New research suggests that drinking a little alcohol can actually improve your performance in a newly learned foreign language. Be careful, though: the effect may not last beyond the first pint.

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‘Proost! Chin chin! Kanpai! Cheers!’ Could a pint of beer boost your language skills?

Alcohol’s impact on cognitive functioning has been a point of contention in the medical field for a long time. While some studies suggest that moderate drinking can have a protective effect, others say that it is linked with neurocognitive decline.

Popular belief holds it that having a drink can help you to improve your performance in a foreign language — but is this true?

A team of researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, alongside colleagues from King’s College London and the University of Liverpool — both in the United Kingdom — decided to conduct a study that would allow them to put this belief to the test. Their findings were recently reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

“The ability to speak a foreign language relies on executive functioning. When someone is learning/speaking a foreign language, lexical items of both languages (native and foreign) are activated at the same time [in the brain] and compete for selection,” explains first study author Dr. Fritz Renner and colleagues.

When this happens, the brain’s inhibitory control mechanism regulates the process, allowing the words in the relevant language to come the surface.

“Given that alcohol consumption impairs executive functioning, including inhibitory control,” the researchers add, “it can be expected that alcohol consumption would impair foreign language fluency in bilingual speakers.”

So, which is true: does alcohol boost or impair performance in a foreign language?

The researchers recruited 50 participants, all of whom were native speakers of German, were enrolled at Maastricht University, and had recently learned to read, write, and speak Dutch.

The participants were randomly assigned to drink either a low dose of alcohol or 250 milliliters of chilled water. The dosage for the alcoholic drink was adjusted to each individual’s weight. For a male weighing 70 kilograms, this was equivalent to 460 milliliters of 5 percent-alcohol beer.

For the study, the participants were asked to speak to an experimenter in Dutch. The conversation was recorded, and the language skills of the participants were assessed by two native speakers of Dutch who were not told which of the speakers had consumed alcohol.

The participants were also asked to self-rate their performance during the experiment.

It was found that those who had drunk a low-dose alcoholic beverage received higher ratings from the native Dutch-speaking observers on their language skills. Pronunciation, in particular, was rated higher among participants who had consumed alcohol, compared with those who had not.

At the same time, participants who had had a drink did not rate their own performance higher than usual.

“Our study,” says study co-author Dr. Inge Kersbergen, “shows that acute alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language in people who recently learned that language. This provides some support for the lay belief (among bilingual speakers) that a low dose of alcohol can improve their ability to speak a second language.”

However, Dr. Renner warns that the participants consumed relatively little alcohol, and while that seemed to boost their language performance, the same findings might not hold true for the consumption of larger doses.

“It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol. Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language,” he notes.

Study co-author Dr. Jessica Werthmann hypothesizes that the performance-boosting effect of the drink might be explained by the fact that alcohol can rid the consumer of inhibitions, allowing them to externalize what they already know more freely.

Still, further research should aim to verify this conjecture, she says.

We need to be cautious about the implications of these results until we know more about what causes the observed results. One possible mechanism could be the anxiety-reducing effect of alcohol. But more research is needed to test this.”

Dr. Jessica Werthmann