In Quarantine Mode, Americans are in Language-Learning Mood

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly had an interesting effect on some Californians, especially for those who are quarantined at home or who at least have spent more time at home than outdoors. One could say, people are discovering how to do things they’ve never done before — cook, tend to their garden, grow vegetables in their backyard, bake, Tiktok, and yes, even learn another language. Some are doing it so they can talk to their immigrant parents in their language. 

California set the stage for a new approach to educating children from immigrant families in 2016 with the passage of Proposition 58, which repealed the state’s 20-year-old English-only education law. 

In general, though, language learning is up Preply, an online language tutoring platform that has 10,000 tutors teaching 50 languages in 190 countries worldwide, has seen a threefold increase in interest in countries impacted by the virus sooner than others, such as Italy, Spain and Germany, according to Preply CEO Kirill Bigai in an interview with Forbes. 

In the United States, Preply’s single largest market, it has seen the number of new customers double week after week. Other apps are Duolingo and Memrise. But how are Americans learning it other than apps? 

Some residents are getting creative at learning another language. Listening to podcasts is one thing, but others are taking it to another level. Those trying to learn another language are watching foreign movies. It helps that some movies can be dubbed in English but come with Spanish subtitles, for instance. 

The Spanish-language Money Heist, a four-part caper series, offers this option. The series is pedestrian at best, but for someone interested in learning and not too keen on quality, it will do. For those learning the language, some people even end up Google translating some lines to catch up and learn.  

With classrooms and language schools closed and people holed up in their homes spending more time on their huge TV with streaming subscription (ask California Corporate Housing how it can arrange it for you for free), they find that there’s enough time for them to learn anything. And it’s not just because people are curious to learn, it has become a soothing balm from the onslaught of bad news everywhere. 

It’s not surprising to hear people say they learned another language by watching TV. RM, the rapper and spokesperson for the famous KPop group BTS, speaks fluent English, saying he learned it just from watching the hit 90s TV sitcom, “Friends.” Even baseball players from Latin America learned English watching the buddy sitcom, not just once but even five times.

So why are people learning another language? Not being able to travel is one reason. Lots of people are watching travel videos, even just videos from their own cities or neighborhood from vloggers running errands.

Whatever your motivation is, whether it’s for your recruitment efforts as a global mobility manager or recruiter, knowing a second language can increase your capacity for understanding and empathy.  

The theory that multilingualism increases empathy was tested in 2015 by a team of researchers at the University of Chicago, according to Elt Learn. The results from that study suggest multilingual children are better at understanding other people, even when the words they use are imprecise. 

The researchers presented kids ages 4 to 6 with three toy cars–a small, medium, and large one. Some of the children spoke just one language, others were bilingual, and a third group had been “exposed” to a second language but weren’t yet fluent.

At one point in the experiment, the researchers presented the cars so that the smallest one was hidden from their own view, while the children could see all three–then said, “I see a small car” and asked the child to move it. 

The bilingual and language-“exposed” children, knowing which cars the experimenter could see, moved the medium-sized car–the smallest one from the point of view of the adult giving them the instructions–three out of four times. 

Their monolingual counterparts did so only half the time. In other words, the children who were familiar with more languages were better at inferring the researchers’ intentions, even when their words came up short.

Those who speak another language may understand and accept ambiguity more readily than others.

Social media has made people easily triggered to anger by an opposing view. These days, people are quicker to retweet, share, or cry outrage, without verifying their source of information. But learning another language may nudge us into a place where people can’t help but slow down–where seeking understanding and commonalities in order to communicate becomes more paramount.  

There’s that saying that should help encourage people to consider another language: “Learn another language, avoid a war.” So apt in an easily triggered world.