Record numbers of people began learning a new language last year
11/17/2021, Brighton // PRODIGY: Feature Story //
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns prompted huge shifts in the way we all live and work. It also prompted new trends in how we choose to spend our free time, especially for those who were blessed enough to suddenly find themselves with much more of it.
Millions of people picked up new instruments, learned to code, indulged a passion for painting, and read a library’s worth of books in 2020. One other trend that could have potentially far-reaching implications for culture and society has been the massive spike in the number of people who began learning a new language.
According to estimates from Duolingo, more than 30 million people, largely in the US and UK, began learning a new language in 2020, an all-time-high that reflects an unprecedented interest in bilingualism.
Spanish most popular choice
When breaking down the number, it is clear that a select handful of languages are much more popular and in-demand than others. According to Duolingo and Memrise, Spanish has proven to be by far the most popular choice, with huge numbers of people attempting to master the language for the first time.
After this, English was the second-most-popular choice, a trend that has remained broadly stable for many years now. Rounding off the top five most popular second language choices are French, Japanese, and German.
It may also help that, for Spanish especially, receiving high-quality online-only instruction has become more accessible than ever, thanks to apps like Preply which offer one-on-one Spanish tutoring in a 100% remote environment. Resources such as these could help you facilitate greater uptake of second languages in the future.
Trend particularly pronounced in US, UK
While the appetite for new language learning has grown virtually everywhere on the planet, people in the US and UK seem to have taken a particularly strong interest.
As two of the most famously monolingual countries in the world, the huge uptake in language learning over the past year suggests that the appetite for bilingualism in these countries is actually much higher than many people might have previously believed.
Only 32% of Britons, for example, can read and write in another language, compared to the EU average of 80% (although the most common second language in the EU is English). This renewed shift towards bilingualism could change this disparity in the future.
More people plan to move abroad in the future
While some of the booms in language learning will have been driven by educational curiosity and boredom in equal measure, that is not the whole story. Over the past year, one trend that is becoming increasingly clear is that ever-growing numbers of people plan to move abroad in the future, once border traffic resumes to more normal levels.
In the US and UK, this trend is particularly pronounced in the over-50 demographic, with some eying up a foreign relocation and early retirement after the stresses of working from home. In addition, this renewed eagerness for emigration could stem from the same causes of the so-called “great resignation”, with millions of people making major life changes as they search for meaning and reassess their values in the wake of a global pandemic.
Will it last?
While there is no denying that the language learning boom is unprecedented in scope, the jury is out on how long it will last. If the current boom has been purely sustained by pandemic-related boredom, then it is likely to fizzle out as soon as people return to their regular routines. However, if the driving factors are more related to the fundamental life changes than so many of us are considering and pursuing right now, then the shift might be here to stay. Only time will tell.
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