Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Why We Are Learning New Languages

Data from language learning app Babbel shows exactly who is learning to speak other languages, why they're doing it, and how much difficulty they're having.

Why We Are Learning New Languages

Photo: Flickr user Jessica Spengler

Who learns foreign languages and why? When do they study? Do men and women learn then differently? Babbel, the language-learning app company, has published figures on how its apps are used that answer some of these question. The data is fascinating, compiling the answers of over 45,000 users.

Country

English is by far the most popular language, with 28% of all Babbel users learning it. Spanish comes in second at 18%. In the U.S., most people learn Spanish (22%), followed by French (20%) and German (17%). In the U.K., the top choice is also Spanish, whereas all other countries at the top of the chart favor English. Of these, Italians are the most enthusiastic learners of English, with almost half of them (47%) learning it.

Why do people learn languages? Babbel’s numbers break this down by country. The Germans learn in order to communicate better when traveling. The Brazilians and Spanish do it for self-improvement. In Austria, 42% say they learn languages to "improve or maintain mental fitness." In the U.S., the top reason given for learning a language was "cultural interest," possibly reflecting the unwillingness of U.S. citizens to travel abroad—the State Department figures say that 126 million valid U.S. passports were in circulation in 2015, which is just 39% of the population.

Gender

Men are more likely to learn German, Portuguese, or Russian. Women favor Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish (only 0.2% of Babbel's users identified themselves "other"). Motivation and confidence were self-rated at about the same for both men and women, as were all other measured factors—aside from language choice, then, there is no significant difference when it comes to gender.

Age

Age, though, makes a bigger difference: 80% of people under 24 were confident that they’d "be able to hold a short conversation in their chosen language within five hours of using Babbel," with the numbers quickly dropping, nearing just 60% with people over 60 years old. That, though, may just illustrate the overconfidence of youth.

The reasons for learning were the most affected by age. "Learning for mental fitness" is down at 10% for under 18s, and grows steadily to 60% for those of 75 years and over. Not surprisingly, "learning for career" runs the other way, from one of the top reasons at around 25 years, to near-zero for retirees. Another reason that withered with age was "learning [in order to] live abroad one day," which is also as might be expected.

Language

Here are the top languages, by motivation for learning them.

  • Career: English (47%)
  • Cultural Interest: Spanish (24%)
  • Travel: English (37%)
  • Self-improvement: English (29%)
  • Roots/heritage reconnection: Italian (35%)

In this last category—roots/heritage reconnection—the fourth most popular result was Polish, which is pretty interesting. The only other place Polish appears in the whole survey is as the fifth most popular language among men. I wonder if these are the children of Polish immigrants, either in the U.S., or in Germany.

English is the clear winner here, in terms of popularity, closely followed by Spanish, which makes sense as they’re two most widely spoken languages (after Mandarin, which doesn’t really count as it’s only the official language of a few countries). If you speak English and Spanish, you have a good proportion of the world’s countries covered. Of the languages available in Babbel’s apps, only one didn’t make it into the listings: Turkish. Indonesian and Norwegian made it in, but only because they were not favored by male or female learners, i.e., they’re gender-neutral, preference-wise.

The whole survey is worth a deeper look, but maybe you’re inspired to stop reading the Internet and start learning a language instead?

loading