For a country not renowned for its population’s skill or enthusiasm at learning a foreign language, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have seen many more Britons try their hand at becoming at least a bit bilingual.
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With lockdowns limiting what we can otherwise do with our leisure time, people have been downloading apps to swap their “hellos” for a “buenos días”, “bonjour” or “guten tag”.
After a few months, the 33-year-old says she “could suddenly read blocks of French text”.
“While I can’t translate word for word, I can now get the idea and sentiment behind the writing. It is absolute magic.”
US firm Duolingo says that its new user numbers soared in 2020, especially in the UK. It says that globally they were up 67% compared with 2019, while in the UK they shot up by 132%, almost double the worldwide average.
“The UK has really embraced language learning during the pandemic,” says Duolingo’s UK manager Colin Watkins.
Prior to Covid-19 he says the biggest reason British users said they wanted to learn a language was for travelling overseas. But with global travel mostly curtailed, people were now learning because of other factors.
“Since Covid there’s been a huge increase in people wanting to learn for a whole variety of reasons – whether that is for [helping with] school, brain training or culture. We have all wanted to do something positive with our time.”
For the app’s now 13 million UK users, Spanish remains the most popular language that people want to learn, followed by French.
Other language apps have also seen big growth.
London-based Busuu says that while its active global user numbers tripled last year, numbers in the UK rose more than fourfold (312%). It now has more than three million UK users.
Meanwhile, Berlin-based Babbel says its UK user registrations increased by 80% in 2020, compared with a 50% rise worldwide. It now has 10 million customers globally, but did not release a figure for the UK.
What Babbel did say is that its data shows that Britons are actually much better at learning a foreign language than their reputation suggests.
“When a lot of Brits say that they are not very good at language learning, that’s the first thing that we don’t see in our data,” says Babbel’s chief executive Arne Schepker.
“[For Britons], both learning engagement and how much you learn – how easy you find it to build a learning habit, the amount of mistakes and the amount of progress that you make through our material – is absolutely competitive in the international environment.”
He adds that Spanish is now the most popular language for its UK users, overtaking French. And that the new top reason why people have signed up is an interest in language learning and other cultures, which has overtaken travel.
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