Did you download an app to learn a new language this year? If so, you’re one of the more than 30 million people who used apps to learn a foreign language during the pandemic.
Although the lockdown spurred a mini language-learning boom, these apps have been on the rise for years. Duolingo launched its first version in 2011 and today has more than 500 million global learners. Babbel got its start in 2008. These are newcomers compared with classic computer programs Rosetta Stone (1992), EuroTalk (1991), and Pimsleur (1963)—which also now exist in app form.
Features like lime-green grammar owls, live conversation, and gamified vocabulary lessons make learning easier—and more fun—than ever. Apps also offer more language options than most schools can offer. “When people have the option to study languages that are less common, their interests are much broader than the Spanish, French, and German you’ll see in most [American] high schools,” says Cindy Blanco, a linguist who works at Duolingo.
The data bear this out: While English, Spanish, and French top global charts, their popularity is waning. Major Asian languages like Korean and Japanese and Indigenous languages like Navajo and Hawaiian are now trending. You can thank pop culture—and technology. “Young learners are leading the way,” Blanco explains. “Just as [teens] innovate new words and grammar, we’re seeing that with language learning [apps] as well.”