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In fact, at Fluenz, January is known as “Mandarin month,” because it reaches 25 percent of total sales, “as people get ready to tackle their New Year’s resolutions and what they see as a difficult challenge,” she said.

Fluenz’s Mandarin program focuses on teaching work-related conversation. “Mandarin is more for business learners, someone who is going to China often for work,” Ms. Gil said.

During other parts of the holiday season, Fluenz reports, sales of its Spanish program reach nearly 50 percent of total sales in December, from a low of 30 percent in the spring.

“In December, it’s a big gift,” Ms. Gil said, noting that Spanish is used around the world and is the second-commonest language in the U.S. “The fact that so much Spanish is spoken in this country, people feel like they should know Spanish.”

Other Romance languages such as French and Italian, on the other hand, are more popular in the summer as graduation and back-to-school gifts, Ms. Gil said, explaining that “it’s mostly because of summer travel.”

One of the biggest challenges for online language companies is persuading their customers to stick with the program and not give up on their New Year’s resolutions. “The breakthrough in this business is to figure out how to get them to follow through,” Mr. Riger said.

They’re in this business, because they enjoy helping people learn — but that’s not to say they won’t profit from the quitters, too.

“Language behaves in much the same way as exercise and diet,” Mr. Riger explained. “They sign up for it. They get really excited. Some follow through; others don’t. We’re not unhappy with the ‘gym membership’ model of commerce, where you buy a year and you never go.”