October 7, 2020

Language Learning: How Duolingo won the Pandemic


I am someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in a household which proudly celebrates two cultures: British and American, and as anybody who has grown up with a multicultural background can tell you, this unique upbringing brings with it many obstacles along with a wealth of opportunities. That said, there is one experience that many of my peers from similarly international families had woven into their daily life which was not a part of my own English-speaking family’s routine, namely, a foreign language. Still the importance of engaging and understanding different cultures was instilled in me from birth and I have grown up to love languages. French, Spanish, my native English; I revel in them all, continuing to pursue them throughout my formal education and thereafter.

Unfortunately, many students in the UK have not had the same privilege when it comes to language learning with a recent report conducted by the House of Commons finding that “Language learning in England is consistently poor when compared […] with other countries.” The statistics speak for themselves with the European Commission’s Flash Barometer Report finding that only 32% of 15-30 year olds in the UK were confident to read and write in two or more languages, compared with an 80% average across EU member states. Whether this is because as a nation we feel overly comfortable in the knowledge that English is so widely spoken globally, prefer other academic subjects, or are bound by inherent budget limitations, learning a foreign language is all too often not a priority of the British education system.

Studies show time and again the benefits of language learning, both to the individual and society. Not only can being multilingual drastically improve cognitive functions, such as the ability to multitask and the strength of memory, it appears to also avert degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Moreover, on a larger scale, language learning is increasingly pertinent in today’s globalised world. We can harness language as a key tool in understanding and engaging with other cultures in a manner which respects their distinctiveness whilst finding commonalities with our own.

Indeed, it seems that Britons are becoming evermore conscious of the advantages of language learning and are keen to pursue them when time and resources permit. An unintended side effect of the national lockdown found a surge in language learning on language apps and courses. New learners on the popular Duolingo rose to almost 300%. As we return to some semblance of normal, maintaining these good habits may not always be as convenient to uphold but remains wholly necessary. In a time of limited travel but plentiful Zoom meetings, we must use languages to ensure that our world gets larger not smaller. We need languages to understand the untranslatable; the cultural preferences, social mores, and reasoning behind certain word choices. There is something poetic about knowing that the words for smile and sunrise are both the same, sonrisa, in Spanish, but more importantly than the poetry of such idiosyncrasies is the insight that they give us into how non-English speakers think and operate within our shared world.