How Babbel Kept Students Learning Languages Through the First Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education systems worldwide. At the height of the pandemic, 1.5 billion students were unable to attend school. In addition to the psychological stress and uncertainty of life under lockdowns, the abrupt closure of universities, primary schools, and private language schools continues to threaten hundreds of millions with learning loss and […]

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education systems worldwide. At the height of the pandemic, 1.5 billion students were unable to attend school. In addition to the psychological stress and uncertainty of life under lockdowns, the abrupt closure of universities, primary schools, and private language schools continues to threaten hundreds of millions with learning loss and missed educational opportunities. In early March 2020, as nationwide lockdowns in Europe began forcing school closures, Babbel saw a meaningful opportunity to help students in our core markets bridge a gap in their language learning. 

As the prospect of nationwide lockdowns were discussed in the media in early March, 2020, at the suggestion of Babbel’s CEO, I reflected on how Babbel could live up to its purpose and help learners in a difficult situation. Italy was the first European country forced to close schools to contain the spread of the virus. With school closures looming in many other countries, I suggested to Babbel’s leadership that we offer all Italian students free access to Babbel’s language courses via a one month voucher.  It was our goal to support these students by enabling them to use their time in lockdown productively, learning a new skill.  The experiment proved successful,  and we later expanded this offer by up to 3 months in other countries. Eventually the student vouchers were rolled out to learners in all of our core markets, including Canada, Latin America, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the US.

With a lockdown soon to take effect at Babbel’s Berlin headquarters as well, my colleagues and I raced against time to roll this campaign out in response to the school closures in Italy and further ones likely to come in other countries. The many teams involved–from marketing and social media to IT and payment–knew that lockdown in Berlin was imminent and we were all making our own adjustment to remote working conditions. Though it initially made some aspects of the communication more challenging, the time pressure certainly contributed to our empathy for learners cut off from their schools and communities. We worked feverishly in order to get the voucher campaign live as quickly as possible and offer students the chance to continue learning a language.  From conception to execution, the campaign went live in just five working days in Italy. This timeliness and relevance really aided the media campaign in Italy and globally. Thousands of local media sources shared the offer, often in round ups of free educational opportunities for students. From there, it was only 2 weeks until the voucher campaign went live globally. This means that it was only four working days from the first idea to the go-live, and one more week for the global rollout. Italy, Germany and the US were the countries in which the most vouchers were redeemed.

In the end over 200,000 students benefited from the campaign globally and more than 100,000 language learners had the chance to explore Babbel for the first time. Many of them expressed in comments and emails our surveys how their first conversations in their new language changed their lives. As an organization, Babbel learned how cross-functional task forces can be incredibly effective when they have a clear mandate and a well stated problem to solve, and low dependency on external resources. Many students talked about learning a new language for future plans to spend time abroad, Babbel helping them to accomplish their goals. We received thousands of responses from students, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to use their time spent in lockdown productively. Several of them mentioned how learning a new language helped them to cope with feelings of anxiety and isolation: 

“I’m stuck in Norway right now because I flew here to stay with my boyfriend before COVID got bad and they keep cancelling my flights back. This has been understandably stressful, but having free Babbel has made me a lot calmer about the prospect of staying here a while. I’ve got social anxiety but I’ve found the courage to use a few small words when we’re out shopping and it’s nice to see my boyfriend be proud of me for trying to learn his language.” — Bethany, Norway

Having worked on collaborative research projects with linguists and other academics in the past, I knew what demographic information we could gain from students who took part in the offer: an overview of their motivation for learning a language, demographic information like age and gender, and most interesting from a linguist’s perspective, the learners’ native language and what other languages they speak. I also felt that feedback on the product and learning experience during the pandemic would be interesting to both my colleagues and the wider research community. Along with Babbel’s instructional design and UX research teams, I came up with a draft survey that would provide us some insights, while extending their voucher access by an additional month.  In the sub-article below, Nathalie Rzepka, Research Associate at Berlin’s  University of Applied Sciences (HTW), discusses her analyses of how students learned during lockdown and what this might reveal about their motivations to learn a language.

