My last blog looked at the serious diminution in the number of people who are learning languages in the UK at both secondary and tertiary levels of education.  Just after publishing that article, I came across an interesting piece on BBC Worklife which noted that despite the downturn in language teaching via the “normal” channels of learning, the recurring lockdowns have engendered a noticeable spike in the numbers learning foreign languages at home.

Certainly, my colleagues in our sister company, Lorca Spanish, have reported a healthy growth in the numbers studying their language over the last ten months, despite all classes being online at present. Of course, one of the advantages of learning online is that you don’t have to be physically present in a classroom, with all the commitment that involves, and this applies equally to those teaching themselves via online courses and audiobooks.

While the BBC article goes into considerable depth in its analysis of the reasons behind this phenomenon, I do wonder if it’s really quite simple.  People are bored at home and, without the distractions of going out to socialise, shop, take holidays and simply visit a bar or restaurant to eat and drink, they are looking for something to do to fill their time.

Learning of all kinds – music, languages, courses on everything from cookery to photography have all become much more popular during lockdown.  Even Hello magazine is now publishing articles offering ideas for alternative ways to fill your time in the home.

However, as a language company, it’s languages that interest us, and the BBC  reported that, “During the first lockdown in March, user numbers for language-learning apps including Duolingo, Memrise and Rosetta Stone rocketed, according to data from the companies. Duolingo reported a 300% jump in new users. The numbers generally eased over the summer, but saw another bump during the second lockdown. While Spanish, French and German were popular choices … The uptake of Welsh and Hindi soared…, with learners citing brain stimulation, cultural interest and family ties as motivating factors. Cultural curiosity also boosted the popularity of Japanese.”

Furthermore, a recent British Council survey on lockdown language-learning reports that many UK adults regret their inability to speak another language.  Only 9% of those responding to the BC survey said they had kept up the foreign language they learned at school, but 64% would like to have done so.

Of course, there is a huge gap between learning how to ask for “tres cervezas por favor” in a bar in Marbella (assuming we’re ever allowed to go on holiday again!) and being able to translate and interpret at a professional level.  Nonetheless, for the language industry, this upsurge of interest in learning foreign languages, which are, after all, the raison d’être of our existence as businesses, offers an opportunity perhaps to help back-fill some of the reduction in linguists that is coming down the track as a result of the decline in schools’ language teaching. Identifying those who have been studying new languages during lockdown and encouraging them to consider it as a career change (especially with the huge increase in unemployment expected when the furlough scheme is wound up), would make a lot of sense…

Fiona Woodford, Head of Languages, Global Connects