CALGARY -- A lack of social interaction in the midst of a global pandemic was one of Madeleine Wakefield's largest concerns.

"It’s kind of like a period of exile," she said. "When you go into exile you can see that as a waiting period or as a time when you keep progressing, so even at this stage in my life I wanted to progress."

The 73-year-old Calgary woman has recently been trying to find new ways to challenge herself.

She took the pandemic as an opportunity to review her French and begin learning the Korean language by enrolling online at Calgary’s Berlitz Language Centre.

"I met so many amazing people and normally I’m working so I wouldn’t have had this much time to devote to a language or do any other skill," said Wakefield. "It’s been amazing that I’ve been able to devote so much effort into studying.

"I want to come out of this tragic time knowing more than when I went into it – that matters to me and I could never have done this without the pandemic."

And Wakefield isn’t alone. Thousands of Calgarians have been picking up new languages as a way to cope with new COVID-19 restrictions and loneliness.

According to Domingo Lumanog, director of the Berlitz Calgary Language Centre, the centre has seen a 20 per cent uptick in online enrollment since the pandemic began.

"Success of the students has really been so awesome during the pandemic," Lumanog said.

"Individuals have been excelling at different language levels and achieving their goals, but we’re also really seeing a trend of people just wanting to learn more while they’re cooped up at home."

The spike in online learning has changed the entire business model for one prominent Calgary entrepreneur.

Azren Raju owns the Calgary Language Nerds, a language tutoring business that also offersvarious free and paid meet-ups for Calgarians interested in learning new languages.

"We used to do a lot of social events in person so that’s been the biggest shift as it's impossible for us to gather for barbecues or pub nights," said Raju. "The hundreds of people I used to teach and see every month is essentially gone, but it’s opened the door for something bigger than ever before."

Raju says more people are interacting with new languages through his online classes and meet-ups.

"We now have a presence in Europe, the United States, Africa and various other places where people can participate in the things we do here in Calgary," said Raju.

"It will also make travel way easier for people once this pandemic ends to be able to actually communicate with locals and open your eyes to different cultures."

The importance of social interaction 

According to Calgary’s Distress Centre, social isolation and loneliness is the top issue for callers to the crisis lines.

In November, nearly 25 per cent of the more than 4,400 calls, online messages and texts the organization fielded were suicide-related, a 73 per cent increase in suicide calls compared to the same period in 2019.

Robyn Romano, director of operations, says the centre has seen a significant increase in levels of anxiety and depression amongst Calgarians, adding that connection with others in the form of a learning a new skill — such as a language — is extremely important.

"It’s about building that combination of 'reach out' and 'reach in'," explained Romano. "I think we can get so much value from reaching out to someone and asking how they’re doing, rather than focusing on just what we need all the time.

"It’s harder to get out and to access services and supports that people need, so there is that increased frustration and anger, but I think that ability to be patient with one another and have that little compassion and patience in our lives is really important right now as well."

Romano adds that the centre is receiving a larger volume of calls and it has been a challenge to deal with the influx given the complexity of each individual's circumstances.

"We are doing our best to keep up, but it’s been a struggle as well because as workers we’re seeing this in frontline social serving agencies and trying to support the community."

Calgarians in need of support can call the Distress Centre 24-hour Crisis Line at 403-266-HELP (4357).