April 19, 2021

It is a curious paradox that as the world closed down last year, our desire to learn its languages rose. More striking, though, is the strange, gamified form it assumed.

Increasingly, learning Italian has become like one of those Buzzfeed posts that used to tell you that you’d been slicing a mango wrong your whole life. Studying a language has become treated as a practical problem — and when we have practical problems in 2021, be it in tile grouting or bike maintenance, the first thing we turn to is YouTube. And the first thing that YouTube teaches you are “hacks”.

Take Nathaniel Drew, an owlish early-20s American with 1.3 million YouTube subscribers, who has racked up nigh on 3 million views for his video, “I learned Italian in 7 days”; 805,000 views for its less successful sequel, “I learned Portuguese in 7 days”; and a category-leading 9.6 million for the cute, impressive motherlode of: “Speaking 5+ languages with my polyglot grandma”.

Drew’s secret, which he will also sell you in a series of courses, is essentially: memorise the thousand most common words in any language, record yourself saying them, combine the words to create more advanced sentences, learn common verb conjugations, then just go ham on cultural artefacts like songs and podcasts.

And then there’s Cameron — the clean-cut 20-something behind the channel Language Lords. He offers a Stakhanovite routine of daily Excel phrase spreadsheets and out-loud summarising in “How I Got Fluent In French In 30 Days (Full 8 Hour Routine)”. Or there’s Ikenna, with his 755,000 subscribers, a streetwear lothario in a yellow hoodie and black beanie who says he has taught himself six languages in nine years. He too is a thousand-worder, but also with an elaborate flashcard game, which later eases into prescriptions to read a lot of graphic novels in your target language. 

If this next-level systematising sounds depressingly mechanical, remember: the motivations for learning any language are almost always noble. Yet here, they’re also bound up with a personal development aesthetic. Goals and the meeting of them is a central part of the millennial mindset. To hit your targets is to follow your dreams; to follow your dreams is to have achieved transcendence. By this measure, the YouTube polyglots are basically gurus.

For lesser mortals, still stuck in the 9-5, without the time to invent their own systems, there’s Duolingo. In 2020, the market-leading app reported a 67% jump in users, compared to the previous year. In the UK, they shot up by 132%, almost double the worldwide average. The app’s key to success? It has perfected a new kind of language gamification.

To “win” in Chinese or Serbian, users must hold on to their continuous “streaks” by practising every day, and in the process acquire a series of digital baubles — diamonds, hearts and the like. The lessons are packaged to fit into the ten-minute work gap, the Tube ride or a smoke break. They even tap into the way we see our phones as rectangles of productivity — be it actual emails, or just the pseudo-work of social media, or even stuffing your ears with podcasts. To be mentally idle is to be missing out. 

The dominant player from the previous era of traditional educational software, Rosetta Stone, now has 500,000 subscribers in its online incarnation, charging each of those $120 a year. Duolingo, by comparison, has 28 million. Yes, only 1% of those upgrade from their free system to the premium version, but in absolute terms those numbers are so big they still trump Rosetta Stone’s revenues.

As an aspirational product, Duolingo has achieved this by allowing users to dive into multiple languages simultaneously, like kids in a candy shop. It offers more range than anyone else: over a million people are presently studying High Valyrian — the made-up dialect from Game Of Thrones. 

At its worst, though, this leads to a kind of Emily In Paris mode of consumption: doing a thing as an act of fandom, a badge of belonging. It’s a mode set up for failure, practically designed to keep internet consumers grazing on the thousand and one potential futures that they might hypothetically inhabit. As with the Netflix series about a hot American girl who ends up photo-blogging in a Paris sans bainlieus, this is “One day I’ll move to France” as a form of escapism from the drudgery of the commute.

Yet one of the first things the YouTubers will tell you is that Duolingo doesn’t work all that well. Intrigued by the company’s claim that 34 hours on the app was equivalent to a college semester’s worth of instruction, a former linguist spent that long studying Swedish, then convinced the professor of UCLA’s Elementary Swedish course to let him take the final exam. He got an F. 

It’s certainly better than nothing, but, like many internet products, the app is ultimately more interested in driving up your usage time — in creating addiction — rather than in finding the short route to growing your skills. Those who embrace the gamification can end up with kind of obsession of the intellect — the constant need to achieve mastery, a life rationed out into a series of To Do lists: “Abs, breadmaking, Tae Kwan Do, Swahili”. 

After all, when it comes down to it, “completion” will always be tantalisingly just beyond the horizon. And just as no one ever truly “completes” a language, so too no one is ever truly satisfied with their overall crop. Steve Kaufmann — a genial, older YouTuber who claims proficiency in some 20 tongues — is perhaps the Michael Phelps of his domain, hero-worshipped by the younger set. This is a world where everyone knows by heart the US State Department’s bedrock estimations of how long an English speaker will take to learn a target language: the likes of Spanish — with plenty of loan words and common grammar — come in around 550 hours. Russian? Indonesian? You’re looking at 1100 hours. Then, there are the Fiddly Four: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, all a gut-busting 2200 hours for fluency. Like benching 100kg or summiting K2, these are the targets that put you in a whole new quantum level.

But as impressive as it may be, there’s also something a bit melancholy about double-digit language skills. Witness the experience of hyper-polyglot Dr Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, who, in a piece in the New Yorker, turns up in Malta, spends a week swallowing a dictionary, taking endless notes, practising with every cabbie, hoovering up a casual fluency — then departs, probably never to return. Dr Luis has just had a linguistic one-night stand. 

After all, a language is only as useful as the people behind it: a gateway into literature, a periscope into culture and a doorway towards friendship. For all the gearing that these hackers offer, To Do lists inevitably make for misery, because competence is just the starting line of the good stuff. To learn a language like this is like leaving dinner after the hors d’oeuvres. That’s French for sausage roll, by the way.