Learner behavior and motivation during lockdown

Graphs and Analyses courtesy of Natalie Rzepka
Research Associate, University of Applied Sciences (HTW), Berlin, Germany

Analyzing the survey data provides an opportunity to discover more about the over 16,000 students who responded to a follow-up survey about their learning experience. Some results of my analyses were to be expected, while others were rather unanticipated. We sought to find reasons for several surprising  trends we observed in the data.

For example, it’s immediately apparent that most Babbel learners chose English as their target language. It’s rather surprising, however, to note which languages were learned apart from English: regardless of which country the learners called home, we observed the distribution of which languages learned was always quite similar. Apart from English, learners chose Spanish, French and German most frequently, while Italian, Portuguese and Polish were less popular. This was not, however, the case in Germany, as German students chose Spanish and Polish more frequently than other nationalities. A greater share of Germans likely chose Polish due to the familial ties many have to Poland, a neighboring country with deep historical and cultural links to Germany.

Learners’ motivations were also quite diverse. Many reported learning a new language due to a desire to travel in the future, simply for the joy of learning, or an interest in the language. Other common motivations were to remain mentally fit during lockdown as well as for professional reasons. It is perhaps more insightful to examine motivation in connection with the chosen learning language. When we directly compare those who were learning to advance their career with those who chose travel or communicating with family and friends, we can observe large differences. Over 60% of those who said they  learned to improve their career prospects chose English, while people who chose to learn for travel used Babbel to improve their Spanish skills. Many languages were also chosen to improve communication with friends and family, for example, Polish.

Students’ Motivation to Learn a Language

Aside from the responses Babbel received from the surveys, we also tracked and analyzed learners activity in the app. Here, we see a typical curve which everyone who begins a new activity might recognize. Initially, the app usage is quite high, then the curve flattens over time. This is of course due to the fact that many of the students gave up using the app after the free access elapsed. Nevertheless, we’re able to observe how learners’ reported motivation influenced how consistently they used the app. Learners who sought to improve their language skills for their career invested lots of time at the beginning, but here too the time learners invested eventually drops off.  Learners who were motivated to communicate with their friends and family were particularly dedicated. Exceptionally, these learners averaged over 60 minutes per week with Babbel even after nine weeks! 

Learner minutes per week according to motivation

In the end, the least active students were those who stated they chose to learn out of an interest in trying out the Babbel-App. Perhaps they lacked a concrete objective which could have motivated them to continue. Those who were motivated by travel also spent fewer minutes learning in comparison to other stated motivations. Could this potentially have to do with the fact that opportunities for travel were very limited in 2020? This hypothesis could be confirmed by comparing these findings with learner data gathered before the pandemic.  

Age is also a relevant factor which appears to affect learners’ motivation, with older learners more likely to claim “career” as their central motivator. Learning for one’s career peaks as a motivation among the 35-39 year old age group, and then sharply decreases. Interestingly, for those who claimed a general interest in their learning language as their primary motivation, the inverse is true. We observed that where the number of users learning to improve their professional opportunities increases as they age, the number of those learning out of interest decreases and vice versa. The motivation of learning for school decreases, as expected, among older learners and is overall most common among Babbel learners under 18 years of age.

Learner motivation by age

In conclusion, we can say that this diverse cohort of learners studied at their own pace and for a variety of reasons. Despite this heterogeneity, we were able to identify some relevant trends with help from Babbel’s analytics data to better understand these users’ experience with learning a language during lockdown.  

Nathalie Rzepka is a  Research Associate at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences (HTW). She currently works on the research project “Learning Analytics and Discrimination,” which evaluates how discrimination regarding age, sex, place of origin or learning style due to the use of algorithmic evaluation in digital learning systems can be minimised or prevented. Nathalie is also pursuing her PhD at the Humboldt University in Berlin investigating potential uses of digital and AI-based learning.

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