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What motivates people to learn a new language?

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • May 15, 2023 12:00:00 AM

There are many reasons why translators and interpreters choose their career path. But what motivates people who aren’t planning to focus their career on a foreign language, to study one?

Writer Erin McGann reports that an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world are currently learning a foreign language. The largest population of language learners is in Europe, where an impressive 92% of students are studying at least one foreign language, compared to 67% of students in China, and only 20% of students in the US and 13% of students in Japan.

McGann argues that a lot of the reason for this is that European school systems usually require students to study at least one foreign language in order to graduate, while in other school systems, this may not be the case.

These statistics remind us that many people are learning a language to fulfill academic requirements. But a large number of language learners have other motivations.

Interestingly, though, these motivations change depending on the language.

Language learning app Duolingo’s 2022 Report findings show that people generally choose to learn a foreign language for “practical and professional reasons” -- and no wonder. Recent surveys have found that employers ideally want candidates who speak more than one language, and jobs in multiple countries come with a pay increase for bilingual or multilingual employees. Many people also want to learn a language for travel or to move abroad.

But there’s one group of languages where another motivation reigns supreme.

Duloingo’s team discovered that some less commonly studied languages, including Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Yiddish, Norwegian, and Swedish, are the ones that learners are the most committed to.

Each day, Dulingo sends users exercises in the language(s) they’ve signed up to learn. The app famously monitors and tries to take users to task if they don’t do the daily exercises, which, among other things, has led to the creation of a notorious (and hilarious) meme featuring its owl mascot.

Many Duolingo users have experienced the wrath of the owl (at least figuratively speaking). But those who study the five previously mentioned languages have largely escaped unscathed. Duolingo reports that a majority of them (including up to 70% for those studying the list’s two Nordic languages) had “unbroken streaks” (i.e. did their exercises every day without fail).

Interestingly, the major motivation for these language learners isn’t “practical and professional”, but personal. According to data from the Duolingo team, people usually study these languages for familial and cultural reasons.

Of course, regardless of the reason behind it, anyone who’s studying a language will still reap numerous benefits if they stick with it. Even if they don’t reach the proficiency level of a translator or interpreter, studying a language gives people an opportunity to make connections with others and learn more about other cultures. Numerous studies also suggest that learning one or more languages can benefit the brain in many ways, including helping to strengthen our ability to multitask and fighting the effects of aging.

Despite its many benefits, learning a language isn’t easy. For those who are struggling with staying motivated, the Duolingo findings also point to a helpful strategy: Finding something about the experience that makes them want to keep going. For those who are studying the app’s less common languages, that seems to be, essentially, love.

Fortunately, there are many kinds of love besides those tied to family and culture. Duolingo reports, for instance, that a number of their subscribers are learning a new language so that they can watch TV series or movies they love in their original version.

All of these insights paint a fascinating picture of foreign language learners in 2023. While education, career, and travel plans are behind many people’s decision to learn a new language, an emotional connection is often what makes them stick with it. It seems that when it comes to language learning, as in life, love is a powerful thing.

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