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How Alcohol Actually Affects Your Ability To Speak Another Language

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Two years ago, I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Florence, Italy.

It was probably the best five months of my life -- full of homemade pasta, Renaissance architecture and European women. I mean, it gave new meaning to the phrase “worry free.”

That said, there was still a language barrier, so if I had to name one, small uneasiness – it would have to be the fact that I didn’t speak much of the native language.

Yet, the majority of Italians living in Florence spoke English, so even then, it wasn’t much of a concern for me.

Still, I tried as often as possible to speak Italian, as to not appear to be an “ugly American” who’s above speaking a country’s native tongue.

Did I speak Italian well? Oh, God, no.

I mean, I was all right. I spoke enough to get by. Now, more than two years later, I’ve really only retained one phrase -- “hai una sigaretta, per favore?” -- which translates crudely to “you have a cigarette, please?”

But if you asked me back then, while living in Italy, I would’ve told you I was “pretty fluent,” and after a few glasses of wine – I would’ve sworn to you I was fully fluent.

I wasn’t exactly sure why, but something about that liquid courage had me feeling like a wordsmith every time I’d engage with a local when pissy drunk after a night at the discotheque.

And I soon learned I wasn’t alone in feeling like this. During my time abroad, I visited one of my college friends in Spain, where he decided to take his studies to Seville.

After a night out at a Spanish bar, I remember asking him if he could still speak any Spanish under the influence of alcohol.

Of course, he assured me his Spanish was FAR more proficient with a few cervezas in him.

I would’ve believed him, too, until I witnessed one of his exchanges firsthand.

I watched as my friend attempted a conversation with a local Spaniard, and although I hadn’t spoken Spanish since 10th grade, I still found myself cringing.

Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think my friend made one bit of sense, but the odd part was my buddy still thought the conversation went smoothly.

He really thought his drunken dialect was on par with all of the other native-speaking people of Seville.

Back in Italy, I felt the same way, and I’m sure my drunken Italian was equally as poor as his Spanish was.

Still, something about the influence of alcohol allowed me to let my proverbial hair down and not worry so much about speaking my second language.

I wouldn’t fumble over specific words. I simply focused on getting my point across, and you know what? It worked.

Sure, I probably botched a ton of different nouns – and my conjugation probably lacked on many-a-verb – but in the grand scheme of things, I was able to communicate better.

And it appears there’s some science behind the phenomenon, too.

In an article published recently on Slate, Jennifer MacDonald explores whether or not alcohol really does make you better at your second language or not. MacDonald notes, from a more practical standpoint, alcohol can aid your foreign language woes.

Using a study conducted in the 1970s in which English-speaking college students were asked to complete a pronunciation proficiency test in Thai – a language they’ve never spoken in before – results showed “those who drank 1.5 ounces of alcohol performed better on the pronunciation test than those who had drunk an alcohol-free placebo.”

MacDonald explains that 1.5 ounces was just enough liquor to curb the test subjects’ egos and allow them to attempt to speak the tricky Thai dialect worry-free.

It also seemed to be the perfect amount of liquor to have test subjects speaking at optimum proficiency, as results showed those who drank two and three-ounce servings of liquor didn’t perform as well.

So there seems to be good reason to get a little “socially lubed” before speaking your second language.

According to Amanda Moritz-Saladino of the blog Brainscape, when drunk, we lower our affective filter. As Moritz-Saladino writes:

As a result of this decrease in inhibitions, we also tend to worry less about the grammatical rules, and we adopt a more relaxed attitude towards verbal communication, thereby resulting in a more fluid stream of words out of our mouths.

I don’t recommend getting too drunk before trying to woo a foreign mistress in your second language, though.

Unfortunately, MacDonald introduces the idea of “slurring” speech under the influence of alcohol – which you’ve probably discovered firsthand trying to convince your parents you weren’t drunk during your freshman year of high school.

According to MacDonald, separate studies showed “drinking seven shots of 86-proof bourbon was enough to make participants shift their "L" to "R" and their "S" to "Sh," even when the test subjects were speaking their native language.

So, as I’m sure you could probably assume, this effect is only magnified when you’re speaking a language you’re less comfortable with.

“So while a single drink may loosen the tongue for the better,” MacDonald notes, “getting drunk could tie it right back up again.”

So remember: Drink (and speak) with caution.