Lockdown language learning

So there we were again, back in lockdown - not the start to 2021 that any of us had wished for. This time round, enthusiasm for perfecting sourdough or swapping banana bread recipes seemed to be on the wane, but one big lockdown trend remained as relevant as ever.

In 2020, despite the world shutting down and overseas travel looking like a distant speck on the horizon, Brits focused on learning new languages like no other nation. (Although ironically, language learning has suffered in schools across England during the pandemic.)

Bizarrely, despite having a rather ropey reputation for our linguistic skills, the first lockdown seemed to spark an enthusiasm for turning that around. Online apps like Duolingo, Babbel and Rosetta Stone found user numbers rocketing with UK subscribers leading the way.

Duolingo reported that globally, users went up by 67% but the UK almost doubled the worldwide average, increasing by 132%. German company Babbel’s data showed a similar spike in the UK, with new subscriptions jumping 80% compared to 50% elsewhere – but they had further intriguing news: we’re not as bad at languages as our reputation suggests!

Learning a new language was a cheap, effective and interesting way to spend those dark winter weeks of lockdown. Here’s our guide to getting the best out of your language learning.

Choose your language: business or pleasure?

For those of us who managed to see past the negative headlines about summer holidays in 2021, then the most common criteria for choosing a language was for practical use. If you were dreaming of travelling to a particular country, then using lockdown to get a better grip on the native language felt like a huge personal gain – and it also offered hope that life might eventually open up again.

However, some people were looking to acquire a new skill through learning a language which could pay dividends in the future. For these people, it was worth doing some research into which languages are most in demand or could be particularly useful in future.

London’s Busuu app has this article  ranking its top languages for 2021 whilst Bilingua’s guide focuses on the best languages for business.

5 tips for effective learning

The hardest part is done: you’ve chosen your language and you’ve got the motivation to learn. So how do you maximise the impact of your time? Here’s what our experts say:

  1. Make it fun – if it feels like a chore, your heart won’t be in it so make sure you don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Language apps use gamification to spark interest and inspire your competitive nature.

  2. Find a buddy – motivating yourself can seem like a lonely task, so if you learn with a friend, you’re more likely to step up to the challenge. Either find someone else who wants to learn and embark on the journey together, or pair up with someone who already speaks the language – great for encouragement and practise. If you can spend time with your buddy over zoom or on a socially distanced walk, even better. 

  3. Embrace your mistakes – it’s hard to learn if you’re too afraid to try. Expert linguists learn a few basics and then have the confidence to try things out. The more you practise, the more you learn but don’t wait until your knowledge is perfect – get out there and talk, read and listen right away.

  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat – spaced repetition is a hack to make your brain store knowledge. You’ll notice most language courses repeat info regularly, at intervals – this boosts retention.

  5. Listen, watch and learn – witnessing others speaking in your chosen language is great for enhancing vocabulary, honing your accent and familiarising yourself with fluent speech. Choose a film you know well and stream it in your chosen language – you’ll pick up so much about how that language is used in a setting that feels familiar.

Now you’re away – enjoy your language journey! And don’t forget that fluency in language is an asset, so add your new skill to your CV.

If you really find you’re thirsty for more in the linguistic field, don’t forget you can make a career out of it. We did!

It’s always heartening to find opportunities in hard times and you never know – whether you found you could speak fluently on your first post-lockdown holiday abroad, or whether those hours on a language app sparked a whole new career plan, that lockdown project almost certainly left you with a valuable new talent.

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