Alcohol and language acquisition

When I was a student in Quebec, and when travelling in Latin America, I always felt a little more normal in French and Spanish after a couple of beers or micheladas.  This is something I’ve heard from a zillion people all over the world: a bit of booze makes conversation flow in 2nd, 3rd etc languages. Years later, I’d have homemade gin in India, rakshi (rice whiskey) in Nepal, and chang (fermented barley) in Tibet and notice the same thing.

Why?

I think there’s three causes of what feels like “easy communication” with a bit of booze

a) Affective filter lowered.  You are in a pub, or sitting around a fire, or at a party, stress is off, music is probably playing, you’re with a fellow traveler or two…you feel good.  Krashen (and a host of others) all say the same thing: in any learning domain, the more happy and relaxed you are, the easier it is to acquire skills or info.

b) Conscious mind less prominent.  Booze is a depressant.  It lowers inhibitions and kills off conscious awareness (until you pass out if you have too much).  Booze is a pathway to the unconscious.  It’s not an accident that dance and fol musics– in all cultures– tend to be accompanied by alcohol, and religious rituals (Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Maya etc) were much the same.  As we “turn off” self-consciousness and over-thinking, we’re in a sense more open to input, and we’re also more likely to just “say what feels right.”

c) we probably overestimate what we can do/learn using booze Alcohol absolutely doesn’t enhance physical skills, it decreases memory, and it seriously impedes our ability to self-regulate and be self-aware.  We probably don’t speak much more clearly when mildly intoxicated than when sober, and while we will be “open to input” as Krashen says, our likelihood of forgetting what we’ve heard is probably higher.

From my own experiences with music (I play Irish trad and bluegrass on octave mandolin and mandolin), I can say that a few beers feels good…a certain looseness comes over me…but too much booze and the fingers and brain stop working.  Memory seems unaffected– I am now at the point where I am playing tunes I have never read the sheetmusic for, and whose names I often don’t know, as per Irish session traition– but then I have not done anything like a controlled study.  Music is much like language in my experience, the main difference being that practice is necesary in music to train muscles (in languages pratice is not important– only listening and reading really matter).  Indeed one wonders how much of music practice is just self-reinforcement of listening. 

The moral?  Booze won’t hurt– and might be fun– if you’re traveling, or sitting around with your ____-language group after class in the pub, knocking back a couple of glasses of wine.  But it won’t help long-term and I certainly woudn’t recommend it as part of any acquisition/teaching strategy.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s