Riding the language learning wave

During global quarantines for COVID-19, Duolingo saw a growth in new users since the pandemic started. (Sofia Paura/AQ)

I pick up my phone as it beeps with a new notification. This is the third notification today from Duolingo, a platform for free online language learning, reminding me to practice my Spanish, just like I have been doing for the past 130 days.

The app gives me exercises, from repeating a sentence to translating something from Portuguese to Spanish, and matching words to their meanings.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands and decided to fill it with learning a new language. Portuguese is my first language, I learned English at school and I have always wanted to travel to Latin American countries. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone by learning Spanish.

Duolingo saw a growth in new users since the pandemic started. The app released that they saw a global growth of 108 per cent just in the month of March.

Jeniffer Gimenes, a university student in Brazil, is also studying Spanish and English and plans on becoming a teacher after university.

“I decided to learn Spanish because of a mix of factors,” she said. “One factor was due to my grandparents being immigrants from Spain and this is a culture that has always been present at my house. Another factor was the Latin culture. I started getting in contact with Latin culture like music and TV shows. I also think Spanish is a beautiful language, so I wanted to learn it.”

Gimenes said learning a language has helped her cope during the pandemic.

“Learning a new language is a good distraction, and it is also knowledge. It’s always good to have more knowledge since it’s our main weapon against ignorance.”

While doing my daily exercise, Duolingo asks me to translate the sentence “the forest has many trees” into Spanish. It corrects me when I forget to include the accent in the word “árboles.

Victoria Narvaez, a fifth-year student at St. Thomas University from Ecuador, is learning Italian. She has nephews and nieces that speak Italian, so she wants to be able to communicate with them properly.

Narvaez is taking intermediate Italian at St. Thomas University online and says that overall, it has been a good experience.

I am enrolled in a similar course. Narvaez is taking Italian at STU and I am taking Spanish. Languages professors at the university are providing small groups for conversation exercises, being flexible with assignments, and constantly checking-in with us.

Narvaez said she would still take Italian at STU if the pandemic did not happen, but probably would not put the same effort into it as she is doing right now.

“I think I would still be taking intermediate Italian both semesters, but I don’t think I would have used the time to sit down and learn it before class.”

I find myself typing “Yo comeré aquí,” which translates to “I will eat here” during my next Duolingo’s exercise and make sure to include the accent on “comeré.

I called Minahil Fatima, a second-year student from Lahore, Pakistan, who is studying Turkish. She said that the pandemic opened a new avenue for learning, and if she wasn’t “stuck at home” she probably would not be learning Turkish.

“I would not have had the time or the personal interest.”

In fact, she said she would probably be learning a completely different language. Fatima studies international relations, political science and human rights, and due to her areas of studies, has another language she wants to learn.

“I was going to study Arabic at UNB because part of my [international relations] degree is either you take economics, or you take a language course,” she said.

“I might as well learn Arabic because I’m familiar with the alphabet, but that ended up not happening because UNB cancelled those classes due to moving online … so I was like, ‘might as well start Turkish instead of Arabic.'” 

The app gives me a listening exercise and it asks me to type what I am listening to. I can’t help but get frustrated when I hear a low-pitched sound. That means I made a mistake when writing and need to re-do it.

Vitória Lima, a Brazilian university student, always had an interest in Japanese culture. But as a law student, she did not have the time to fit learning Japanese in her schedule.

“In reality, the pandemic positively affected my learning, because I have more time and my desire to learn actually started during the pandemic. Now, I get to organize my schedule to fit my Japanese classes and don’t have to worry about time as much as I did before.”

Lima has weekly Japanese classes through Discord, a platform also used for gaming. Lima has synchronous classes with six other students, which gives her the chance to receive feedback from her professor in a more meaningful way.

“He gives us reading materials, we send him pictures of our writing, he sends us back with corrections and more.”

My daily Spanish exercises have me repeating the sentence “el hombre tiene fe,” which translates to “the man has faith,” until it accepts my pronunciation.

Alexandre Leclair, an NBCC student from Moncton, uses a platform called Babbel to learn Portuguese.

“I like it. You can speak it, they have memory cards, you can write it, so I really like that part.”

Leclair said he is learning a new language so he can travel after he finishes his studies.

“I’ve always wanted to travel after I finished my studies and I was going to finish it this year no matter what, so I would have probably learned it anyway. But I don’t think I would have put as much time into it as I am willing to do right now.”

Duolingo asks me what “beberé” means, and it gives me a few options to choose from. The app makes a ding sound when I choose the correct alternative.

Hannah Elizabeth John, an international student from India who is learning French, said reading newspapers and looking for other ways of adding the language to your daily life truly make a difference.

“I read Le monde [a French newspaper], and I also try to check different French new sources into my base. On social media, I follow a lot of French newspapers and other sites, so I can learn new vocabulary from [them].”

“I am planning to move to McGill and start law, and study in France, so I always wanted to really learn French, but I did not really have the time. The pandemic gave me the time to actually focus on what I should do in the future and how learning a language would actually help me a lot.”

The last exercises in my Spanish practice are always the hardest. Today, it asked me to re-do exercises from the unit that I had gotten wrong before. I can’t help but smile when I finally finish them, getting them all right this time.

I close my Duolingo app, finishing day 130 and ready for 131. Lista para aceptar el desafío del mañana.