If that’s all you wanted to know, then don’t bother reading on.
It definitely does.
It’s hard not to have evidence of that when you’re living in Belgium. You have to speak French (or Dutch*, if you’re in Flanders), and there’s a lot of excellent beer around. A lot. It’s the ideal location for such a linguistic experiment. Or at least that’s my excuse.
I don’t think this will surprise many people. For most of us, alcohol lowers our inhibitions, and makes us more likely to take risks. And speaking a second language does feel like taking a risk. It’s scary, knowing that someone might not understand you, you might not understand them, or you might not find your words and stand there embarrassed.
Not that it should be embarrassing: most of us are patient with a non-native speaker struggling for their words, but when the shoe’s on the other foot, it’s easy to forget that.
Anyway, in addition to all of this conventional wisdom, we now have scientific proof that alcohol benefits language learners. Note though, that it doesn’t give you magic linguistic skills which didn’t exist before. In fact, it impairs general cognitive function and memory, meaning it would make it harder to find your words. It does however, aid fluency and pronunciation.
Note first that fluency here refers to the ability to communicate smoothly and without interruption. You can speak fluently in a second language and still make grammar mistakes, as long as they’re not big enough to impair meaning.
Again, it’s no big surprise that alcohol affects these two aspects of language use, as both are the most affected by confidence, and alcohol tends to boost our confidence. It reduces our fears or making a mistake or being misunderstood, and reduced our fear of sounding silly when using the pronunciation of another language.
This all makes sense to me, and just today I felt the evidence at first hand. I went to a Belgian Winter-Beer festival (all the big breweries make special brews for Christmas). Obviously I went purely to investigate the effects of alcohol on second-language production. After a relatively small amount of beer, I began to notice results.
At this stage, I’m not too worried about not making myself understood. Even if I can’t think of the exact way a native French speaker would say something, I can take the scenic route to making myself understood. What does scare me a little though, is understanding people. This is largely because of the differences between French and English intonation. In English sentence stress, we emphasise the key words throughout a sentence, giving our listener a few attempts to figure out our meaning. In French though, the emphasised words are generally the last one or two in a sentence or longer clause. If you don’t catch them, it’s hard to understand the full sentence. Plus, spotting the tense can be hard, as a lot of verb endings which are spelled differently all sound the same, so if you don’t catch the other clues, it’s hard to know if someone’s talking about the past, present, or future.
All this makes me hesitant to engage in or extend conversations sometimes. I don’t know why, but I find asking someone to repeat themselves a far more daunting prospect than having to repeat myself. Today though, I had no such fears, though I wasn’t required to talk to too many new people, bar ordering beer from them. Still, when I was asked if I wanted to hear the story behind a new craft brewery (Belgium Peak Beer, made in the highest brewery in Belgium: I highly recommend their blonde beer!), I didn’t hesitate in saying yes.
And I think that even my listening was even better than normal. I think the alcohol helped me find a sweet spot between not consciously listening to each word (as is the case in our native tongue), and concentrating on each word, at the cost of missing some of the general meaning. As for my speaking ability, I don’t normally have any problems in that regard, but I definitely felt more fluent than normal. I certainly didn’t feel my normal slight exasperation at having to use those longer French constructions.
So overall, yes, alcohol does help you speak another language more fluently. It’s not going to help you learn grammar or vocabulary, and I obviously can’t recommend drinking too much, but certainly a little drink now and then can help your conversation go more smoothly.
.*Yes, I haven’t been updating you on my Dutch. I haven’t been learning much lately, mainly because in Wallonia, you really don’t need Dutch to get by at all. Plus, using it for French and Irish occupies me enough. Though Duolingo’s passive-aggressive notifications when you don’t use it for a while (These reminders don’t seem to be working, so we’re going to stop sending them) don’t help.