The top 10 most popular languages studied on one of the biggest language learning apps is out — and the list looks a bit different than last year.
Duolingo released its 2023 Language Report, which summarizes some of the most prevalent language trends collected from country-aggregated data through Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023. The report highlights the most popular global languages, as well as what motivates people to start their language learning journey.
The company began publishing its annual language reports in 2020, which Duolingo’s deputy editor learning content Cindy Blanco called “an exceptional year in many ways” because of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. More users listed their reason for language learning as “school,” she said, but now three years later, there’s been a large shift in why people may be picking up a new language.
“What we’ve seen is that people are studying languages for incredibly personal reasons,” Blanco said.
Those motivations could range from showing solidarity for a group of people abroad, connecting with family or enjoying foreign media. A lot of languages saw a boost in 2023 for those same reasons, while others in the report saw a decline.
Top 10 most popular languages learned on Duolingo
Although there were some changes this year, Duolingo listed the top 10 languages studied in 2023 as:
English continued to command its first-place title as the most studied language on the app — with 122 countries claiming it as the top.
English was also the second most-studied language in the U.S., behind Spanish, Blanco said. Many of the people learning English in the U.S. said their motivation was connecting with other people, as opposed to work or school, she said.
“I think it dispels an ugly myth that you sometimes hear in the U.S. that people don’t want to assimilate, or are uninterested or this division that is often sold between English speakers and non-English speakers in the U.S.,” Blanco said. “I think our data shows that’s simply not the case.”
But the top list of languages wasn’t entirely unaltered from 2022. Korean jumped past Italian for the No. 6 spot in the rankings, according to the report. A large part of the increase is attributed to the fandom surrounding Korean media, Blanco said, which has been “growing for years.”
“They love the movies and music that they care about,” Blanco said. “This is like a natural extension of their passions and hobbies.”
Interest in Korean isn’t being driven by the U.S., however — Japanese still pulls ahead of Korean at No. 5 here, Blanco said. Latin America has seen a surge in learners taking on Korean instead, she said, as has India.
Portuguese also experienced a bump in 2023, thrusting it into the final spot on the top 10 list. The reasons for learning Portuguese were a bit different than English, the report said, as nearly half of users said they wanted to learn the language to connect with people or travel to countries such as Brazil or Portugal.
“Portuguese is a way for people to travel to places now, and we have this pent-up demand and we just want to get out, and we want to go to beaches, and we want to go to beautiful places, and eat great seafood and try out a new language,” Blanco said.
But in its rise to the No. 10 spot, Portuguese had to oust a different language: Russian. The reasons for Russian falling out of the rankings might not just be about Portuguese being popular, the report said, but a decrease in interest to learn Russian, perhaps because of the war with Ukraine.
Impact of Russia-Ukraine war on language learning
The decreasing interest in Russian on Duolingo signals that language learning can be influenced just as much by war and conflict as it can be by pop culture, Blanco said. The decline is also something Blanco expects to see in the long-term, she said.
“It’s perceived as a promotion of Russia, this equivalence of a language with the country, which again, is not always fair or entirely accurate,” Blanco said. “But that is the perception.”
However, those who would like to pursue Ukrainian as a language to learn has seen a “steady” increase since last year, according to the report.
Almost 40% of those learning Ukranian list their top motivation as a way to connect with other people, which Blanco says is a way people may show solidarity during the war.
The top countries that had the most users learning Ukrainian were the U.S., the United Kingdom, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, according to the report.
The interest in learning Ukranian on Duolingo was listed as one of the main points of the 2022 language report, as it saw its learning peak in March, a month after Russia invaded Ukraine.
How Gen Z learns languages compared to other generations
Language learning habits did vary quite a bit by country, but generational differences also revealed more about how younger people study languages versus older people.
One of the most prevalent trends among Gen Z users was their interest in learning less common languages on Duolingo, according to the report. Much of the interest in Ukrainian was driven by Gen Z users, the report said.
Growing interest in Asian languages also is influenced heavily by younger learners, according to the report, with 86% of the people learning Japanese and 76% of those learning Chinese under 30.
The shift in interest signals a “really cool reflection of the changing landscape of society,” Blanco said. Younger people have different preferences than older generations, she said, whether it’s about politics, travel or languages.
But older users had trends of their own that the app said they can be proud of — their commitment to daily studying. Boomers were less likely to break their streaks on Duolingo than those in Gen Z, according to the report.
Language trends to look out for in 2024
Looking ahead to the next year, one trend Blanco said she will be closely monitoring is how the Israel-Hamas war will impact language learning for Arabic and Hebrew. She does anticipate some changes, she said, as the “world’s eyes are on this region.”
Another trend to check on next year is the growth of Asian languages globally, she said. As Korean and Japanese have seen a swell in popularity because of their entertainment, Blanco said she’s curious to see if Hindi will gain some traction due to India’s own cinema industry, popularly known as Bollywood.