Towards the beginning of the pandemic I remember being bombarded by the news of people wanting to learn a language. Desperate as we all were for brain stimulation and something else to focus on, learning a language seemed to be the perfect solution. Such was the collective enthusiasm for this skill that Duolingo started advertising on TV; your streak on the app became something to post to social media; and the whole world seemed eager to become multilingual.
Although some might decry the benefits of learning via Duolingo, Drops or any other language learning app, I am not among that number. Yes, there are problems to learning a language in this way, but surely we should celebrate the fact that people are wanting to learn a language at all.
It is no secret that I love languages. Having grown up in a household where my parents can, between them, speak four languages, I have seen first-hand how knowing a second (or third, or fourth…) language can enrich your life. Knowing a second language is like sharing an in-joke: it is unexplainable to those who do not understand, but to those who do, it creates such an intense bond.
More than simply being something impressive to put on your CV or show off with at parties, I truly believe that knowing a second language enriches your life. Once you have heard slippers called pantoffels, the English word seems insufficient; the word pamplemousse will make you entirely rethink the humble grapefruit; there is no English translation comprehensive enough to describe what εβανιση truly means; not only does katundus mean goods and chattels, the sounds of the word enact the clunking of a heavy, katundus-laden bag. What I am trying to show here is that knowing another language is like hearing the same piece of music played by a different instrument: it is both the same and different at the same time, and life is richer for that experience.
Of course, the benefits of learning a language are well-publicised. It improves your memory; it can give you an advantage in business; it exposes you to other ways of thinking about and understanding the world. But equally, the difficulties associated with language learning are equally well-known: it can be frustrating; it might be difficult to hear from native speakers; there can be a lack of available resources; and as a Duolingo advert so eloquently put it, ‘learning a language is f***ing difficult’.
Indeed, it seems that these challenges have put many off learning a language altogether. In the UK, students learning German at A-Level dropped by 64% from 2002 to 2018. This is a damning statistic, not least because in this international world of trade and business, it is becoming more and more essential to communicate with other countries around the world, and I would argue, we must not rely upon English’s status as a lingua franca to do this.
It was therefore immensely cheering for me to hear about those who pledged to learn a language whilst being in lockdown. And I very much hope that this is something that many language learners will continue long after the pandemic is over. Language learning is a skill for a lifetime, not just for lockdown.