Thanks for the Memrise

“Made it Ma! Top of the world!”

I’m always on the lookout for good language learning tools. And Memrise is my latest *essential* bit of free, online kit. Memrise provides a system for learning by spaced repetition. Essentially you’re asked to translate a term, either from or to your native tongue, and the system waits until it asks you the question again – it could be hours, days, or weeks, depending on how quickly and accurately you answered.

The technique of spaced repetition has been around since the 1930’s, but it seems to have benefited from the app boom of the last few years. There are scads of online and iOS/Android apps that make use of the concept: Anki being another personal favourite.

Memrise, like Anki, just provides the software. The courses themselves – Basic Swedish, Catalan Common Verbs, 15 Giants of Chinese History – are created by users. Anyone can create a list of foreign words, medical terms, or historical facts, that can be plugged in and learnt using spaced repetition.

Memrise uses the idea of greenhouses and gardens – for new shoots (short term memory) and flowering plants (long term) respectively. So far, so slightly twee. You plant new seeds, you water plants before they wither and die, you maintain your gardens, and all the while you clock up points. Utterly worthless, abstract points.

The smartest part of Memrise, though, is its Community. It actually took me a few weeks to stumble across this. This is where the gamification comes in, and it’s probably why Memrise ended up a winner at the 2010 Seedcamp startup event in London.

Via the Community tab you connect to Mempals, and give them High Fives or Thumbs Up. Most importantly, you can see how you’re doing on the leaderboards. This, for me, is where the app went from being fun to addictive. Now I wasn’t just learning, I was trying to rack up enough points to overtake my (new) arch-nemesis, noelmuller. Noel, of course, knows nothing about this. But for a few days I was desperately running through exercises in an attempt to draw ahead of him.

And I did! I made it, all the way to number 1 on the leaderboard! Well, not the *Everyone* leaderboard, just the Cohort version that only shows people who signed up at the same time. But still, I felt a smarmy sense of achievement. Come the next week, and noelmuller (*SHAKES FIST*) had overtaken me again, and now he’s about a hundred thousand points off in the distance, but hey, y’know, I had my moment.

The site has a few small drawbacks. Since the courses are created by users there are often a few errors, but those are generally corrected, sooner or later, and you can always leave a note that there’s an error on a specific phrase. There are user-submitted mnemonics, which are meant to help lodge words in the brain, but I don’t find those incredibly helpful. Perhaps it’s better to come up with your own mnemonics, since the associations need to be personally obvious to be helpful. I also prefer associating physical gestures to help me fix a word in my memory. Yes, it looks dumb, sweeping your arm around the room as you enunciate rummet, but it helps.

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