Want to Improve Your Foreign-Language Skills? Grab a Beer.

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iStock

If you're in the midst of learning a new language, speaking can be the hardest part. Conjugating verbs and thinking up vocabulary on the fly isn't easy, even if you've been studying a foreign language for a while. A new study suggests that a little Dutch courage can go a long way when it comes to speaking in a new language, though, as Time reports.

The new research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, asked 50 German-speaking students who recently passed the university's Dutch-as-a-second-language exam to get their drink on in the lab to see if they would be better or worse at speaking once they were drunk.

Part of the key to speaking a foreign language has to do with the brain's inhibitory control abilities. To speak a second language, your brain has to filter out the words you would use in your first language. Since drinking lowers your inhibitory control, it would stand to reason that booze would make your language skills worse rather than better.

For the study, some of the participants were given Smirnoff vodka and bitter lemon to drink, while others drank water. They then were breathalyzed to see if they had reached a certain blood alcohol level (around 0.4 percent, or about half of the legal limit for driving in the U.S.) and asked to talk about animal testing with a Dutch experimenter for two minutes. The conversation was recorded, then played back for two native Dutch speakers who graded the speakers on their speaking skills. The participants self-rated their speaking performance at the end of their speech, as well as taking a self-esteem test before and after. And to make sure their change in skill level was language specific, they also had to do some arithmetic for two minutes.

The students who got tipsy before speaking Dutch fared "significantly better" than the sober students in the eyes of the evaluators, who couldn't tell from the audio who was drunk or not. (They did not get any better or worse at arithmetic, though.)

Drunk people are apt to overestimate their own abilities, but in this study, the improvement wasn't in the participants' heads. In fact, they didn't perceive themselves to be speaking better when asked to self-evaluate. But according to the native Dutch speakers grading them, they were better speakers and had better pronunciation than the sober volunteers.

The researchers suggest that the improvement could be due to reduced anxiety over speaking a foreign language. Previous studies have found that students who are really anxious about speaking a foreign language tend to perform worse than students who aren't as anxious about it, so a little alcohol might loosen you up just enough to let you get past your fears of mispronunciation and botched cases to actually have a conversation.

The alcohol level was so low, though, that it's hard to extrapolate whether the result would be the same if people got more drunk; slurring your words certainly isn't the key to better pronunciation. And the study only tested Germans learning Dutch, so the results might not apply to all languages. Both languages are Germanic, so there are some similarities. It would be interesting to see whether the results would hold up across languages that aren't as closely related, like perhaps Punjabi and English or Chinese and Finnish. However, a 1972 study [PDF] on English speakers' drunken ability to pronounce unfamiliar words in Thai, a language that they had never studied, found that a little bit of booze can have a positive impact on foreign pronunciation, so it's not out of the question.

Notably, this is the first study to look at people's ability to drunkenly bumble through a language they had actually spent time studying. The case for getting a little tipsy with your language tutor just got a little stronger, though.

[h/t Time]

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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