Drinking in language

(Posted by Sandeep)

This article originally appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on October 21, 2010.

My friends and I were on the C-1 bus a few weekends ago, leaving an off-East Campus house to get to West and catch the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill. I had just turned 21, and I was looking forward to my first night out barhopping since I had come back stateside.

Some of our fellow passengers had been drinking, and the heady odor of beer and rushed vodka shots overpowered the bus and began to give me a healthy buzz.

More than the stench, though, my mind was on the two red-faced freshmen next to me, who were engaged in an enthusiastic, but obviously slurred, conversation in Spanish. Their grammar was poor and their pronunciation worse, but it sure looked like they were having fun. If they were in the middle of an oral exam, they would have scored low on structure but high on confidence.

Does drinking alcohol help people speak other languages?

Every student knows that being embarrassed is one of the cornerstones of the difficult process of learning another language. After all, we students are visitors in a new world. For those who are used to easy academic success, stumbling over verbs or gendered nouns can be stressful or disheartening.

So in response, we inhibit. We mumble when we’re called on in class, or we clamp up in conversation. We don’t speak the language outside of the classroom. We’re intimidated by students whose abilities seem greater than our own. Our teachers tell us to be fluid and open to mistakes—practicing is important, after all—but their pleas aren’t always convincing.

This, my friends, is where alcohol comes in.

We all know what drinking does, whether through observation or participation. People with “liquid courage” are more likely to do or say things that they might have been reluctant to while sober.

The fear of embarrassment fades away with every ounce of rum. Inhibitory control slips out of our hands like a wet beer can. People loosen up, and some of us are more sociable and talkative after a few. Many of the neurological processes at work when your roommate jumps on top of the bar at Shooters are the same as when he later whispers je t’aime in the ears of his dancing partner. Our uninhibited behavior is mirrored in our speech.

And maybe because some of us drink to become someone else—a party alter ego—speaking a foreign language fulfills some sort of urbane, globetrotting identity that we aspire to embody.

I’m not recommending downing a dozen steins whenever you need to practice German. Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol might help with practicing a language. And associating positive memories with foreign language use can prime you to perform better. You might even form a good friendship with a foreigner over a few bilingual drinks.

But drinking probably won’t help you learn the basics of a language, because studying demands a clear mind.

Researchers studying second-language acquisition have identified two aspects of learning another language: one that is automatic (e.g., an understanding of simple grammar based on one’s mother tongue) and another that is memorized (e.g., vocabulary). Students usually feel comfortable with the first and stumble over the second. When people drink, though, their loss of inhibition probably facilitates memorized language, even if they are making mistakes.

As with all things alcoholic, using language under the influence presents a mixed bag. The rewards are there, but they are lost when people binge.

People’s inhibition disappears with every sip in a binge, and so does their awareness. Very drunk people might believe that they are smooth or charming or balanced, but they are often none of those. Similarly, when drunken foreign language speakers believe that they are using proper grammar and pronunciation, they are often sloppy and incoherent. And practice is useless if you don’t remember it the next morning.

But maybe we don’t even have to drink to take advantage of the benefits of alcohol.

Li Yang, a Chinese entrepreneur, certainly thinks so. His “Crazy English” program centers on his conviction that orthodox teaching is ineffective. Instead, Li’s students jump up and shout English phrases in the classroom, on buses and from rooftops. The goal is to eliminate embarrassment, curb inhibition and facilitate a positive social environment.

Crazy English sounds a little bit like last weekend’s Crazy Party. But it ditches the spiked punch and concentrates on making language learning fun and communal. It has been astoundingly successful: over 20 million people have taken a Crazy English course in the last 15 years.

The success of this program demonstrates that a student doesn’t necessarily need to drink before her oral exam to get a good grade. Language students can be uninhibited without alcohol. Maybe a fun, worldly identity can be crafted without it, too. Whether or not you drink, your learning experience is affected by your confidence.

Maybe next time you’re studying for a language exam, you should try the Crazy method and shout for practice. Lose control. Make a fool of yourself. Climb onto a rooftop and let the quad echo with vocabulary from Haitian Creole or Arabic 125. Imagine you’re fully bilingual. Drink in the language experience.

Whether or not this study session requires alcohol is none of my business, of course. Liquid or dry, the courage is the same. I just hope I overhear you on the bus next weekend.