I host a happy hour event for my school once a month, and it’s hands-down the best part of my job. I get paid to drink, pass out free beer to students and facilitate discussion for a few hours*. Sometimes I drink a bit too much and start speaking Chinese — none of the people studying or working at my school can speak Chinese — but it’s all in good fun; I have a uniquely Irish ability to speak coherently, not piss anyone off and arrive home safely, so I never get in too much trouble.
The best part is when students start loosening up. Japanese learners, even those at an advanced level, are almost uniformly quiet and reserved in a group class setting, but after a couple of beers they’re (magically) some of the friendliest people in the bar. Those unique “what is this like in your culture?” questions, which as a teacher can be a linguistic exercise in teeth pulling during group class, shoot around the bar like shotgun pellets. Friendships are forged, cultural boundaries are bridged and everyone (besides me, depending on how much merriment I made) walks away speaking English a little better than when they walked in.
Moderate to severe drinking is one of my favorite tips for those trying to acquire a second language.
The classroom is, of course, a great place to start the process of learning. Teachers facilitate this with guided, well-structured lesson plans. We promote a balance of fluency and accuracy, group vocabulary and grammar points, correct important errors and use a variety of activities to allow students to use the new language. Most language teachers employ speech graded to the level of their learner to enhance communication. It’s not baby English, but it sure isn’t authentic, and that’s where classroom learning can often fall short: learners may be inhibited by their own shyness, overactive classmates, cultural taboos against speaking in class, bad teaching and a whole cast of other negative factors.
This is where alcohol comes into play. Drunk people the world over just like talking to each other. The atmosphere is laid back. I usually initiate conversations, but after a beer or two the students take over and I try to sit back and listen. The students all know each other pretty well through their class time together (doubly so if any of them are smokers), but once the restrictions of the classroom are removed they open up a lot more about their jobs, personal lives, goals, dreams and ambitions. Even students who don’t drink seem to have a lot of fun; there’s a core group of six to ten students from the Middle East who seem to come to every damn event.
School happy hour is one strategy to drunkenly stumble your way towards fluency, but I’ve used many others in my own language learning. The link between language acquisition and alcohol is pretty well documented, so I want to focus more on my own personal experiences of boozing and shmoozing. A lot of my ability to speak and understand Chinese came from my inebriated social experiences. My Chinese is far from perfect, but I think it’s pretty good for two short years there. I never partook in a formal class in Henan, but I owe a lot of my ability to my adventures drinking and 汉语ing.
Strategy the first: whenever you travel, take the slow train and bring a bottle of 60% Erguotou with you. My typical MO would be to establish my tiny bed of residence, drink a third of the bottle, then camp out in the smoking section of the car and make conversation with the people crammed in there. Not the healthiest way to practice a language, but I’d always emerge hungover yet linguistically leveled up. People on bullet trains tend to keep to themselves and avoid geeking out over random foreigners; slow train people generally don’t speak English, but always want to talk to the laowai who speaks Chinese. Also, they enjoy baijiu.
Strategy the second: when deciding on your bar of choice, avoid the one populated by a large contingency of bitter expats, drinking away their sorrows and bemoaning everything about China. I used to hang out at Bird Bar in Zhengzhou. Proprietor: Snake. Bartender: Brian (alias: Briancells). English spoken: minimal. Aside from myself and my friends, the clientele was mostly all Chinese and quite amenable to conversing with sauced foreigners, so long as you didn’t insist that Japan is a great country and that Japanese people are heaven-sent. Goddammit, friend who I totally swear wasn’t me.
Of course, if you get violent or abusive when you drink, using alcohol to improve your language skills can end up badly. It also has its limitations: drunk people, even native speakers, make a lot of mistakes. While this isn’t so bad from a fluency perspective, it can fossilize common mistakes. Also, as alcohol adversely affects short-term memory, there’s the danger that you turn into a raging alcoholic with a tendency to forget everything you learned the night before. Exercise caution and stay thirsty, my friends.
* And yes, my current students are all adults. I did have a friend in China who ended up drinking baijiu with some students (not provided by him) on a field trip to the countryside. The “responsible adults” thought it was adorable.
Greg is an ESL instructor who spent two productive years teaching in China. He currently lives in Colorado.
Previously: The Importance Of Graded Speech