Among the evergreen jokes of the British comedy troupe Monty Python is a grammar gag in their 1979 film Life of Brian. Caught daubing graffiti on the walls of Pontius Pilate’s palace by a Roman centurion, the hapless wannabe activist Brian is held at daggerpoint, not for vandalism or insurrection but for getting the Latin for “Romans go home” wrong. Brian’s punishment is to write the sentence out correctly 100 times before sunrise. The joke’s appeal depends partly on its silly-ass slide from totalitarian horror into a fear of traditional language teaching, and partly on the communal sheepishness that so often accompanies Britons holidaying abroad as they try to navigate the local lingo.
Decades on, extraordinarily, the skit has lost none of its touchstones. Learning by rote and punishment by writing lines have featured in Tory prescriptions for a cure to educational ills, while command of languages at school level has taken a triple hit: harder exams, a critical, resource-driven staffing crisis, and a reported post-Brexit reluctance among some students – and their parents – to commit time and effort to the languages of a Europe to which they no longer belong.
Follow the money, follow the language app. In 2009, a US-based German-Guatemalan university professor and entrepreneur, Luis von Ahn, and his Swiss-born postgraduate student Severin Hacker launched Duolingo, a free app with a pesky green owl as its mascot. For all that its USP is a childish competitiveness, with league tables, incentivising caskets spilling cartoon jewels, and a twerking TikTok profile, it has soared ahead of its competitors. Duolingo now teaches more than 40 languages to more than 70 million students, 54% of whom are aged between 18 and 34. It has a paid-for version for those who want to avoid adverts. Though it has yet to turn a profit, in 2019 Forbes Magazine counted it among the 25 next billion-dollar startups. In February this year alone, it registered more than 13 million new downloads.
It is an early adopter of the advanced artificial intelligence model GPT-4, and its offerings include look-at-me gimmicks such as courses in Star Trek’s Klingon and Game of Thrones’ High Valyrian, but also minority languages such as Xhosa and Navajo (though three Slavonic languages – Croatian, Slovak and Slovene – are oddly overlooked). The length it takes to complete a course varies, but the 216 units currently available in Spanish – its most popular language, with more than 30 million learners – would take several years of a 15-minute-a-day habit.
Though few actually complete a course, Duolingo, like its many competitors, shows that there is an aspiration to be multilingual, even in the foreign-language-averse anglophone world, which provides the majority of its learners. Earnest academic papers have been written about how much these learners benefit. Some demonstrate that it is a useful aid in classroom teaching, while others point out that it will never enable anyone to conduct a complex conversation about astrophysics, or get beyond the earliest stages of fluency, as laid out by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Both are right. Languages are social constructs that exist to enable communication between people. While apps cannot replace interpersonal conversation or immersion in a culture, they can supplement it. Their success should serve as a wake-up call: a reminder that foreign languages have a valuable role to play in any fit-for-purpose education system, as much for personal enrichment as for career advantage in a networked world.