The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Why are people really learning languages?

Posted on June 18, 2014 by

If you’re learning a language at the moment, take a second to consider this question: why?

Recently, the question has been framed in economic terms. Freakonomics began it with a podcast that questioned the financial benefits of language learning. Over at the Economist’s Prospero blog, Robert Lane Greene argued that the numbers were higher than had been estimated and varied greatly depending on language.

It’s a debate worth having – albeit a bit sad that we reduce the beauty (and unquantifiable benefits) of learning a new language to an economic return on investment.

But how decisive is this factor? For which age groups and nationalities? What are the main reasons that make people want to learn a language?

These are questions we are constantly grappling with, so earlier this year we asked our users.

The results of the Babbel user survey are now in. Over 5,000 people took part in six countries: France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy and the USA. We asked them about their motivation to learn a language and their learning patterns, and analysed the results by age and country.

 

Travel, language interest – and brain training

When answering why they chose to learn a language, respondents were able to select up to three reasons. The two most common responses, ‘to communicate better when travelling’ (26%) and ‘out of interest in the language’ (22%), were not a surprise.

But the third most popular, ‘to keep mentally fit’ (17%), shows how rapidly the perception of language learning is changing.

Ongoing technological advances in the field of neuroscience have lead to a plethora of good-news studies about language learning, showing how it increases cognitive function, slows brain aging and delays dementia. This in turn meant that ‘brain training’ companies like Lumosity and Fit Brains sprung up, extolling the health benefits of language learning and brain training.

Language learning is increasingly viewed as a direct tool of cognitive self-improvement.

Age, naturally, is a crucial variable here: over 30% of people over 70 saw language learning as a way to keep mentally fit, while only 5% of people under 18 felt that way.

 

French discipline, German laissez-faire

Contrary to most stereotypes of German efficiency and French laziness, 60% of French users ‘learn according to a fixed rhythm’, in comparison to 38% of German users. French people also lead the charge when it comes to learning every day (23%).

The French school system, with its emphasis on strict discipline and regular lessons, might account for this. This theory is supported by some rather sweet anecdotal evidence – the number of French learners who write to us to apologise for their lack of recent study.

 

Show me the money

So, how many people are in fact motivated to learn a language for the (perhaps indirect) financial benefits?

Those who say they learn ‘for my job search’ arguably do. If we were generous we could also include those who do so ‘for my job’, thereby increasing chances of promotion or new positions.

If we combine those two factors, Italian users are highest on the list (18%), followed by German users (12%) and French users (10%). US users were least likely to choose these reasons, with only 5%.

It’s worth noting that among Babbel users, ‘to communicate better when travelling’, ‘out of interest in the language’ and ‘to keep mentally fit’ are all far more common motivation factors.