Santé! Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?

5th December 2018

Can you speak a foreign language better after a drink or two? Find out what the science says + get tips on how to boost your confidence without the booze.

Lots of people say they speak a foreign language better after a drink or two. It seems logical. One of the trickiest things about speaking a language is the nerves and alcohol lowers inhibitions. But does drinking really help you speak a foreign language better? Or just make you think you speak it better? After all, alcohol also makes people think they can dance like Beyonce, they should call their ex and that cheese is a food group. Interestingly, science suggests that the "Dutch courage" effect is real - alcohol really can help you speak a foreign language. Which is an interesting finding, if not all that helpful. For a start, lots of people don't drink alcohol. And even if you do like a tipple, what happens when you need to speak the language over breakfast, or at the airport? It's just not practical to crack out the bubbly every time you want to speak a foreign language. In this article, we'll talk about:
  • The science behind why alcohol helps you speak a foreign language better.
  • How to get the same confidence boost without touching a drop.

Science says alcohol helps you speak a foreign language (kind of)

Last year, researchers invited 50 Germans who spoke Dutch as a second language into the lab. Half were given a drink with vodka in it, while the others got a drink which was alcohol-free. Once the Germans had finished their drinks, they were asked to have a conversation in Dutch. Two native Dutch speakers (who didn't know who had drunk alcohol and who hadn't) listened to the recordings and rated the Germans on how well they spoke Dutch. Specifically:
  • Pronunciation
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Argumentation quality
The participants who had drunk alcohol were rated higher on their pronunciation, although it didn't make any difference to the other areas. Interestingly, this isn't the first time alcohol has been found to improve pronunciation in a second language. In a 1972 study, researchers gave groups of Americans cocktails with and without alcohol and tested their ability to pronounce Thai words. The ones who had consumed alcohol received higher pronunciation ratings than those who had drunk the mocktails.

Alcohol might improve your pronunciation, but only in moderation

It's important to keep in mind that the pronunciation gains were linked to small amounts of alcohol. In the most recent study, the Germans consumed less than a pint of beer. Back in 1972, the sweet spot was 1.5 oz of 90 proof alcohol, which is around one shot of strong whiskey. Participants who drank more than that, or who drank on an empty stomach, performed worse than the sober ones. This fits in with my experience when I moved to Italy. When I went to the pub with my Italian friends, I found that the first drink helped, but any more than 2 and I struggled to keep up with the conversation.

Does alcohol help you speak a foreign language? When I moved to Italy, I found that conversations were easier after 1 drink, but more difficult after 3!

Which is not all that surprising. Large amounts of alcohol impairs concentration, memory and makes you slur your words - not ideal for speaking a foreign language. So in answer to our question: Can alcohol help you speak a foreign language?  Science says: Yes, but only pronunciation. And only in small amounts.  Why does this happen?

Why does alcohol improve your pronunciation in a foreign language?

One theory is that alcohol helps you open up to a new cultural identity. Pronunciation forms a strong part of your identity because it links you to a community. If you have a London accent, this could suggest all kinds of things about you including the type of job you might have, your religious or political views, the kinds of things you eat for dinner and certain personality traits. Learning the sounds of a new language requires you to leave this behind, which explains why you might feel a bit silly when speaking a new language - it doesn't feel like you.  In the 1972 study, the researchers suggested that drinking alcohol increases "ego permeability" - the willingness to temporarily give up the separateness of your identity so that you can mimic speakers of the second language. This idea fits in with a study by Tim Keeley, who found that people with higher ego permeability tend to speak foreign languages better, and other research which suggests that empathetic people usually have better pronunciation (very cool interview with Tim on this topic coming soon... watch this space!) Another reason could be linked to the relaxing effect of alcohol. Anxiety makes it harder to speak a second language and as small amounts of alcohol reduce stress, this could explain why the drinkers in both studies had better pronunciation. But what about the confidence-boosting effect we talked about at the beginning of this article? Does alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language? If we come back to our Dutch speaking Germans, we find a surprising twist in this cocktail.

Can alcohol help you feel more confident when you speak a foreign language?

When researchers asked the German groups how well they thought they'd spoken, there was no difference between the drinkers and the non-drinkers. This means that although their pronunciation was better, the Germans who had drunk alcohol didn't feel more confident. One reason for this could be that the participants didn't actually know if they'd drunk alcohol or not (they were told that they may have a drink with alcohol in it). Alcohol has a strong placebo effect - people who think they've drunk alcohol can feel the same effects, even though they're completely sober. Perhaps it's the thought that you've drunk alcohol that makes you feel more confident, rather than the alcohol itself. And it seems that non-drinkers don't need alcohol to get this effect.
In the comments to a recent question I posted about languages and drinking, Nasrul said:

I can't drink wine because I'm Muslim. But I speak Arabic and English better after I've drunk something like mineral water and coke. 

I do drink myself, but I remember going to the pub with friends on occasions when I didn't. At first, I was worried that I would feel awkward, but after a while, I got into the conversations and forgot that I wasn't drinking. Pleasant moments, like sitting around a cozy table with friends, could be enough to help you relax into speaking a foreign language. So far, we've learnt that:
  • Small doses of alcohol can improve your pronunciation (possibly because it helps you open up to a new cultural identity).
  • Too much alcohol can impair your ability to speak a foreign language.
  • The confidence-boosting effect of alcohol might not always be real.
  • Anything that helps you feel more relaxed could help you speak a foreign language better.

What does this mean for me?

If you drink alcohol, why not take advantage of these findings and combine it with language learning? You could meet a speaking partner at the pub and practise chatting over a drink. But you don't need alcohol to feel more confident when speaking a foreign language. There are plenty of other ways to increase your self-esteem. Here are 4.

