How Covid is shaping the future of language learning

A boom in online language learning

Covid prompted a boom in online language learning in 2020.  The obvious beneficiaries of this have been the providers that specialise in online learning apps – of which Babbel and Duolingo are the most prominent.

During the initial period of lockdowns (March 11 – April 30 2020) Duolingo reported a 67% increase in new learners compared with the same period in 2019.  The take-up of their app fell off again somewhat during May and June but picked up again from July.  Overall, the number of new learners recorded each month remained high into the autumn of 2020; higher than the comparable month in 2019 in each case.

Babbel reported that they passed the milestone of having sold 10 million subscriptions in 2020.  This has been driven by a significant increase in subscriptions (especially during periods of lockdown).  The fastest growth has come in the German (their home market) and US markets where they claim 200%+ sales growth.

However, the lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have also meant that language schools that have historically offered mainly classroom based learning have also been offering more tuition online.  Wall Street English announced in September that they had moved 170,000 students to a proprietary online learning solution.  And the British Council announced in June that they had moved 75,000 English language students from classroom to online learning.

The short-term impact of Lockdowns

Obviously, lockdowns have meant that people are stuck at home, looking for things to occupy their time.  Activities such as home baking, yoga and gaming have all thrived during the pandemic (it’s not all been about just watching box sets).  It is therefore little surprise to find an increased interest in learning a language.

The extra free time that lockdown grants us is an opportunity to do some of those things we have been putting off for a long time / never had time to do before. 

The extent to which this is happening was revealed in a survey commissioned by the British Council back in November.  This found that 10% of people in the UK had started learning a language (or returned to learning one) since the first lockdown. 

All the figures demonstrate that there has been a marked increase in online language learning during 2020.  But 2020 was far from a normal year and one must wonder what impact all this will have on language learning in the longer run?

Longer-term impacts

Whilst the lockdowns have prompted a greater interest in language learning (as they have in other activities like home cooking), we need to ask whether this will represent a sustained longer-term trend or simply a temporary response to a highly abnormal situation.

The British Council reported that much of the increase came from people using their phones to access language learning apps and podcasts.  Such things are easily accessed and do not necessarily require a major commitment (as would be the case when finding and signing up for a more formal/extensive online course).  No doubt many of these people, once they start learning, will continue with it and maybe therefore be in the market for something more substantial in future.  However, it is inevitable that some will fall by the wayside once the world starts opening again and the distractions of work and leisure outside the home begin to encroach once more on our time. 

That said, 2020 has seen more people than ever before make a start on a language learning journey.  The challenge for language learning providers will be to capitalise on this and offer the right mix of learning experiences to encourage them to continue with their journey in the post-Covid world.

After Covid

The other question relates to what balance of online vs classroom learning students might desire in the longer run?  Right now, with lockdowns still very much a feature of life for many countries around the world, the choice is online or nothing for many people.  But once choice returns, what then?

Of course, people do not necessarily want an either/or choice here.  Becoming more open to an online experience does not necessarily preclude the desire for an in-person experience.  Many people may well wish to opt for a blended experience in future.  And whilst the lockdown experience has clearly boosted online language learning it is unlikely to kill demand for in-person learning entirely.

For one thing, once the current pandemic is finally done and lockdowns become a thing of the past, a lot of people are likely to crave more social interaction.  So many people may well find the in-person experience that a classroom can offer has a refreshing appeal.

However, things have clearly changed.  A great many people have had the opportunity to explore online language learning over the past year.  It therefore stands to reason that this will have grown demand for this form of learning in the future.  Perhaps this change was coming anyway, and perhaps all Covid really did was accelerate it. 

The future for language learning, like so many things, will see online experiences assume a much greater importance than was the case in the pre-Covid world of 2019. 

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