In this post I summarise a recent study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology which looked at the effect of alcohol on foreign language (FL) performance (Renner, Kersbergen, Field & Werthmann 2017). The study was conducted by psychologists at Dutch, German, and UK universities with German L2 users of Dutch. It cites a 1972 study by Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Brannon, Dull & Scovel which found a moderate effect on FL pronunciation under the influence of alcohol.
In the 2017 study, the prediction was the opposite. Based on a hypothesised loss of executive functioning, L2 users would overestimate their FL abilities and underperform in a discussion activity after drinking compared to non-drinking controls.
“There are at least two possible explanations for the popular belief that alcohol improves foreign language abilities.1) Alcohol might actually improve the ability to speak in a foreign language, that is, lead to actual improvements in foreign language performance.2) Alcohol might alter bilingual speakers’ perception of their own ability to speak the second language, that is, lead to subjectively perceived improvements in foreign language performance.”
They designed a study to test these theories using a between-subjects design with two conditions a) alcohol versus water consumption, and b) FL versus arithmetic task. Interestingly, the predictions regarding all four hypotheses in the study – concerning the actual and perceived effects of alcohol on task performance – were disconfirmed.
The study compared participants who consumed alcohol or water and on FL and non-FL tasks (= an arithmetic task).
The two groups were controlled for age and gender (70% female) and informed they might be given alcohol. “Testing took place between 1.00 pm and 4.00 pm at a laboratory visually resembling a pub” (p. 4) and alcohol intake was controlled with the goal of achieving 0.4% blood alcohol level via rapid consumption of one vodka and lemon. Actual levels ranged from 0.2% to 0.6%.
Subjects “were not explicitly informed whether their drink contained alcohol” nor “informed about the result of the breath analyser test” (p. 3). They participated in a 2-minute discussion with one experimenter (also blinded to alcohol/water condition).
Self-ratings of performance were obtained using mean response to the following 9 items on a Visual Analogue Scale of 0 (absolutely not) to 100 (very much).
- In general, how good did you find your Dutch language skills during the discussion?
- How comprehensible did you find your argumentation during the discussion?
- I feel that my word-pool was sufficient to engage in the discussion’
- I feel that I had to keep looking for the right words in my memory to engage in the discussion
- I think that my pronunciation was clear during the discussion’ (reverse scored)
- I think that my pronunciation was unequivocal and clear during the discussion
- I think I almost always used the correct grammar during the discussion
- I think that my Dutch was fluent during the discussion
- In general, I think that my Dutch was very comprehensible during the discussion
- participants who consumed alcohol would rate their performance in the foreign language discussion more highly compared with those who consumed water, in line with the popular belief that alcohol increases the ability to speak in a foreign language
Disconfirmed. There was no difference in self-ratings of FL performance between participants with/without alcohol.
- participants who consumed alcohol would receive lower observer-rated foreign language performance ratings compared with participants who consumed water, due to alcohol’s detrimental effect on executive functioning
Disconfirmed. Participants on alcohol received significantly higher ratings, accounted for exclusively by higher pronunciation ratings.
- higher self-ratings in foreign language skills by participants who consumed alcohol would generalize to performance ratings in a non-language task
Disconfirmed. Participants on alcohol rated their arithmetic performance lower than water drinkers, but there was no difference in actual performance.
- effects of alcohol on the subjective overestimation of foreign language skills (i.e. higher self-ratings in the alcohol vs. water condition) would be explained by a general overconfidence (indicated by self-esteem ratings) gained from drinking alcohol (‘Dutch courage’)
Disconfirmed. Self-esteem rose after task performance, but there was no difference between alcohol and water groups (i.e. alcohol did not affect self-esteem)
“It is possible that a low to moderate dose of alcohol reduces language anxiety and therefore increases both one’s foreign language proficiency and one’s subjective foreign language evaluation. These explanations are speculative and cannot be tested in the current study (because we did not measure language anxiety)”
Limitations and further research
The authors acknowledge a number of limitations to this study. In my own view, the principal among them is the lack of proficiency measures beyond a) participant self-rating (the majority reported their level as “average” to “good”) and b) holistic rating of audio recordings by naive native speakers. The researchers suggest this increases the ecological validity of the study.
I would argue that to support a conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption can increase foreign language fluency, it would be useful to consider different
- L1 and L2 pairings,
- proficiency levels (measured other than by self-report)
- blood alcohol levels.
It would also be useful to analyse L2 production for specific phonetic and acoustic cues associated with pronunciation, as well as other measures to verify lack of impact on other dimensions such as grammatical accuracy or lexical measures.
The link with language anxiety also seems relevant, as the authors speculate. This avenue of research is suggested by Horwitz in a 2010 paper (not reviewed in the Renner et al. study) where she comments on the Guiora et al (1972) study.
This early study that found its way into the popular press reported that students who ingested moderate amounts of alcohol achieved better pronunciation scores than students who ingested higher amounts of alcohol or no alcohol at all. Although the authors use the ingestion of alcohol as a proxy for a hypothesized change in ego state and increased empathy, it is more likely that moderate alcohol consumption relaxed the participants and hereby contributed to better pronunciation.
Guiora, A. Z., B. Beit-Hallahmi, R. C. Brannon, C. Y. Dull & T. Scovel (1972). The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13.5, 421–428.
Horwitz, E. K. (2010). Foreign and second language anxiety. Language Teaching, 43, pp 154-167 doi:10.1017/S026144480999036X