These Are the Most Studied Languages on Duolingo in China

Guess which second languages are in-demand in China? Hint: The answer has plenty to do with youth trends

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Sammi Sowerby RADII Tatler
5:20 AM HKT, Tue March 28, 2023 2 mins read

In 2021, China’s education crackdown temporarily affected Duolingo’s availability in the country, although the language learning app returned to the domestic app store a year later. Nevertheless, many Chinese people continue to use the platform to develop bilingual or polyglot skills, particularly in English, Japanese, and Korean.

china duolingo

china duolingo, duolingo in china

Global breakdowns of the first and second most popular languages studied on Duolingo in 2022. Statistics via Duolingo

Duolingo’s most recent annual report, published in December 2022, provides insights into language trends and learner behaviors across different regions and time periods. A cursory glance at the report reminds us that English remains the most important lingua franca in the world — nothing new there.

This demand in China is partially driven by the number of Chinese youth who choose to study abroad. Even those who eventually return to China often seek employment at foreign-owned companies or companies with foreign capital.

While French, Spanish, and German were the second most studied languages in most parts of the world, Duolingo users based in China are partial towards two other logosyllabic languages: Japanese and Korean.

Duolingo Japanese Korean

Duolingo rolled out both Japanese and Korean courses in October 2017. Image via Duolingo

Separated from China by slim expanses of water, Japan and Korea boast unprecedented soft power in the cultural and creative sectors — think the explosion of Japanese pop culture in the 1990s and the K-pop craze that followed suit in the 2000s.

duolingo in china

Cosplay girl posing at the Japanese virtual idol Hatsune Miku’s 2019 China concert tour in Shanghai. Image via VCG

The Chinese government may disapprove of pro-Japan sentiments, to the point where a Chinese youth enrobed in a kimono was detained by police for hours last year. But on the ground level, many nationals are infatuated with Japanese culture, which has permeated countless industries in China.

Cultural phenomena such as bullet screen, a real-time commenting feature prevalent on Chinese video platforms; DoujinStyle music, which Gen Zers are spinning at clubs in South China; and Miniso, a Chinese retail giant that can be found almost everywhere across China, all owe their existence to Japan.

Second only to the U.S., China is one of the countries with the highest number of Japanese expatriates in the world (around 107,000 residents), with most of them residing in Shanghai (about 40,000 individuals), which also explains the demand for Japanese language skills, whether from a professional or personal standpoint.

Meanwhile, Korean might only be the 13th most valuable language to learn in international business circles, at least according to language education and leadership training company Berlitz Corporation, but it is also one of the most promising at present, especially for understanding Korean culture and concepts.

Thirsting after a taste of Korean culture after binging K-dramas, RADII’s very own junior editor Lu Zhao recently embarked on a solo trip to Yanji, a county-level city in East China’s Jilin province and the seat of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where she ate her weight’s worth in Korean food and tried her hand at ice carts (basically chairs on skis).

Yanji Lu Zhao

Korean barbecue and ice carts in East China’s Yanji, which is known for its strong Korean culture and resplendent nature. Photos courtesy of Lu Zhao

“During the pandemic, I learned Korean from my friend, but then we both started working full-time and haven’t had the time to continue,” said Zhao. “I do plan to pick it up again in the future.”

Similarly, Shi Xiaowen, a 26-year-old tutor at That’s Mandarin Language School in Shanghai, also took a shine to South Korean culture after watching Korean dramas. When she’s not busy imparting Mandarin language skills to her international students, she crams Korean language exercises.

“One day, I realized that I had picked up the language in some ways. I wanted to learn more, so I tried several [language learning] apps, but Duolingo is the one with the most systematic way of learning a language from zero.”

It is true that Duolingo has been exploring ways to make the app more engaging for its 500 million users around the world. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., Duolingo is the most downloaded language app in the world, if Statista’s figures from February 2022 still stand true.

One of its intriguing features is a cast of colorful characters (as shown in the cover image) — from Duo, a green-feathered owl and the app’s official mascot, to Lily, a purple-haired goth girl whose despondency turns into delight when you do well — who cheer you on as you expand your vocabulary and nail intonations.

Cover image screengrabbed via YouTube

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