Plant a New Language in Your Mind

A Web app tailors language learning to your ability, and turns the experience into a game.

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.

Vivid memories: The Chinese character for “baby” turns into a cartoon image of a baby in this visual mnemonic.

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.”

The second principle of Memrise’s approach is to remind users systematically. Using an algorithm developed by neuroscientist and cofounder Greg Detre, the app is designed so “plants,” or words, wilt when not tended to. The user interface tells users which plants are wilting, a problem they can remedy by “watering,” or repeated testing. Reminders pop up when a user is most likely to forget new words, rather than at random intervals.

The final Memrise principle is adaptive testing, which means that questions vary in difficulty according to the user’s performance. “Other language sites get this wrong,” says Cooke. “It’s really important that you test these memories at the right time and in the right way.”

Memrise isn’t the only social language-learning site on the Web. Others, like LiveMocha and Babbel, take a simpler community-based approach, in which users depend on other users for evaluation. These sites also have minor game components, offering points for achievements. But many users give up on learning a language remarkably quickly, says Cooke, and he believes that the learning techniques employed are partly to blame. “No other app uses more than one or two of these memory principles,” he says, referring to the three principles behind Memrise. Most rely solely on “non-choreographed” testing, he says, and fail to encourage users to recall newly acquired words.

Memrise is currently focused on getting users to memorize words, rather than teaching a deeper understanding of a language through grammar lessons or speaking. “It seems to work relatively well for teaching vocabulary,” says Luis von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-creator of a game-based language-learning website called Duolingo. “But that’s only a small part of learning a language.”

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