Age and our attitude to learning a language


We're well into the second month of 2024, but this month we'll be taking our inspiration from some of the trends covered in Duolingo's 2023 language report, which as always is an interesting barometer for global language-learning trends. The 2023 report, which can be read in full here, contains the usual updates about which languages people are learning, but it also has some interesting demographic data on the app’s users, which brings us to the focus of this month’s translation industry updates: how, or whether, age plays a role in our attitudes towards learning a language. 


According to Duolingo’s report, younger people tend to be particularly keen on taking up a new language, on learning a language for personal interest or solidarity purposes, and on learning a language that is traditionally considered to be challenging by European standards. On the other hand, older learners tend to be more consistent students and to keep up with their studies for longer, with 30% of users aged sixty or over having year-long ‘streaks’ on the app, compared to just 5% of teenage learners. 


All of this points to the idea that older language learners are an under-researched demographic, particularly considering that when we look at the more general picture, studies of language acquisition across different age ranges tend to focus on the younger end of the scale and on topics such as bilingualism in children. This narrow focus is a shame because it risks limiting the visibility of language learners from other generations, and it also fails to address and properly represent the different opportunities and challenges faced by older language learners. 


That’s something which we hope to touch on in the rest of our article. 


Starting with the good news, we could argue that in many ways older people today are actually perfectly placed to acquire a new language. First of all, there’s the encouraging fact that in many parts of the world, people are living increasingly healthy lives for longer, which means that there’s more of a scope for older people to be able to travel even after working for decades, raising a family and managing other commitments in life. There’s also the fact that we have access to information in ways that would never have been imaginable even within the living memory of today’s population, and the easy availability of the internet and the explosion in remote language study that came about in the pandemic years means it would completely make sense for people of any generation to take advantage of study opportunities that would have been out of most people’s reach previously. 


And this same argument runs for ease of travel. In an era when you can book a hotel room on the other side of the world from the comfort of your phone within seconds, so much of travel is now demystified, so it’s no surprise that people of all ages are increasingly intrepid, and with travel comes the need or desire to learn a language. Indeed, travel and retirement in Mexico is seen to be a major factor in the efforts made by many older US people to learn Spanish (making Spanish Duolingo’s second most widely-studied language among over-50s in Mexico, after English).


There’s also the reality that older people may in many cases be more likely to have the magic combination of material resources and time on their hands, both of which help to facilitate not only foreign travel but even just learning a language from home. It seems reasonable to argue that older generations in much of the world have been able to consolidate wealth in a way that today’s youngsters often can’t, which gives them the financial freedom and flexibility of seeking out their (literal) moment in the sun or going to courses. 


This is coupled with the fact that while the internet and social media have brought increasing opportunities to study a language cheaply or for free, and from anywhere, to be able to really commit to learning a language well it’s often necessary to have at least some spare money to spend on classes and learning materials, not to mention the time to study regularly. And all of these factors might go part of the way towards explaining why younger people can be more inclined to start learning a language but less likely to go the distance, since the very real economic barriers that many Gen Z members face these days, particularly relating to working more than one job or working and studying, can all make it harder to put in the sustained level of effort that is necessary to build up a solid command of a language. 


On a more optimistic note, there’s also the idea that attitudes to language-learning in general might well have changed over the last few generations. Now more than ever, younger people are likely to be exposed to another language whether through first-hand experience or by the medium of culture, with Korean continuing to be one of the world’s most studied languages due to the cultural influence of this small East Asian nation. In relatively recent times, this wealth of cultural exposure simply wasn’t in the hands of so many people, because travel was rarer and more expensive and there was no internet. But things have changed now,.and in this light it seems perfectly logical that a generation that didn’t grow up with those opportunities would now wish to take advantage of them. And we say more power.


Regardless of when you were born, do you think your age and circumstances have helped or hindered your ability to learn a language? Let us know what you think in the comments, and until the next time!



Duolingo 2023 Language Report:



Duolingo Special Report: Language-learnings trends in Latin America: