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The linguists of lockdown: A number of people are learning new languages during the pandemic. Klingon and High Valyrian included


From flirting in Spanish and keeping in touch with their mother tongue to being able to understand their favourite K-dramas, there are a myriad reasons why an increasing numbner of people have started learning new languages during the pandemic

From flirting in Spanish and keeping in touch with their mother tongue to being able to understand their favourite K-dramas, there are a myriad reasons why an increasing number of people have started learning new languages during the pandemic

Roopali AS, a GIS analyst, has watched more than 20 K-Dramas through the pandemic. She especially revels in Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha and  Hotel Del Luna.

In the quiet of lockdown, she also discovered new Korean programmes on apps such as Rakuten Viki. “K-Dramas are cute and romantic; very different from series in other languages,” says Roopali. Last year, she finally enrolled intKorean classes at InKo Centre in Chennai, to better understand what she was watching. “I am going to learn enough to watch Korean serials without subtitles,” she states.

She is not alone. Between washing their hands and following the daily COVID count in the news, a growing number of people have channeled their energy, through lockdowns and solitary evenings, into learning a new language.

Encouraged by the demand, numerous language schools such as Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institut, and InKo Centre moved their courses into the virtual realm. InKo Centre’s Korean language classes have seen an uptick since April 2020. “We are in the happy position of getting more teachers because of demand. There is a waiting list,” says Rathi Jafer, director, InKo Centre. “The advantage of a virtual class is that it cuts through geography. Which means anyone anywhere can attend the sessions,” she adds. 

Roopali can now read Korean and understand 30% of what she watches, without subtitles. “Tamil and Korean have similarities. There are around 6,000 similar words. For example: Amma, Appa, Naal (day), Va (Wa in Korean), Naa (Me),” she lists. Next, she wants to visit Seoul and Jeju Island. “Watching these K-dramas have also made me want to go to Korea for my Masters,” she admits. 

A Korean student interacts with an Indian student from InKo Centre
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For Snigdha Konar, an ambition to study Archaeology in South Korea propelled her to learn Korean. “COVID-19 disrupted my plans but I continued to learn Korean as I enjoy K-Pop and K-Drama,” says Snigdha. “I have Korean friends on Facebook and I chat with them; my keyboard is in Korean,” she says, adding with a laugh that at times her family gets tired of her talking in Korean, while her brother practises the German he is learning.

Language classes today are a diverse mix of students, working professionals and retired personnel… The motivation to learn a language is no longer limited to academic or job-related pursuits. “There is a guy in my virtual class who is learning the language because his wife is Korean,” says Roopali.

Diya Bhatia’s Spanish classes on the other hand are the result of a chance meeting at a flamenco party in Spain. After meeting a charming Spaniard, who she communicated with via a translation app on her phone, she made a mental note to learn the language. In 2020, when the pandemic had put an end to most people’s social lives, Diya began learning Spanish online.

“It’s liberating to be able to interact with someone directly without depending on a gadget or app. Otherwise, a lot gets lost in translation,” she says, adding that she can’t wait to go on a holiday to Spain again. “Apart from Spain, Spanish is spoken in around 20 countries in South America. It is definitely an advantage to be a linguist,” she says, adding that some of her friends have been keen to learn the language after watching the Spanish series  Money Heist

At the Goethe-Institut, Bach is cited as a source of inspiration. “While 50% of our students are those who plan to study abroad, the rest learn it for novel reasons such as to de-stress, or out of love for the work of German composers, such as Bach,” says Prabhakar Narayanan, deputy director and language head, Goethe-Institut, Chennai.

He says he has also noticed a number of grandparents learning the language so they can converse with their grandchildren who live in Germany. “There has been a definite increase in German learners. In 2021, we had 2,200 registrations in Chennai. This year we are targeting 2,500,” says Prabhakar. There are dedicated classes every day. “Since 2020 the classes have been virtual. We have intensive, super intensive and weekend classes,” he says. Ten thousand people took the exam last year from all over Tamil Nadu, including Kumbakonam, Madurai, Coimbatore and Tiruchi.

Language learning apps such as Busuu, Babbel, Fluent-Forever are also seeing more users than ever before. Popular for offering learners the flexibility to engage with a language as and when they like, minus the serious setting of a class, they draw both serious as well as casual students.

Learning on the Duolingo app

Learning on the Duolingo app
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

US-based Duolingo, which made its India presence in 2016, offers 103 courses for 40 languages. This includes a mix of popular ones like English, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Italian as well as more niche languages like Hawaiian, Scottish Gaelic and Navajo. 

“India is currently one of our fastest growing markets,” says Karandeep Singh Kapany, country marketing manager – India, Duolingo, adding that amid restrictions on movement and concerns of safety, Indians stayed home and used smartphones as windows to the world. “While time spent on OTT and other entertainment platforms increased, an acute need to upskill was also felt leading to an increase in downloads for Duolingo,” he adds. 

Different apps have different methods of teaching. Courses on Duolingo feel like an interactive game. “Users can compete with each other via leaderboards, maintain streaks, earn points, level up and collect virtual currency as they learn. “Lessons are “bite-sized” which means they can be taken on-the-go in five minutes at a time and fit anyone’s schedule. Everything is free,” he says. He is confident that the surge in learning languages will continue. The reason, he believes, is a growing interest in different cultures, staying connected with the community and pursuing a new hobby.

There are also many who are utilising this time to get better acquainted with their mother tongue. For example, Saurabh S, who has lived away from his hometown Kolkata ever since he finished school, says his Bengali skills were weakening. He got a friend to help improve his language skills via WhatsApp. “And now I have rediscovered the joy of reading Bengali books such as Satyajit Ray’s F eluda,” he says on a call from Pune.

While English, Hindi, French, Spanish and Korean are the top five languages that Indians are currently learning, in that order, there are plenty of options for people who want to grapple with a unique language challenge.

There is also a segment that might excite fans of fictional series. “Certain languages Duolingo teaches didn’t exist 150 (or even 25) years ago,” says Karandeep, in all seriousness. “These are the constructed language (or “conlang”) courses that include Klingon and High Valyrian. They enable fan communities of popular shows like  Star Trek and Game of Thrones to learn and converse, till perhaps, they can effortlessly say: Valyrio muño ēngos ñuhys issa (Valyrian is my mother tongue) or tlhIngan maH! (we are Klingons).

Language classes today are a diverse mix of students, working professionals and retired personnel

Language classes today are a diverse mix of students, working professionals and retired personnel
| Photo Credit: Illustration by R Rajesh



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