4 ways to feel confident when you speak a foreign language (no Dutch courage necessary!)

1. Close the cultural gap

If you're not used to speaking to people from other countries, it can feel intimidating. While it's natural to focus on your differences at first, research suggests that this kind of "me and them" thinking could make it harder for you to learn the language. Breaking down cultural barriers will help you speak the language better. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. Focus on them Feeling nervous naturally causes you to focus your attention inward. Instead, try directing your attention to the person you’re talking to. This changes your attitude from “I’m trying my best not to sound stupid” to “I’m trying my best to connect with the person in front of me”. This approach will help you relax and have more rewarding conversations. Find your similarities Most cultural differences are on the surface. When you get closer to people from different cultures, you'll realise that you have a lot in common. Many values, like kindness, friendship and family, are universal. Put yourself in their shoes Imagine you come from the culture of the language you're learning. What does a typical day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What do you eat for breakfast? You can even go deeper - What keeps you up at night? What makes you smile? This will help you get closer on a practical and emotional level. Make friends When you spend time hanging around with people you like from that culture, you'll get an insider view that will help you understand and connect with other native speakers. Get tips on where to find these people in step 4. Don't take yourself so seriously When dealing with a new language and culture, you'll probably have awkward moments where you make mistakes, or you're not sure what to say or do. If you shut down from fear of mistakes, this will create distance between you and the native speakers you want to talk to. Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Most people are forgiving of the mistakes foreigners make when navigating their culture - if you let them laugh with you, you'll never struggle to make friends.

2. Practise a lot (even if it feels uncomfortable)

You cannot think yourself out of feeling nervous. In fact, trying to convince yourself not to feel nervous makes everything worse, because you create a new problem: 1. You feel nervous 2. You're nervous about the fact that you can't stop feeling nervous. If you accept that nerves are a normal part of learning to speak a foreign language, you'll make life easier for yourself. So, if you can't stop the nerves by thinking, what can you do instead? Take action. The most reliable way to gain confidence when speaking a foreign language is simple: practise until it feels normal.   And you don't have to start at the deep end - you can gradually build up to conversations. Find a step-by-step guide in this post: The simplest way to get over your fear of speaking a foreign language

3. Learn a language in relaxing situations

Classrooms can make you anxious because your "performance" is always being judged.
  • No mistakes = Great! A+
  • Lots of mistakes = You should have studied more! F.
But languages aren't a school subject with a test at the end. They're a social thing. In fact, you don't need to be in a classroom at all to learn a language! To make speaking a language more enjoyable (and therefore less nerve-wracking) try practicing the language in fun social situations. For example:
  • Are there any meetups in your area where you can practice speaking the language with like-minded people?
  • Can you meet a language exchange partner in a place you love? Like at a café or in the park? Can you go to an art gallery or sightseeing? Or how about cooking together?
You'll probably still feel nervous at the beginning, but that's nothing to worry about. Remember, the secret is getting started. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

4. Practise with people who make you feel comfortable

In your native language, there are probably people you feel relaxed around, and others who make you a bit uncomfortable. It's no different for language learning. I've been learning Italian for years, but there are still people and situations that make me nervous. For example, I get a bit of social anxiety around friends of friends who are very different from me. Or when ordering in shops and restaurants (I feel awkward talking to people I don't know in English, so in Italian, it's worse!) This doesn't mean you should avoid people and situations that make you feel awkward (remember, nerves are a normal part of language learning). But it does mean that you'll probably find it more difficult to speak in these situations, so they're not ideal for practicing. The best way to improve your speaking skills in a second language is to find people who make you feel comfortable and practise with them regularly. Where can you find these people?

Online language tutors

One of the best places to practise speaking a foreign language is italki. Here, you can book 1-to-1 conversation lessons with lovely native speaker tutors – called community tutors – for less than $10 an hour. If you fancy giving it a go, you can get a $10 voucher after you book your first lesson here: Click here to find a tutor on italki and get $10 off. Keep in mind that you don't have to stick with the first person you find. If you don't feel comfortable with the first tutor, keep looking until you find someone you click with.

Language Exchange Partners

Alternatively, look for people in your area who also want to learn your native language and set up a language exchange:
  • They help you practise speaking their native language
  • You help them practise speaking your native language
There are lots of websites and apps that help you find native speakers in your area, so you can meet up and practice speaking over a coffee (or glass of vino if you do drink). Conversation Exchange and Tandem are two examples. You can also do it online, via italki. Again, keep in mind that you don't have to stick with the first person you find. It's a bit like online dating - you can keep going until you find someone that feels right.

Immersion Vacations

A fab way to feel comfortable and get a lot better at speaking is to join one of our immersion vacations. The vacations are run by myself and a patient native speaker teacher who will put you at ease and encourage you to speak. The idea? To practise speaking a language in beautiful locations, while doing fun and relaxing things like:
  • Wandering around lavender fields in Provence.
  • Island hopping across the Italian lakes
  • Nibbling on tapas and sipping on sangria (or virgin sangria) on the Costa Brava.
By the end, you'll feel loads more confident because you'll have spoken the language for a whole week! And you'll have new friends to practise speaking with. If you'd like to join us, you can find out more here: If the language you're learning isn't in there, send me an email and let me know: which immersion vacation would you like us to organise next? We might be able to put something together for you. In the meantime, you can also join our Immersion Vacations Facebook group to get updates (and a sneak peek of what we did on the last one).

What do you think?

Do you find it easier to speak a foreign language after a drink or two? Do you have any other techniques that help you relax when you're speaking?

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