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Whether it’s down to Squid Game or kawaii culture, fascination with Korea and Japan is fuelling a boom in learning east Asian languages. Japanese is the fastest growing language to be learned in the UK this year on the online platform Duolingo, and Korean is the fourth fastest.
Most of the interest is driven by cultural issues, the firm said in its 2021 Duolingo language report, which will be published tomorrow and analyses how the 20 million downloads of its platform are used.
Established elements of Japanese popular culture, such as Pokémon and video games, have been joined by a global surge in the popularity of anime such as Dragon Ball and My Hero Academia.
Duolingo said that 26% of language learners had been influenced by key cultural moments, such as the Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020, and by TV shows such as Squid Game, which saw a 76% rise in Korean learners after it launched in September. A third of learners said they had chosen to watch a film or TV programme in another language.
Globally, Japanese overtook Italian to become the fifth most popular language in 2021.
Jun Jinushi, executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organisation’s London office, said that the numbers of people travelling from the UK to Japan had been at an all-time high before the pandemic hit.
“We have certainly felt the growing interest in Japan and Japanese culture over the past few years,” he said, citing the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and TV shows such as Joanna Lumley’s Japan, James May: Our Man in Japan and Tom Daley Goes Global.
“There may also be something to be said for the ubiquity of Japanese food on UK menus, and a generation of children who fell in love with Japanese pop culture now coming of age and reappreciating the country and language that gave them the likes of Pokémon, Super Mario, and Studio Ghibli.”
Spanish, French, German, English and Italian are the most popular languages on Duolingo in the UK, followed by Japanese and Welsh, the fastest growing language last year.
Welsh remains popular, according to Colin Watkins, UK country manager at the firm. “We’re almost at two million learners, which I expect we will pass before Christmas,” he said.
“The increasing popularity of Asian languages, driven by the interest in Asian culture, point to a fundamental change in learner motivations and a real shift in what the UK wants to learn.”