Who would have thought: the more free time you have, the more vocabulary you learn.

And voluntarily.

"In the lockdown, many people put their good intentions into practice and learned a new language," says Arne Schepker, head of the language learning app Babbel, which now wants to use the enormous increase to go public in Frankfurt.

Bettina Weiguny

Freelance writer in the economy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

  • Follow I follow

The Berlin company offers online language courses for adults and has been growing like never before since Corona. The subscribers they had on their app before the pandemic suddenly invested twice as much time learning a foreign language. In addition, around four to five times as many new customers have registered. The trend continues to this day. This enabled the market leader in Europe and America to expand its position: Ten million people have taken out a voice subscription since Babbel was founded. Usually for a year, half of which extend the subscription afterwards. Sales rose to 147 million euros in 2020. Even after the lockdowns in 2021, the numbers didn't collapse: Babbel's sales rose by 20 percent in the first half of the year.

In order to finance further growth, the IPO should now flush 180 million euros into the coffers.

Babbel would then be a unicorn, i.e. a company whose market value is valued at one billion euros, and it would be the first tech company from the education sector to go public in Germany.

With this move, they are emulating their US competitor Duolingo, which went public in New York in the summer, was valued there at 6.5 billion dollars and whose price has risen significantly again in recent weeks.

An ecosystem in foreign language learning

Babbel's core product is an app that can be used to train foreign languages ​​online.

The virtual classroom also includes online courses with teachers, language trips, podcasts, “Babbel for Business” and other special offers for companies.

Babbel wants to develop all of this into an ecosystem around foreign language acquisition.

It is a gigantic sum that adults invest in learning a language: the global market totals 50 billion euros.

“One third of all language courses are booked by companies, two thirds by private individuals,” explains Markus Witte, who co-founded Babbel in 2007.

But will we even have to learn languages ​​in the future?

After all, Google Translation is already doing a good job of translating, and if the tech strategists in Silicon Valley are to be believed, then in the near future we will all be walking around with a button in our ear or a chip in our head that allows us to use all the world's languages ​​simultaneously to be translated.

And we would never have to cram vocabulary and grammar again.

A translator is no substitute for maintaining relationships

The Babbel makers do not share the vision. “Only ten percent of our conversations are used to convey information, the rest is cultivating relationships, human interaction. Live translation doesn't help at all, ”says Witte, who himself speaks four foreign languages ​​- to varying degrees. That means: Computer programs can be very helpful when we want to tell a taxi driver in Beijing which hotel to go to. “But if I want to talk to the people at the next table in the restaurant on vacation in Italy, it doesn't work. Or do you want to listen to a computer voice? "

Travel is one of the main reasons adults learn a new language.

Especially in Germany.

In addition, the career can also be a motive, cultural interest or a family occasion, for example if the new partner comes from another country and a visit to the in-laws is due.

Since 2015 Babbel has also been on the American market with an office in New York.

Amazingly, they found that Americans are not at all linguistic.

They learn Spanish particularly often, which is due to the large number of Latinos in the country and its proximity to Mexico.

"Otherwise it can be clearly seen: US citizens are learning the languages ​​of their ancestors," says Schepker.

The Babbel map of America shows pretty much where descendants of Italians, Spaniards or Germans live.

Most people around the world learn English, but there are also many courses in Spanish, French, German or Russian. Babbel offers 15 different languages. Chinese is not among them. “The interest in Mandarin is overestimated,” explains Schepker. "That is very limited to Berlin Prenzlauer Berg and the City of London." As long as the demand is so low, they do not develop any Chinese courses. Foreign language courses are a complicated business and programmers alone are not enough. That is why Babbel employs 180 language experts - pedagogues, linguists and neurologists. "Language acquisition is complex, and we had to work out how we learn a language online," says Witte, who actually wanted to develop a music platform.

The idea with the language app came about by chance when a colleague was planning a holiday in Spain and was looking for an online Spanish course in preparation.

“He didn't find anything, there was nothing.

That's when we founded Babbel, ”says Witte.

Fifteen minutes a day is enough to have simple conversations in a foreign language within a few months, he says.

Although he also reaches his limits - his French is enough to read Flaubert in the original.

“But I can't speak French.” How easy or difficult it is for someone to deal with a foreign language depends, says Witte, above all on how well one gets along with making mistakes in front of others.

“You have to have the courage to talk, otherwise no app will help,” explains Witte.

“Those who do not mind their own mistakes have a clear advantage in language acquisition.