So here I am, a lad from Ireland (a country famous for its drink and its drinkers) in the Czech Republic (ditto).
The nightlife in Prague is great, but of course a lot of party-goers take advantage of the cheap beer! From the armies of 3-day tourists to the local 20-somethings, and of course to the expats. I have been lucky enough to be able to start socialising with some Czechs, although there have been some expats in the group too. None of them were English speakers, since I tend to avoid them (these were actually Portuguese, French etc. speakers).
I saw something interesting in how the other expats dealt with attempts to speak the language that I’d like to share and hear your thoughts on! They drank to have the confidence to be able to speak in Czech, as many other language learners that I’ve met do too. But before I get into that, I have a secret to confess!! Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing an article like this at all because…
I don’t drink!!
Nothing – zilch. No beer, no whisky, no vodka, no rum, no Irish coffee. I tasted beer once out of curiosity and found it revolting. I’d drink wine or champagne, but only when the social situation demands it, and never more than a single glass. No amount of peer pressure (and I’ve gotten lots!!) has ever convinced me to start drinking, and I honestly believe that the main reason that a lot of people start drinking is simply because of cultural norms and peer pressure; they can’t imagine going out to a pub or nightclub and not drink because everyone else is drinking! It would just be “weird”.
Rather than bore you with why I think it’s not healthy (including the famous glass of wine), why simply not drinking despite going out a lot has saved me heaps of money and thus helped me travel the world and have fun that I can remember the next day, and how much I adore not waking up with a hangover (I imagine it’s annoying; I wouldn’t know ), and the many many other reasons, I thought I’d give you my unique perspective on the common belief that drinking helps you speak a foreign language.
The illusion that beer creates
When people ask me why I don’t drink, instead of going down the path of a very boring conversation I don’t want to have (again) in a nightclub when I’d rather be dancing, I remind them of the Asterix comic strip; Asterix drinks a magic potion that gives him superhuman strength and he drinks it specifically when he needs to fight off the Romans or generally save the day. But Asterix’s sidekick Obelix fell into the cauldron full of the magic potion as a boy, and so he’s actually always strong and never needs to drink the potion.
This may just be a comic book, but the metaphor works for me; I’m Obelix! (Well, a little slimer!) I go out plenty, but I’ve never needed to drink to be able to enjoy myself. I’m always the first person to sing at karaokes and the first person on the dance floor, and I love talking to as many people as possible when I’m out. Based on this, and all of the many negative possibilities from drinking, you will have a hard time convincing me to try it; I just don’t see why I would need it.
And this is true for many people; there are plenty of very social people that could very easily be more relaxed and sociable if they just tried instead of waiting for beer’s permission to do so. Sorry for the big rant, but this is all leading up to the crucial point of people believing that they speak a foreign language better when they are drunk.
I honestly think it’s nothing more than an illusion. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, since I’m (obviously) purely speculating, but from my perspective getting drunk “helps” people speak a language for the following reasons and others similar to them:
- They don’t actually speak it better, but think that they do.
- They lose their inhibitions and feel more confident and less worried about making mistakes.
- They stop thinking so much and just speak, without hesitating to search for the “right” word
- They are usually shy, but suddenly become extrovert thanks to the alcohol
All of this can be done without drinking
Even if I’m completely wrong, and beer does actually help you speak a foreign language, it still has the big problem of it only being effective when you actually drink. You would then need to drink a lot and every day to be able to keep conversing; in that case you have much bigger problems in your life than just learning a language!!
Why should you wait for the small amount of hours a week that you are in a pub or knocking back some beers somewhere? Why not have all of these abilities all week long? Be Obelix!! Each of the points above and any others can easily be achieved when sober.
Why do you need alcohol to achieve this?
In terms of language confidence, learning to ignore unhelpful negative criticism and remembering the compliments will make you feel that your level is quite high. I’m sure many people could tell me that my Czech is currently horrible, but I create situations where the results can only be positive such as acutally downplaying my level. I have found that starting by apologising for how bad my Czech is since I’ve only been learning it for 6 weeks (and apologising in pretty good Czech) almost always works as a method of fishing for compliments with someone telling me that it’s great how much I’ve learned in a short time and how they are amazed at how well I’m communicating.
Throwing in some slang words also helps as a break for them used to listening to the formal language from foreigners, and this almost always gets a good laugh or some form of a pat on the back. Getting compliments like this is a great external booster, and you should create situations where people will be positively reinforcing your progress.
I’ll admit that without this encouragement, I would find it very difficult to progress in a language. Otherwise, for general confidence go read self-help books or talk to your friends about it! If it is a psychological problem, then it has a psychological solution.
If you make mistakes, who cares?!! The other expats I was with definitely know more Czech than I do (I kept asking them how to say particular words, or how a particular case declension was for some word and they knew), and yet for the early part of the night they would either speak English to the Czechs (even though English isn’t their native language), or simply not speak at all.
They waited until they had drunk enough so that they would be “ready” to speak. On the other hand, I was speaking non stop with an incredible amount of mistakes (I doubt I said a single sentence correctly all night), but I was communicating. I got to tell them about myself and learn about them, hear some jokes, make plans for the night etc.
Let me repeat that word; communicating.
This is what language is all about, not a list of grammar rules. If you wait until you don’t make any mistakes you will probably never speak, because you have to practise to iron out those mistakes. While I talked, they occasionally corrected my more serious mistakes and I learned a lot! When I’m ready, I’ll ask that they correct me more, but right now I’m focussing on communicating as best as I can.
My placebo of choice: Orange Juice!
It is definitely true that alcohol has a physical effect that can alter your state of mind, but at the end of the day it’s still a state of mind. Sometimes the alcohol may even just be acting as a placebo if you are naturally confident and extrovert.
What I do, is pick a nice healthy placebo! When I order my drink I look the barman in the eye and very seriously request his finest pint of OJ… on the rocks! I will very readily act silly, and talk about ridiculous things, maybe flirt a bit or get myself into some trouble and blame it all on the orange juice. If I’m dancing really badly then I can just use the excuse that I’ve had way too much OJ tonight! I have even been known to pour some OJ into shot glasses and knock it back and gasp a big Aaaah afterwards.
In fact, I’ve decided to add an option to this site for my readers to treat me to an orange juice! So if you’ve enjoyed any of my articles (not necessarily this one), or if my suggestions have helped you with your language learning progress, why not thank me by helping me have another one of my crazy nights out on the town? I’m not rich yet unfortunately, so an extra even tiny financial boost would always be appreciated
Am I mistaken in what I think about drinking and how you can achieve the same results sober? I have never tried getting drunk after all, so who am I to make such claims! Prove me wrong in the comments, or share your drunken language learning stories! Maybe someone can educate me about what I’m “actually” missing out on Of course, if you agree with me, I’d also love to hear that !
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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