Vivid memories: The Chinese character for “baby” turns into a cartoon image of a baby in this visual mnemonic.
A world memory champion and a neuroscientist have joined forces to create a language-learning website called Memrise, which combines mnemonic tricks with a game to help users learn quickly and efficiently. Its carefully paced learning structure and competitive points system, the app’s developers believe, make their site more effective than other language-learning tools.
Memrise makes learning a game with virtual gardens that users must tend. As they do, they also earn points and thereby fight their way up a community-wide leaderboard.
Mandarin Chinese and English are the only languages that have been rolled out yet, but others including French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Arabic can be used in beta form. The app was recently featured at this year’s Boston Techstars event, which presented startups that were chosen to receive investment.
The premise is that each word or phrase is a seed for users to plant in their gardens. A new word is planted when a user is exposed to it. Once planted, the seed sprouts in a few hours and must be harvested—that is, the user is tested, typically by having to type out words or choose characters, depending on the language. With each success, a plant is moved to a greenhouse, where it will thrive or wilt depending on how well the user tends it by practicing with the word.
“Learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you’ve learned,” says Memrise cofounder and memory champion Ed Cooke. That’s where many language-learning aids lose users, he says—the presentation fails to engage users and make them want to learn.
The Memrise learning method is based on three principles. The first, Cooke says, is one of the most important aspects of memory training: vivid encoding. In order to recall otherwise arbitrary words, the user’s brain benefits from connecting them to an image. The more associations to a word the user makes, the quicker and clearer the recall. Memrise provides some associations for users—the Chinese character for “man,” for example, transforms into a cartoon drawing of a man. But it also encourages users to submit their own verbal mnemonics. For instance, in one French session, the phrase “une boucle” (which means “a loop” in English) is paired with a user-submitted mnemonic about a roller coaster: “I hope they boucle us in securely. This roller coaster has so many loops.”