Over 30 million new people started learning a language on Duolingo in the weeks following the outbreak of the pandemic.

“We saw significant increases in new learners right as each country announced its lockdown,” said Cindy Blanco, the company’s senior learning scientist.

“China experienced the first wave of new learners when they locked down on February 20, and waves of new learners joined Duolingo each week as soon as a country implemented lockdown orders.

“We saw significant increases in new learners right as each country announced its lockdown”

“For countries that delayed and wavered in making lockdown decisions, their learners were also less uniform in their response: some countries like Brazil experienced multiple, smaller spikes until lockdown protocols became clear and widely accepted,” she said.

English remains the top pick for language learners in 121 countries and the second most popular in eight. However, the fastest growing languages are now all Asian: Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Turkish and Chinese.

“While English has always been the top language studied around the world, the second most popular language is a key trend indicator. This year we’ve seen Spanish overtake French as the second most popular language to study in more countries than ever before,” said Luis von Ahn, founder and CEO of Duolingo.

“In a year where a Korean film won Best Picture, and the Olympics were supposed to be held in Japan, we have also observed an increase in the study of Asian languages. The cultural influence of Latin America and Asia on the rest of the world is rising.”

According to Blanco, the company has also noted study patterns as being influenced by pop culture, global events, and cultural trends in previous years.

“For example, in our 2016 analysis, it appeared that Spanish-speaking countries in South America were particularly dedicated to Portuguese, presumably because of their Portuguese-speaking neighbour, Brazil,” she explained.

“However, in 2019 and 2020, we see that Portuguese has dropped off the radar in South America. What happened? We suspect that the 2016 interest in Brazil’s language was boosted by two important global events: the 2014 World Cup (hosted by Brazil) and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro…Will we see a surge of Japanese learners worldwide ahead of the 2021 Summer Olympics?”

However, whether the app will lead to a surge in lockdown-inspired polyglots is still up for debate as critics question how effective gamified language learning apps really are.

“The app had made me a master of multiple-choice Italian. Given a bunch of words to choose from, I could correctly assemble impressive communiqués,” wrote David H Freeman in an article in The Atlantic about his experiences using Duolingo.

“But without a prompt, I was as speechless in even the most basic situations as any boorish American tourist. And this in spite of 70-plus hours of study.”

Although he acknowledged that the exposure to vocabulary later helped with further learning and that verb conjugations were a “breeze”, he is not alone in arguing that simply using such apps are not enough to become proficient in a language.

Duolingo did not provide any data on how many users continued to use the app after lockdown ended.

This month the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Science also issued reports advocating for the importance of non-English languages, releasing a joint statement with the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Royal Society of Canada, calling the pandemic a “wake up call” on language learning decline across English-speaking world.

“We are at an extraordinary moment in human history. Cooperation within and across borders is vital as we work to solve global challenges. Clear and precise communication is more crucial than ever before to the health and security of every nation,” they said.

“A renewed commitment to multilingualism within society, and to languages within education, is critical”

“A renewed commitment to multilingualism within society, and to languages within education, is critical to preparing present and future generations of citizens who will be responsible for building international collaborations and fostering harmony at home,” they continued.

“We call for governments, policy makers, and educators, alongside business, industry, and others, to take concerted, systematic and coordinated action to widen capacity for, and promote the opportunities of, widely accessible education in a broad range of languages.”

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