Carpe Vinum: Does Drinking Help Vocabulary Retention?

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Carlyle, M., Dumay, N., Roberts, K., McAndrew, A., Lawn, W., & Morgan, C. (2017). Improved memory for information learnt before alcohol use in social drinkers tested in a naturalistic setting. Nature. (Open Access)

If you thought my previous discussion on the benefits of sleeping on vocabulary acquisition was a bit “out there,” consider the latest study from the venerable scientific journal, Nature.

Mollie Carlyle and colleagues studied the effects of alcohol consumption of intentional word learning by recruiting a group of British adults (N=88), all of whom were “social drinkers” (perhaps the easiest subject pool to form, ever). The researchers stated that, unlike previous such studies on the relationship between alcohol and word learning (what have I been missing?), they conducted the experimental sessions in the subjects’ homes rather than in a laboratory setting.

The subjects were taught a series of nonsense words on the evening of Day 1. Next, the members of one group (randomly selected) got to drink as much as they wanted for the next few hours, which turned about to be about two shots of alcohol on average (82 grams, but there was a large standard deviation of 50, so some people took this seriously). Members of the other group remained sober. On the morning of Day 2, both the alcohol group and the sober group were retested on the pseudo-words they studied the night before.

There was no difference in scores for the sober group (that is, no “sleeping effect”), but the drunk alcohol group did do significantly better (scores went from around 35% to 40% correct, based on the article’s Figure 4). What’s more, scores were correlated to the amount of alcohol ingested the night before (r = .38). The more subjects drank, the higher their vocabulary scores. The researchers speculated that, similar to sleeping, the alcohol may play some role in “consolidation” of memory.

Note that the alcohol effect observed was for nonsense words memorized before the drinking began. The results are not evidence for acquiring-while-intoxicated.

As with the adult sleeping studies, however, Carlyle et al. tested conscious learning, not incidental, unconscious acquisition of words (Krashen, 1982). We know from previous studies that consciously learned vocabulary tends to be forgotten more quickly than acquired vocabulary knowledge (see McQuillan, 2016, for a review of some L2 evidence). The true test here would be to do a read-and-drink-and-test study. Who’s going to join me in the interests of science on this one?

To sum up: the model we’re moving toward is a nightly routine that goes something like this:

Read/Listen (Acquire) -> Drink -> Sleep -> Better Vocabulary

It’s basically a revised Pleasure Hypothesis (Krashen 1994), but with a glass of wine.

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