Language learning during lockdown
Updated: Mar 1
Andrew Bell is a medical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English trading under the name Bell Johnson Translations. You can connect with him by using the following links:
Since the first lockdown in March 2020, there has been a huge uptake in language learning across the globe, especially in the notoriously monolingual UK. But why?
I can only suspect that free time and the multitude of language learning apps has played a role. Duolingo reported a 300% increase in new users last year, and other big names in language learning, such as Memrise and Rosetta Stone, reported huge increases as well. Focusing on Duolingo, they said that Spanish, French and German remained the UK’s go to languages, which I attribute to the national curriculum, however the lockdown also saw an increase in learners of other languages such as, Welsh, Hindi and Japanese.
Vicky Gough, a schools advisor for the British Council, suspects that Brits may have taken up language learning as a way to come into contact with foreign cultures, given that the lockdowns spoiled most people’s dreams of a 2020 summer holiday. The British Council also speculates that the pandemic may have caused Brits to take a long hard look in the mirror and start tackling their long-neglected life goals, which according to their survey on lockdown language learning could indeed be learning a foreign language.
For these new language learners, apps seem to have been an invaluable learning resource. They not only offer remote access to language learning but also provide access to more interactive learning.
The remote aspect of using apps to learn a language allows the user to study from home and fit learning around their schedule, whereas traditional classroom learning usually requires the learner to go to a classroom at a specific time, and hence fit their schedule around their lessons. During the lockdown this would have been a huge advantage as people’s schedules were very unpredictable. Even going to the supermarket for a loaf of bread may have turned into a four-hour long trip depending on the queue when you arrived (and whether they had bread in stock is another story altogether).
The improved learner experience comes from the fact that apps give students complete control over what they learn and the speed they learn it. In a classroom, the teacher is in charge of planning and delivering lessons, which can be a huge help for students without any particular learning objectives, but for those that do have an end goal, the freedom to learn what and how they want can be a huge asset.
In the wider context of translation and interpreting, this renewed interest in language learning has come at the right time as the language industry is set to grow. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 20% increase in the number of professional translators and interpreters over the period 2019-2029, which is much bigger than the average projected growth for other occupations.
The language industry is also suffering from a shortage of professionals, in particular, interpreters. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended that interpreters be added to the Shortage Occupation List in 2020. The only way we can meet these market demands is by making entrance to the industry more accessible, and this means promoting foreign language learning so that more people have the necessary language skills to consider a career in translation or interpreting.
I think there is a misconception, especially in British society, that if you don’t learn a foreign language as a child, then it’s too late. But this simply isn’t true, it’s never too late. I couldn’t speak a foreign language fluently until I was in my 20s, and now I’m learning my fifth language only a few years later. If there is one positive we can take away from the pandemic, I hope it is that lockdowns all around the world have sparked a love for language learning in those who would have otherwise written off the possibility of ever learning a foreign language.
Hardach, S. 2021. Why are we learning languages in a closed world? [Online]. [Accessed 12 February 2021]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201230-why-are-we-learning-languages-in-a-closed-world
Migration Advisory Committee. 2020. Review of the Shortage Occupation List: 2020. [Online]. [Accessed 12 February 2021]. Available from: https://atc.org.uk/mac-recommends-interpreters-for-shortage-occupation-list/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2020. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Interpreters and Translators. [Online]. [Accessed 12 February 2021]. Available from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm
Watkins, C. 2020. 2020 Duolingo Language Report: United Kingdom. [Online]. [Accessed 12 February 2021]. Available from: https://blog.duolingo.com/uk-language-report-2020/