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Brexit prompts surge in Brits signing up to learn languages online

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Some Britons unhappy with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union have opted for an unusual form of protest – learning a new language.

In the days leading up to Article 50 being triggered on March 29, 2017, a leading language-learning app reports that it saw a 24% increase in new user sign-ups in the UK.

The CEO of Duolingo, which has 300 million users, told Sky News that the company noticed a spike in sign-ups at the time and saw its users commenting online that they had been motivated by Brexit.

“We don’t normally know why [spikes happen],” Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn told Sky News.

“We looked at Twitter and there’s tweets like ‘oh I guess I’m going to have to learn other languages’,” he said.

As well as posts on social media, messages on Duolingo’s forums echoed the same sentiments.

A user posting under the name bookrabbit wrote:”I am conducting a personal protest against Brexit by working my way through the challenge of learning to understand all the European Languages. So far I can understand six well, another four quite well and a few more are getting there.”

Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn told Sky News his app saw a spike in UK sign ups
Image:
Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn told Sky News his app saw a spike in UK sign ups

Another poster, using the name Motodraconis, wrote: “Though I am a British national (working in the UK) I am anticipating that I will lose my job because of Brexit… I signed up to Duolingo a month after the vote, as my best hope of completing my research will be to go to Europe, most likely Germany or Austria (who are hot on my subject.) I really threw myself into German on Duolingo, reaching level 25 in 5 months.”

As this increase in sign-ups in March 2017 was limited to the UK, the company said it believes this made it “it much more likely that Brexit was the cause”.

“It’s interesting that some people actually did [try a new language],” Mr von Ahn said, reflecting that many often say they will take action but don’t.

“There is Google Translate and all that stuff but it’s a completely different thing to speak the language yourself,” he said.

“I don’t think it’ll ever get to the point where you can have a meaningful conversation with somebody through [tech, like] an ear bud,” he said, adding, “It works but it’s not very comfortable.”

Duolingo say they have seen a similar effect in America with users on their forum saying they want to learn Russian in light of the investigation into whether Russia meddled in the US election.

Although some of these posters may be joking, Mr von Ahn says: “We also did see a pick up of Russian in the US.”

Duolingo has 300 million learners around the world. Pic: Sanya Burgess
Image:
Duolingo has 300 million learners around the world. Pic: Sanya Burgess

Duolingo report they had over 865,000 active learners over the past year for Russian in the US.

He added: “My guess is a lot of these are initial [increases] and then dropped off.”

Mr von Ahn says the UK and US have similar trends, and that in both countries about half of Duolingo’s users there are “productive procrastinators”.

“A significant number of our users don’t want to waste their time and so maybe do Duolingo rather than scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush,” he said.

The most common language learnt in the UK changes.

In the summer, studying Spanish increases from 28% in the winter to 51% in the summer.

Users then move to study French more in the winter.

Duolingo also offers smaller languages, including Welsh.

They report than more than a million people have signed up for the Welsh course and there have been 340,000 active learners in the past year.

Some 866,700 people who live in Wales say they can speak Welsh.

Scottish politician Alasdair Allan, an SNP MSP, has been lobbying Duolingo to add Scottish Gaelic to the available languages.

Before co-founding Duolingo, Mr von Ahn, 40, from Guatemala, sold reCaptcha, a security system used on forms to ensure that a computer user is human not a bot, and an image description game to Google in 2009.

He speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese and is currently learning French.

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