A surge in interest in language learning has emerged as a phenomenon of the current social distancing. One popular language learning apps has claimed increased usage of more than 200%, while others are reporting new sales up more than 50%.

Academics maintain it shows a pent-up interest and wish to study languages. For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort – in the absence of more traditional forms of entertainment.

‘It shows there are a lot of people who want to learn a language,’ says Oxford Professor Katrin Kohl. ‘It’s surprising how often you meet people in all walks of life who are taking language courses.’

But, she maintains, many people have been put off by unrealistically difficult exam syllabuses at school: ‘GCSE and A level papers are too demanding and grading is too harsh when compared to other subjects.'

‘The exam system conspires against language learners...they’re discouraged on all fronts.’

Professor Kohl says that, while many people therefore believe they are ‘rubbish at languages’, there is clearly interest. She also highlights that there is a huge pool of talent for languages in the UK.  In England, for more than one in five primary school children and almost one in six students at secondary level, English is a second language. ‘This means they already have well-developed language learning skills, a benefit that isn’t sufficiently valued at present.’

It might seem that, with globalisation, everyone speaks English. But Professor Kohl says: ‘That simply isn’t the case. The world isn’t just culturally diverse, it’s also linguistically diverse. People care about their distinctive languages, as we can see in Wales and Ireland.

'Developments such as this surge in interest shows that people see language learning as a fruitful way to spend time.’

She dismisses the idea that online and app learning will not assist people to take up classes in future: ‘Apps have revolutionised what’s on offer for learners. You can get quite a long way with apps and they can continue to support your learning, even if you later join a class. They incentivise you, send you reminders and introduce competition, allowing you to test yourself.’

Professor Kohl insists: ‘Language learning thrives on variety of learning styles and options.’

She recommends:

  • Don’t set the bar too high
  • Set a modest minimum per day, and do more if you’re feeling energetic
  • Vocabulary learning can be fun with a helpful app, and you can measure your progress
  • Practice pronunciation – find how a word is pronounced online by typing in the word and ‘pronounce’
  • Read a novel in the language with a strong plot, e.g. a Georges Simenon thriller if you’re learning French, and refer to a translation. Or read a translated Agatha Christie and refer to the English original (Set yourself very short sections to begin with). There again, La Peste by Albert Camus is currently proving very popular.
  • Watch ads and kids’ stuff on YouTube.
  • Watch a non-serious film with subtitles, then watch it without, in very short sections.
  • Follow news stories – e.g. developments with the coronavirus crisis. Compare the reporting.
  • Research information about a hobby in a country where the language is spoken. Find a blog that’s relevant.
  • What place might you go to where the language is spoken? Explore local websites to find out what there is to see and do using local websites, and involve Google Translate to help you along.
  • Try your hand at translating a very simple text, with a dictionary and Google Translate·
  •  Find a language learning buddy. It’s much easier to learn a language and keep it going if you’re doing it with someone else or in a class.

 If you give up because it’s hard work and progress is slow, remember that’s normal. Start again and set the bar lower. The effort won't be wasted!  

It’s a great way to keep your brain in trim – studies have shown that using more than one language can delay the onset of dementia by four to five years, and language learning has similar benefits.

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