Kirsten Winkler Language & Business Forum 2013

Why Language Learning is looked down upon – or is it?

As some of you might already know, I was invited to give short presentation and act as “agent provocateur” at the Languages and Business Forum 2013 in Berlin two weeks ago. I spoke of trends I see happening at the intersection of technology and learning that make an impact on how we learn languages these days and in the near(er) future.

During a chat around the event the discussion came to the point as to why language learning as a business, so both more established companies and startups alike as well as individual tutors, seem to be faced with more problems around making money off of their teaching/service than service providers in other verticals of the learning market tend to experience.

I know, this might be a brutal generalization as there are also examples of businesses that seem to prove this wrong; I myself had a thriving tutoring business online without the difficulty of finding paying customers.

I also just recently read an article in The Guardian that tutoring was actually one of the (few) booming markets in the UK, and I hope this is true for language tuition. Furthermore online offers by language learning providers such as busuu, or Voxy, so to speak businesses that need and want to make money, seem to prove that there is a market for paid offers.

However, I must admit that a feeling deep down inside me exists, the notion that learning a language is not regarded as valuable by many people as say coding, just to use one of the most hyped verticals of the moment as an example. Watching the video leaves me with the impression that simply knowing how to code will provide kids with a better life. Eventually, it will not. But this is for another post.

So where is this enthusiasm for languages?

Sure, we all love duolingo. But why? Because it’s free? I think, at first glance, this is correct.
But I reckon, what really “sells” people on duolingo, to use this verb inappropriately, what counts for duolingo is its higher purpose of providing high-quality education to the world for free. It’s not necessarily about languages. In this point, the mission or premise is very similar to Salman Khan’s Khan Academy.

Apart from that, when I ask startup founders today like I did the past as to the why they launched something in the online language learning space, I often get the stereotype answer that they have always had a passion for languages. Well, this might be true for some of them. For the majority, however, I sense it was simply the easiest solution both in terms of the technology and because they had heard of language learning as a huge market.

I am still genuinely surprised that founders pitch me for “an online marketplace for languages where tutors can find students and students find the best tutor to fit their individual needs”. Sometimes with a bit of local baked in, sometimes with a fairtrade aspect. Essentially, the same old pitch I have gotten since 2009, and ignoring all of the startups that didn’t make it in that exact vertical. But sure, if you found the holy grail go ahead! I will not hold you back, you wouldn’t listen anyway.

Anyhow, to come back to the chat, an interesting point came up, and I would just like to put it out there as a thought, maybe a thesis. I would like to engage in more conversations around it, for sure.

I might be paraphrasing here, but the essence was that from school everybody has an opinion on languages and how to learn them. Unlike coding or some of the STEM subjects where people seem to see more (depth, challenge etc.) in them, languages seem to be marginalized to learn vocabulary and some grammar rules, learn them by heart, then practice a bit and you’ll master the language to a decent level.

As stated above, learning how to code or math and physics seem to have something bigger to them. What are my readers’ opinions? Where do you see the reasons that language learning suffers a bit more or maybe lacks the image and importance of some of the verticals we currently read so much about in education and tech news?

Let’s exchange views in the comments.

  • Kerstin

    What an awesome premise and thought process there, Kirsten! I wish I could disagree, and partly I do, but it is an important fact to consider that language learning is regarded as a luxury by most.

    You make many very true points – it is a huge marketplace, by people who look for it as a hobby or those who really hope for a better life out of it. The language learners who study “for the love of it” are those who can afford to invest in the quality of tuition and materials that they are looking for, but those are – by definition – already doing quite well economically. Language learning is a hobby, a self-improvement project and an enterprise that opens up new worlds for the beneficiary. It is not a step into a new career for the majority of people, in the same way that coding would be.

    And then there is the “it was boring/difficult in school” aspect which hits every conceivable adult who attempts to study a new language. It just seems to be impossible to think of language learning as fun. “Polyglots” are largely not regarded as cool, certainly not in the way that developers are cool and now associated with hipster coffee, cycling around Google campus or doing other desirable things.

    Language learning has a massive image problem. What do we do about it?

  • Kay Alexander

    I think it is really hard to estimate how much a language trainer is worth based on the huge selection of free or low priced alternatives you have on the Internet. Put on the spot, I would struggle to give a guess which totally screws up the sales cycle as you want customers to take quick decisions.

  • Tripp Au Noir

    Language learning is definitely a huge market, but monetizing online versions of it involves selling to schools (usually a painfully slow process) or to individuals, who only seem to trust household names (Pearson and Co.) Either way, you’re in it for the long run, so you’d better build a product that can be maintained at a very low cost while you build a userbase.

  • André Klein

    Language skills are “soft skills”. In a highly competitive world these always take the back seat to seemingly more “concrete” skills such as what is ridiculously called “STEM” (historically, the arts and philosophy were the stem from which other disciplines emerged). The majority of people tends to follow the flute of prescribed career choices. Is there big or easy money in language learning? Probably not. But coding and science as a salvation to all the world’s problems is also just a pipe-dream.

  • EnglishTeacher Anne

    Language learning is a long continuous process with so many factors
    involved in it and it’s important for language learners to realize that.

    Nowadays, many people seem to want things quick and fast with the least
    investment possible; they want to see the results quick, but
    unfortunately, language learning doesn’t work this way. Also, with so
    much freebies English materials out there, and language trainers
    offering unbelievably low prices, learners seem to take them
    for granted and undervalue the paid lessons.

  • Eugène Ernoult

    Hi Kirsten,

    Thank you for the great article! We have some similar feedback at Pili Pop Labs about the marginalization of languages but we think it isn’t true in a lot of countries and especially in non-English speaking countries.

    Of course, we struggle quite often to show parents how vital it is to learn more than one language. As you said, a lot of them aren’t really impressed by their child being able to pronounce sentences in a foreign language compared to learn basic code.

    It’s especially true in English-speaking countries where foreign-language learning isn’t seen as a mandatory skill to succeed. It’s not really that important as you will still be able to communicate with almost everyone in English.

    But in other countries like Brazil, Spain, China and even France, it’s more and more seen as a big sign of success to be able to speak at least English but also other languages. In France, a country known for its poor level in English, foreign languages is one of the top Education priorities nowadays and people are increasingly aware of the necessity to learn English. The dominance of English-speaking media might make us think otherwise but we think it’s not true.

    We also think that a product especially designed for kids is still missing and that’s why we are developing Pili Pop.

    Concerning the hype of learning to code, we always tell non-English speakers that they should start with teaching English to their children before teaching them how to code as all the programming languages are in English :)

  • bridge2english


    You describe the current status as “languages seem to be marginalized to learn vocabulary and some grammar rules, learn them by heart, and then practice a bit, and you’ll master the language to a decent level.”

    In my opinion, this description is a correct generalization of all conventional methods and therefore, should be associated with the language deficit which we observe in the leading global economies. Is there any possibility to reexamine conventional methods and try to find a more efficient or brain-compatible method of acquiring language skills?

    Just for the sake of discussion, I would not advice to learn vocabulary by using flash card-based applications since they create an illusion that the learner will be able to speak fluently by taking separate words and sticking
    them together. Another advice – don’t learn grammar rules since native speakers use a different type of grammar – intuitive grammar that could be acquired only through training or experiencing comprehensible situations in English.

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