I was recently reading a blog post by my friend and fellow OpenLanguage content contributor Kirsten Winkler. Grimly titled ‘The Grim Future of Language Learning’, Kirsten presents reasons why language learning as an industry has a rather pessimistic outlook. One statement particularly struck me ‘Let’s face it, language learning is not a desirable pastime for the masses. Most people learn a language because they need to, not because they want to.’ Kirsten sums up the attitude towards language learning as ‘general averseness’. Being a language learner, teacher and an entrepreneur, the article does echo some of my own experience. But I have a rather positive take on the language learning scene, from both a business and personal point of view.
A Niche Pastime
As uncommon as it is, I’ve seen many adults who choose to pick up language learning as a hobby. This couldn’t be more vividly demonstrated by my experience at ChinesePod. Launched in 2005, it originally primarily targeted expats living in China, i.e. those who needed to speak some Chinese to get through daily life in China. But we soon realized that the majority of our customers actually lived outside China. Many of them had not even been to China. They were learning Chinese primarily for personal growth and fulfillment. This always comes as a big surprise to people who found out who our customers were. Over the years, I’ve met both virtually and in person countless learners who came from diverse walks of life: bankers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, suburban moms, retirees, etc. They have very different personal reasons as to why they are learning Chinese. But none is doing it because they have to. The common thread is always personal interest and fulfillment. Many of them stick with it for years and become lifelong learners. In turn, the solutions they seek tend to be quite varied, more inspirational and ‘human interest’ than enrolling in a semester of Chinese studies or buying a few books. They use services such as ChinesePod where there’s fresh content, human connections and community support to keep them motivated and engaged. Learning isn’t a means to an end for them. It’s both. That’s one of the reasons that helped ChinesePod become a successful subscription business.
Celebrating Language Nerds
We’ve affectionately nicknamed this group of learners ‘language nerds‘. They derive a deep sense of pleasure from language learning and are often interested in learning more than 1 language. In my current startup OpenLanguage, we even designed a product for language nerds that gives them unlimited access to 7 different languages including English, Spanish, Russian and even Arabic. As niche as the market is, I deeply believe that there is a group of passionate people seeking to learn more languages to understand more about the world and enrich their own. Language is as much a practical tool as it is about social interaction and enriched experiences. That’s why concepts such as ‘edutainment’ and parasocial relationships are extremely important for language businesses that are trying to capture this market segment. Many language tech companies are using tech innovation to create shortcuts in learning. While I’m all for making the process more efficient and effective, the human aspect of learning and delivering pleasure and fulfillment in the process should not be overshadowed.
Language learning and language learners should all be celebrated.