Earlier this month, sources predicted that the language learning software market would expand by nearly $30 billion come 2026. CivicScience data support the prediction that language learning apps are going to become more prevalent over the next few years: 30% of the Gen Pop say they plan to start learning a new language and overall awareness of language learning apps has been trending upward. But how these apps will become more prevalent and to what extent consumers plan to use them is a slightly different landscape. 

As of this writing, 13% of U.S. adults say they have used language learning apps and been satisfied with the experience, and 16% plan to give them a try. As overall awareness grows, it’s only plausible that usage, satisfaction, and intent to try them will increase. Language learning apps are extremely popular among young people, specifically those ages 18-24, nearly half of whom have used them (48%). Only 11% of those 55 and older have used language learning apps, but intent to try among this age group increased more than intent among Gen Z did in the last year.

How the landscape of language learning software will grow hinges on two key points. One, satisfied users might not be regular users, and two, those who intend to try language learning apps don’t say when they will actually download an app and give it a go (or if they will continue past their first session). For these reasons, it’s imperative to look more deeply at how people want to learn languages, who interested users are, and what they are willing to pay to achieve their goals.

Apps for Fluency or Fun?

In a poll asking how people are most likely to learn a new language, 37% of language-interested respondents chose language learning apps over online courses, in-person courses, personal tutors, books, media, and the like. That’s a force to be reckoned with.

But are language-interested people focused on fluency or fun? There is a very clear split between language-interested people who are serious about fluency and those who are not. According to the data, nearly one-quarter (24%) of users are logging into apps like Duolingo simply out of curiosity or a desire to learn. A similar percentage (23%) use these apps to become fully fluent in another language.

Three-quarters of people in the United States speak just one language. Single-language speakers are likely using apps out of curiosity or a desire to learn, and secondarily for travel. Just 1-in-5 are using them to become fluent in a second language. If a person already speaks two languages, they are more likely to be using language learning apps to become fluent in another language. And if a person speaks three or more languages (only 9% of the population), they don’t really need an app – they are using them just for fun.

The Cost of Learning a Language

Most people who are interested in language learning apps don’t want to pay to use them – 67% are content to use a free trial or version to make progress on learning a language, such as Duolingo’s ad-supported tier. Those content with a free app are unsurprisingly the most likely to also use language apps just out of curiosity, but 25% are set on becoming fluent via a free app. People willing to pay $15 or more per month for a language learning app (the high end of these types of app subscriptions) are twice as likely to prefer a personal instructor or tutor when it comes to learning a new language.

The process of learning a new language is attractive to many people for different reasons, but getting people to spend money on a language learning app could be an ongoing challenge. Whether fueled by a desire for fluency or to satisfy curiosity, paying customers might be hard for app creators to come by. This could be in part why Duolingo (which offers a free ad-supported tier) is so popular – CivicScience data show that 19% of U.S. adults have tried the app and 10% are planning to try it.

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