Friday, October 28, 2011

Wanna be a polyglot? Might wanna lay off the alcohol

A new study may indicate that the more you drink, the worse you're gonna be at language learning. From Science Daily:

[A]lcohol damage occurs in gradations: the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage. … Alcohol has an impact on both gray and white matter, with the greatest impact affecting parts of the brain called the frontal and temporal lobes. "These brain areas are critical to learning new information…," said [Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School as well as corresponding author for the study]. … "Severe reductions in temporal brain regions most often result in impairments in memory and language function… ."
Learning and memory and language function? Golly gee, those sure sound like they'd be important for language learning!

As someone who's always been a non-drinker, I wonder how much of an advantage this gave me relative to, say, those fellow exchange students who would regularly get trashed on the weekends. To the extent I progressed in a target language more than them, I had always chalked it up to me getting more exposure (less partying with expats, more hanging with locals), but this study seems to indicate that any difference would be at least partially attributable to me retaining a higher portion of the exposure I was getting thanks to my teetotaling ways.

I'd be curious as to whether this is a trend among polyglots. Do we tend to abstain from or drink little alcohol?

I'd also be curious to know whether alcohol is a negative from the first drop or whether some threshold needs to be crossed. The study seems focused primarily on alcoholics, but is the person who has a glass of wine with dinner every day also going to take a hit to the brain? It's unclear.

Assuming the apparent implications of the study hold up to scrutiny, what is clear is the message to language learners (or learners of anything else for that matter): lay off the juice.


  1. Here's another polyglot non-drinker ;) In my opinion the "I can speak better when drinking" delusion is more of a placebo than anything else.

  2. Well... I don't drink either. Not absolutist, but I'm not so fond of the taste of it.
    I would say a little doesn't harm much. Otherwise people who drink wine to accompany food, like French and Italians, wouldn't be able to learn much anything. :-D

    Benny, I would say "I can speak better when drinking" is "I stink just as much as when sober, but now I don't care, so I speak"

  3. Wow, somehow I missed that post when it originally went up, but I pretty much could have written it, right down to the vitamin C binges every time I go out.

  4. A little alcohol probably doesn't have a big effect on language learning, and even a lot can be overcome, but if everything else you're doing to learn a language is equal to +100 and the drawback from alcohol is only -1, I'd still want to get rid of that drawback.

  5. I'm another polyglot who doesn't drink - I stopped about 9 years ago, and even when I did drink I rarely had very much, and only in social situations when I felt the need to do what everyone else was doing. Then one day I realised that I didn't need to follow the herd.

    Alcohol does affect reaction times and coordination, as well as memory, but some of the affects that people ascribe to alcohol, such as lessening of inhibitions and a more relaxed attitude to mistakes, are produced by expectations and beliefs, not by the alcohol.

    Experiments have found that people who are given non-alcoholic drinks that they believe contain alcohol behave as if they were drunk, and the way they behave depends on their culture.


  6. I recall one of those studies in the U.S.: college kids in a bar, same group, two weekends, one with real alcohol, one with fake. They reported equal levels of drunkenness and similar behavior, which presumably would mean that they would report similar levels of language-learning lubrication with and without the alcohol. Seems like pretty solid evidence that they would be able to do the same thing without it.

  7. Nope, I think there's a threshold. Binge drinking and getting very drunk consistently, for example. I know, because my memory is rubbish; but I'm by no means stupid.