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What We Learned Responding To The War In Ukraine

Months after launching courses for Ukrainian learners, Babbel reflected on the role of language and communication amid world-changing events.
What We Learned Responding To The War In Ukraine

Russia launched a war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In the months since, over seven million people have fled from Ukraine to other countries. To accommodate this mass movement, people from all across Europe have stepped up to make the process of resettling slightly easier. Volunteers have greeted people at train stations, welcomed Ukrainians into their homes and provided support in countless other ways.

At Babbel, we considered ways we could help people who were finding themselves in new places, surrounded by people who speak different languages. Within a few months, we became the first language app to launch full courses for Ukrainian speakers, offering English, German and Polish, all for free. In total, we’ve launched hundreds of lessons across the three languages. In response, we’ve seen nearly 400,000 Ukrainian speakers sign up to learn a language, with hundreds more joining every day.

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Coordinating Babbel’s Response To The War Against Ukraine

Several months out from the launch, we want to reflect on what we learned about language’s crucial role in both massive world events and the day-to-day lives of regular people. While the importance of language learning has always been at the heart of our mission, the past few months have brought it into even sharper focus.

“We as a language learning company can make a difference,” said Christian Hillemeyer, Babbel’s director of communications. “Language learning today is very easy, maybe easier than ever before, but it’s still hard to do. It doesn’t come to you overnight. I think everybody has their individual dream of what they would do with a new language, and that can be something like ‘go on vacation in Spain.’ But it can also be something like ‘get a new career,’ or ‘improve your life,’ so it can also be really essential things.”

Taking action on the war against Ukraine required many people to come together from all across Babbel to coordinate a response. A few weeks after the news in Ukraine broke, Babbel’s CEO Arne Schepker published a letter outlining our plans to create resources for Ukrainian speakers. Editors, translators, project managers, engineers and more all stepped up to build Ukrainian resources and lessons quickly and efficiently.

Our earliest efforts focused on producing quick guides on Babbel Magazine that were tailored to Ukrainian refugees who were headed to Germany and Poland. They featured guides to the absolute basics of German and Polish, as well as links to resources that could come in handy for people looking for support. We also published guides to the basics of Ukrainian in English, German, Polish and French to help volunteers and others who wanted to be able to communicate with incoming refugees.

While the magazine guides provided a good starting place, the real challenge was building out fully functional lessons for Ukrainian speakers. Beyond the technical challenges, there were over 10,000 words and phrases that needed to be translated in just a few weeks. With the help of countless Babbel workers and Ukrainian speakers, we were the first app to put out full language courses for Ukrainian speakers who wanted to learn German, Polish or English. These courses were designed with the specific circumstances of 2022 in mind.

“The courses we’ve adapted to Ukrainian refugees offer basic communication skills. How to say ‘hello,’ how to ask for help and walk around railway stations,” said Piotr Wojsznis, one of Babbel’s content marketing managers. “That might sound easy, but in fact this is the first step that very often is the hardest step.”

After making courses for Ukrainians available to the public, we also had to enlist help to get the word out. Again, we relied on the time and generosity of people to spread information. Babbel partnered with a number of refugee aid organizations that connected Ukrainians to our free lessons. 

In the months since the launch of our courses on the app, we’ve continued to find ways to support Ukraine. In our home Berlin office, we’ve given over space to PLAST, a scouting group that is helping Ukrainian refugees find accommodation in the city. In addition to the app courses, the Tubman Network has helped provide free Babbel Live classes — courses taught by language teachers online — to Africans, members of the African diaspora and other Black, indigenous and people of color who fled Ukraine.

Schepker stated our mission simply, saying, “More Ukrainian war refugees actually are able to make a new home for themselves in the country they’re in. Whether that’s learning English or German or Polish, there’s millions of cases around Europe right now and we’re trying to help.”

Seeing Babbel’s Impact In The Real World

While we started our mission with high hopes, we still weren’t sure what the response from the Ukrainian people would be. After all, language barriers are just one of the several difficulties faced by people who are uprooting their lives in search of safety.

So far, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of signups from Ukrainian speakers. Even better, the people taking these lessons are using the app just as much as the average Babbel user, showing their commitment to learning the new language in the face of any number of other challenges they may be facing.

The best response we’ve gotten, however, isn’t from the facts and figures, but from the people themselves who have sent their thanks for the language courses. It became apparent just how central language was to the experience of relocating. Language is important for dealing with bureaucracy, finding community and so much more, especially as many Ukrainians found themselves outside their country for the first time.

One Ukrainian refugee who found herself in Europe says she initially struggled finding a language system that really clicked.

I had never studied German before, but it just so happened that I ended up in Germany. I really wanted to start understanding what was being said around me, and speak at least at a basic level. I signed up for integration courses, but they didn’t start for three months, and it was necessary to communicate right away. I started going to volunteer courses, but for some reason I didn’t feel any results. I searched the Internet and found the Babbel site. The app worked out. I really liked it, and even better I started to understand the language.

Another anonymous refugee found herself in Poland, and also found it difficult to learn her new country’s language. She was discouraged by her initial attempts at Polish, but has since committed herself to learning the language with the hope of eventually finding a full-time job to support her and her daughter.

I started doing lessons almost every day, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the evening, going to the website to learn. My mood improved, because Babbel has a very cheerful interface. Easy, convenient, just nice to look at, and from the first classes I began to be able to explain my needs in Polish, even if I didn’t know the exact word for something in the store or on the street. After that, I relaxed and began to trust your method more. The results are pleasantly impressive: even at the beginner level, people tell me that I speak well.

All of the stories we’ve heard have shown just how important language has been to Ukrainian refugees attempting to make lives for themselves in new places across Europe. Language learning is far more than a hobby, but a necessary part of adapting to extreme circumstances.

“If we decide to stay in Germany and actually if it’s a temporary option, we still need to learn the language just to find a job, find some friends there, renting the flat, going to the doctor’s and so on,” said Yulia, a dance instructor who was forced to flee from her home in Ukraine to Germany. “In everyday life, you’re always faced with the language.”

With an ongoing human migration so massive, the work is far from over. We know how central language can be to providing comfort, connection and support in times of war and in times of peace. Babbel will continue to provide free lessons for any Ukrainian speaker who may need it, and to keep looking for more ways to help.

Do you know any Ukrainian speakers who want to learn German, Polish or English?
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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