Many Britons are turning to learning languages like never before, according to the Guardian Newspaper. French is one of the most popular choices, as many adults have taken up an online language course during lockdown. The timing does seem at odds with recent events like Brexit and Covid stopping overseas travel. With our recent exit from the European Union, should we be saying a very firm and British Goodbye? Yet for many in the UK, it seems that on our departure it is more a case of Au revoir.
Academics maintain the recent upsurge in language apps in Lockdown, shows a pent-up interest and wish to study languages. For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in large numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort in the absence of more traditional forms of entertainment and communication.
It shows there are a lot of people who want to learn a language. It’s surprising how often you meet people in all walks of life who are taking language courses. But many people have been put off by unrealistically difficult exam syllabuses at school, GCSE and A level papers are too demanding and grading is too harsh when compared to other subjects. Oxford Professor Katrin Kohl
Formal language learning in our schools has declined substantially over the last 15 years, but there are some signs of encouragement. The British Council’s annual Language Trends survey showed a marked increase in children who took French or Spanish at GCSE in 2019, although A-level entries were still down. It would be great if parents could encourage their children to see the importance of learning another language. In 2018, 96% of pupils in upper secondary education in the EU’s 27 countries learnt English as a foreign language. In a majority of EU Member States, more than three fifths of all upper secondary education pupils were learning two or more foreign languages.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the human experience is our ability to connect with others. Being able to communicate with someone in his or her language is an incredible gift. Bilinguals have the unique opportunity to communicate with a wider range of people in their personal and professional lives.
Despite the decline in schools, adults continue to value language highly, the British Council found that during the lockdown, 10% of adults in the UK began learning a foreign language or returned to one after a break. A third of those surveyed said that Spanish was the most important language for young people to learn, followed by French at 20% and Mandarin at 18%. Thousands more are learning Spanish, German, Italian or other EU languages, with some of them hoping to improve their language skills to a level where they qualify for citizenship of a European country. Since British citizens no longer have the right to live and work in EU countries after the 31st of December 2020.
The UK is now one of Duolingo’s top five countries by the total number of daily learners, according to the app’s UK general manager, Colin Watkins, with a rise in new learners of 132% on last year. (Although it has to be added that we have always fallen well behind our European friends in learning another language in the first place) Events like Brexit and Covid plus cultural moments like the Olympics are driving the change, he said. “Brits now want to be better citizens of the world when we travel, when we do business, when we meet people in the UK.”
I was introduced to Duolingo by a work colleague in lockdown. And since June 2020 have been learning three languages every day. I introduced my mother to this App and at 76 years old she is learning Spanish. I like the easy- to- use, fun format of Duolingo, I don’t think you could become fluent by this method alone, and I have combined a mix of CDs and books as well as the app. It’s surprising how much daily progress I have made.
I have long been embarrassed at how poor my own language skills and those of my fellow Brits are compared to my French, Spanish and German friends. To think that many ex-pats cannot speak the language of the country they live in is wrong on so many levels. Just because English is spoken in most countries is not really a valid excuse. Today, you can simply use your smartphone or other devices to translate everything on-the-go. But whilst technology certainly helps with communication, it will never replace personal interactions. Be warned, Google Translate is also not fully accurate!
Colin Watkins, from Duolingo, says that many of the 15 million people who have signed up to Duolingo’s online courses are not aiming to become fluent but to gain a basic level of understanding. As one of our first courses French was already very popular, so to see it make the top five shows new learners have chosen it because they want to travel there in the future, maybe want to do business, emigrate, or just pick up on what they learned in school.”
Other language learning apps are seeing similar rises. Memrise saw a large increase in new users in March, and 70% of people using its platform are learning Spanish or French, while German, Italian and Japanese are also popular.
The app, Babel helps its community remember the vocabulary they learn through six memory stages using “spaced repetition,” moving words through exercises that are arranged to aid retention. In bite-sized, 10–15-minute lessons, students have opportunities to gain skills in reading, writing, grammar and speaking in their target language in likely scenarios, especially for travel.
Yes, learning a new language is a big challenge. But if you can get in the right state of mind and you’re not looking for overnight fluency, the progress you make can make can make you feel incredibly proud. You do have to remain consistent for a few months to see some steady progress, but it is totally worth it and the more you do it the easier it gets. It’s also a great way to keep your brain in trim as studies have shown that using more than one language can delay the onset of dementia by four to five years. Benefits well-worth having, I would say.
Bon chance et au revoir.