the words you need. The words are hidden in some part of your mind — I wish I knew why sometimes they stay hidden and other times not.

Comments are closed.