Can drinking make you smarter?

You may have heard that coffee can stimulate cognitive performance and you’re probably aware you need plenty of water for your brain to be on tip top form but it’s also true that in some circumstances a glass of wine or beer may enhance your learning.

We’ve joined a group called Drink in English here in Burgos, Spain which is mainly for non-native English speakers to improve their English and we’ve been embraced like family because we can of course speak pretty good English so we’re seen as a big help. From our side, we get to know friendly people with whom we can later speak Spanish, so it’s working out really well for all parties. We talk in English from 9-11 on a Friday night and then usually move to another bar and speak Spanish. Most Fridays I’m convinced my Spanish flows better than normal thanks to a couple of glasses of wine and now there’s evidence that this may be the case. A recent Dutch study showed that a small amount of alcohol (a glass of wine or beer) can improve your skills in a foreign language; this may be due to an increase in fluency or possibly simply a reduction in anxiety.

Which brings us to a book called ‘Neurolanguage Coaching’ by Rachel Paling which emphasises the importance of being in the right state to learn a new language. Speaking in a foreign language is a very common fear, despite the fact most native speakers value your attempts to communicate with them. This state of anxiety interferes with your recall of words and your confidence and fluency –  anxiety is rarely helpful for work based learning either because it interferes with memory retention.

Trying different approaches to learning may be useful to overcome the anxiety and even make it easier. When children learn language they link words to concepts rather than to other words; they simply connect a real thing, like their dog, with the sound ‘dog’. They don’t consciously try to learn grammar or syntax but experiment and practise on what’s concrete and readily available. When they make a mistake they don’t worry about it because usually their mothers reflect back the correct construction or pronunciation. As adults we tend to translate from one word to another and worry when we’ve got it ‘wrong’  rather than aiming for communicating an idea.

I’ve found listening to the gist of a conversation here in Spain gives me more information than simply trying to follow the words. If I pay attention to the speaker I hear their tone, see their faces and gestures and pick up sufficient extraneous information to build a meaningful communication – I get the concepts. If I just aim for understanding the words my working memory  quickly gets overwhelmed trying to hold those words and translate them into English.

How much more of this could we do to make learning easier at work? Instead of wanting people to get it right first time perhaps we could be more encouraging of their efforts to get it near enough, celebrate and correct mistakes without making people anxious, look at the bigger picture to see what else they can pick up to support their learning, perhaps even change the focus of what they’re learning.

For now I plan to learn more like a child; making mistakes is fine, having a go and enjoying it is important and capturing the gist is better, for now, than being accurate and precise.  But I’ll still have that glass of wine on a Friday night – perhaps it helps to unlock the child in us all?