Languages of Isolation

Students take time during quarantine to learn new languages


Duolingo is a popular language learning app for beginners.

The coronavirus has forced millions of people across the country to self-quarantine and isolate at home, leaving students with more time on their hands due to online continuous learning plans. Some BVN students are using this time to do something they’ve always wanted to do: learn a new language.

Duolingo is one of the most popular language apps on the market according to Google Play, with over 100 million downloads and 4.7 stars. From March 9 to March 30, the number of new users on Duolingo in the United States jumped by 148 percent, according to Business Insider and globally, sign-ups increased by 108 percent in the month of March. According to Michaela Kron, senior public relations manager, Duolingo has seen their traffic spike to “all-time highs.”

But Duolingo is not the only language learning provider experiencing record-level highs. Other apps, such as Rosetta Stone and Busuu have seen spikes of activity as well. Babbel, a paid language learning app which typically costs $9 per month, is going further to support students at home by making its services free to all students with a valid school email address.

Junior Mihir Sunkara started learning German on Duolingo a year ago, but found it difficult to fit into his schedule.

“I was doing two or three days at a time [with] months of gaps in between because I was too busy,” Sunkara said. “I really picked it up again last week. I find German to be a very cool language, and anyway I’ve got the time on my hands now. Might as well get started. I was actually going to start learning again in the summer, but deep down I knew that I would do it for a couple of days and procrastinate, then drop it again. But now [that] it’s quarantine, I have a lot of free time that I wasn’t expecting. [German] is just a good way to fill it up. Might as well be productive with that, right?”

Before starting German, Sunkara spoke three languages fluently: English, Hindi and Telugu, with classes in Spanish and French. Telugu is Sunkara’s mother language and he has been taking French and Spanish for three years at BVN. He hopes to learn German during quarantine and incorporate it into his future career.

“I’m into cars, and one of the biggest automotive industries in the world is in Germany. The style of manufacturing and the type of cars that are made in Germany, it’s unlike anything else. It’s really what my whole interest in cars stems from. So maybe I’ll be spending quite a lot of time there in the future,” Sunkara said. “I thought, let’s just start now.”

Sunkara has been learning German for about two weeks as of April 14 and has learned the basics of the language. He practices anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes a day.

“I can identify genders,” Sunkara said. “I can use pronouns, basic vocabulary [like] bread, water, [and] basic phrases like please, thank you, good morning, good night. The words themselves are pretty complex. Simple phrases in English, like no or sorry, are very short, but in German they are three or four words. You need to really differentiate between various tenses and vocabulary. It’s easy to get confused.”

During his quarantine, senior Nicholas D’Souza has been spending his time learning Portuguese and Hindi on his phone.

“I definitely had a lot of time on my hands and I knew that it was something I wanted to pick up and see if I could take on that challenge,” D’Souza said. “So I decided to download Duolingo [to] just try it and it has ended up working out really well. I try to do it once a day and I really like challenging myself in that area. I always wanted to learn a language, but I hadn’t really decided to put my foot down on it.”

D’Souza hopes by studying Hindi he can learn to communicate and connect with his relatives more.

“I decided to learn Hindi because my dad is from India,” D’Souza said. “He was a first generation immigrant. He came here when he was 25 to go to college. I went [to India] when I was 10 years old, and I really, really liked it and really wanted to connect more with my culture. I think that sparked my interest seeing my dad conversing with everyone. I just really wanted to pick that up from him. I wanted to try to learn [Hindi] because I’d really like to go back to India [so] I can utilize that and connect back to my heritage.”

India also holds another language connection for D’Souza: Portuguese.

“My last name is Portuguese,” D’Souza said. “The town that my dad’s parents grew up in, Goa India, had a large Portugese influence there so a lot of the citizens there spoke Portuguese. My dad’s mom is also fluent in Portuguese and since I’m taking Spanish in school I noticed that the language was super similar so I wanted to see if I can maybe pick up some of that as well.”

D’Souza is currently taking AP Spanish and has found that the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese have been beneficial in his learning process.

“Learning Spanish beforehand has really helped me to get through [Portuguese] a little bit faster than I thought I could,” D’Souza said. “A lot of the words are similar in sound and a lot of the conjugation for verbs [is] pretty similar. Portuguese sometimes is hard because I’ll mix up the words in Spanish or Portuguese. Sometimes I think a word is in Portuguese when it’s [actually] in Spanish or vice versa.”

D’Souza has not been learning these languages for long. He started on Duolingo at the start of quarantine, when students were on Spring Break. He has learned the basics of the languages and is still working to improve.

“I’ve only learned a little bit [of] Portuguese,” D’Souza said. “I’m definitely not at all very conversant much at all. Hindi is also especially hard because of the different letters. I’m trying to figure out the writing portion of it.”

Aside from potentially using German in a future career or Hindi to speak to relatives, being bilingual has many scientific, as well as, cultural benefits. According to a study by the American Academy of Neurology, people who speak two languages are less likely to have memory problems like Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life.
“[Learning languages] is important because it gives you an insight on another culture that really enhances you as a global citizen and it gives you an advantage in your line of work,” D’Souza said.