In Brief

Language-learning apps speak the right lingo for UK subscribers 

Locked-down Brits turn to online lessons as a new hobby and way to upskill

Duolingo

Language-learning apps have enjoyed a global boom over the past 12 months - with the UK leading the way in the push to learn new lingos.  

Britain is “not renowned for its population’s skill or enthusiasm at learning a foreign language”,  notes the BBC. But apps such as Duolingo, Busuu and Babbel have seen a huge rise in UK subscribers, as increasing numbers of people look for other ways to fill their time beyond watching TV or reading books.  

Many are keen to learn a new language as a hobby, while others are looking to boost their employment prospects. And that translates into big business for apps that support such learning.

Hola to new UK users

US firm Duolingo says its new user numbers rose by 132% in the UK last year compared with 2019 - almost double the average increase worldwide. The app now has 13 million UK users.

Meanwhile, London-based Busuu saw a 312% increase in UK subscribers, to reach a total of more than three million. 

And Berlin-based Babbel says its UK user registrations increased by 80%, compared with a 50% rise worldwide, with around ten million customers globally.

Babbel chief executive Arne Schepker told the BBC that the most popular languages for the app’s UK users were Spanish and French. 

“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,” Schepker said.

“[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.”

Duolingo UK general manager Colin Watkins believes that Brexit, Covid and the Olympics are among the key factors driving the increased interest in languages.

“Brits now want to be better citizens of the world when we travel, when we do business, when we meet people in the UK,” he said.

“The UK now sees real value in learning a language for fun, not because they have to. People are learning because of culture, brain training, family, and relationships, along with school and travel. We want a positive use of our time, and to do something productive on our phones. Covid gave people the stimulus to do this.”

The Brexit factor

The Guardian reported in December that the number of Britons learning foreign languages “has risen twice as fast as the rest of the world in the last year”. One in ten adults in the UK signed up to take online language lessons during the first lockdown, last spring. 

According to app providers, one of the fastest-growing groups is those learning French. 

“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,” adds the newspaper. 

UK-based Spanish teacher Maria Lievano agrees that Brexit is likely to be a key reason for the trend. 

Increasing numbers of Brits “want to give themselves the opportunity to work in, or do business with, other countries now Britain has left the EU”, she told the BBC. 

“So with many people at home furloughed, or redundant, this period gave them time to evaluate their future career options, whether to look for work abroad or to improve their skill set,” Lievano continued.

“And for others, perhaps learning a foreign language is simply a way to dream of the holiday they can’t go on due to the pandemic.”

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