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How lockdown sparked an online language-learning boom

Could a spike in UK users downloading apps to brush up on their French help fix the UK’s language problem?  

By Javahir Askari

When the UK lockdown was announced in March, Anita did something she’d been putting off for years: she signed up for a weekly online Swahili class on Zoom. The 40-year-old from Manchester had just been furloughed. She took quarantine as an opportune time to finally tick this off her to do list. 

“My family emigrated from Kenya and I’ve always wanted to be able to speak Swahili,” she says. Studying intermittently for the last four months, and less often in the last few weeks, progress has been slow. “But I’ve learnt how to say ‘do the dishes or there will be consequences’ so I’m happy with that for now.” 

Data from language learning app Duolingo reveals that, among the app’s users, the UK turned to language learning more than any other country during the coronavirus lockdown. In the week after the government asked people to stay at home, new learners on Duolingo in the UK rose by nearly 300 per cent, with Spanish and French leading as the most popular languages studied. In April and May, the app reported that user numbers remained high. The language app, Memrise, recorded a similar trend. Although its number of regular users have declined from an initial spike at the beginning of lockdown, Ed Cooke,  CEO of Memrise, says the app has had a higher sustained level of learners when compared to the start of the year.   

The UK is not top of the class when it comes to foreign language learning. According to Eurobarometer, only 32 per cent of Britons aged 15-30 can read and write in more than one language, whereas the EU average stands at around 80 per cent

The surge in popularity of language apps during lockdown shows “there is a lot of untapped passion for language learning in the UK,” says Cooke.  

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“I’ve learned significantly more Spanish during lockdown than I did in one year at school,” says Ed Baker, a recent graduate. Bored at home during quarantine, Baker took to the app store to brush up on his GCSE-level skills. For him, learning vocabulary via his phone “essentially cut out the boring parts of learning a language like sitting through a class or having to learn when you’re tired.” 

In June, the British Council published its Languages Trends Survey, which highlighted the need for cultural immersion to address pupils’ inability to see the “real world benefit of learning languages.” With current restrictions on travel, says Cooke “the challenge we now face is bringing [languages] to learners in ways that don’t involve travelling.”

Britain’s language learning problem predates lockdown, however. In July, the British Academy published its National Languages Strategy report, stating “there is overwhelming evidence of a longstanding, and worsening supply of the language skills needed by the UK.” The report stated that “we need urgent action” that is “led wherever possible by the language education community itself.” According to a 2019 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Modern Languages, “the UK loses 3.5 per cent of GDP in lost business opportunities due to our poor language skills.” 

Language frameworks should be set by policymakers, says Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, vice-chair of the APPG for Modern Languages. “Policy can also be shaped by teachers in the classroom based on what’s been working for them in the last few months,” she said in a recent interview, adding that there is “a positive role for apps in language learning in schools, in the absence of access to travel.” 

But in order for tech and language apps to have benefits, Antoniazzi says, the problem comes in ensuring all children have access. Through lockdown, “some local authorities have made sure schools have resources and children have access to smart phones and iPads at home, but the lesson the government has to learn is all pupils have to be better connected and have those resources. What you get now is that [languages] have become a subject for the elite.” 

A recent survey by the Sutton Trust looking at Covid-19’s impact to education found that over 50 per cent of teachers cited the provision of tech devices as a required strategy for preventing pupils from falling behind during school closures. Two thirds of children did not take part in any online lessons during lockdown, the report found, and only 21 per cent of teachers reported that their school provided pupils with necessary devices.  

“We’ve got to be careful for advocating teaching methods that would widen the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged as not all can access apps or the internet,” Baroness Coussins, Chair of the Modern Languages APPG, said. It would be difficult for apps to plug an education gap as there hasn’t been much work done on translating apps into tools for classroom or curriculum purposes, she says, and most “digital developments on languages have been quite piecemeal.” 

In July, the government announced the launch of a newly created Edtech Advisory Forum, made up of school leaders and tech specialists. It will lead an independent review to investigate the response of the education technology sector to the pandemic. Despite her concerns, Coussins believes there is still “scope to think more creatively about teaching a language as long as it’s an add on and not a substitute for travelling and being immersed in another country or language.”  

“Language apps do give you control over your own learning and are very good at giving you a sense of success repeatedly” states Professor Katrin Kohl, languages teacher at the University of Oxford. It is clear the “appetite is there but it is the educational system that is setting both kids and teachers up to fail.” Kohl, who runs the university’s Creative Multilingualism programme, stressed that “getting to a high level of proficiency just with apps is difficult, but the education system needs to be revised” in order to teach language skills as opposed to solely exam survival skills.  

In a post-lockdown era, Kohl says she would like to see apps used together with classroom teaching. But yet to mastering the complexities of the Spanish conjunctive, however, is confidence, and apps might just be able to help. 

“The rise of apps during lockdown could provide a framework in which people recognise there is a dimension to language learning they hadn’t previously thought of or appreciated,” she says.   

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