Tuesday, April 15, 2014

5 Tips for Making the Most out of Memrise

Before discovering Memrise, I had made some half-hearted attempts to learn Turkish. I got some books from the library, printed out some phrases from the internet, and dutifully set about learning how to say "hello" and count to a hundred.

Problem was, sitting on the couch repeating words to myself was really, really boring. Also, I had no idea if I was pronouncing the words correctly, so even if I successfully memorized a few phrases, I might find when I got to Turkey that no one could understand me.

But surely I can haz Turkish via the Internet. I looked at Rosetta Stone and some other language-learning software, but I didn't want to pay a large fee. I'm going on a three-week vacation, not trying to emigrate.

Enter Memrise. It's free. It has multiple language courses, including Turkish. You can use it on your computer or portable device. It offers not only audio, but user-created "mems" (read: mnemonic devices) to aid in recall. Via a simple gardening metaphor, it encourages you to learn new items ("plant") and review what you've already learned ("water"). The review process itself is structured as interval training, meaning that you review newer items first, older items later, with reducing frequency depending on how many times you've reviewed them and how often you've identified the word or phrase correctly.

This all amounts to a powerful, simple, and fun learning experience. Maybe the most brilliant aspect of Memrise is that it turns language learning into a simple but addictive game. Since you're only learning five or so items at a time, no one section is ever that difficult, especially if you review frequently, but cumulatively you learn a lot, very quickly. Imagine where you'd be if you'd taken those 4,000 hours you spent playing World of Warcraft and used them to learn languages.
"Yeah, so I'm like, a level 60 French learner."

However, it's not perfect. Fundamentally, Memrise is not language-learning software. Rather, it's multimedia flashcard software with a clever structure and review process. What this means is that it's very effective for memorization, but naturally it lacks key features of the costlier software packages or actual classes, in particular extended composition and face-to-face conversation.

Even disregarding its inbuilt limitations, there's clearly room for improvement. My greatest frustration is that Memrise courses never explain anything. It's all pure memory. Of course, learn enough items, see enough examples, and eventually you'll deduce or intuit the underlying structure - that is, after thousands of examples. This is how we all learn languages as children. Nobody explains how to form the past progressive tense to us; we just hear it ten thousand times and absorb it by osmosis.

As an adult learner, though, I want to understand the how and why of things. It's far easier for me to learn the six common pronouns (I, you, he/she/it, we, y'all, them) as a group, and then be able to pick them out from a given phrase, then to try it the opposite way and pick out the totally unfamiliar pronoun from a series of foreign words. What part of "O kaç yaşında?" ("How old is he?") is the pronoun? In the phrase "Doğum günümde seni görmek isterim" ("I want to see you at my birthday"), which word is the verb? What denotes the object? If "gün" is "day," what's "günümde"?
Doğum günü: Doggone birthday

Often, too, I'd find that I'd learn a complex phrase, only to see its individual words included in later vocab sections. This is doubly stupid. First of all, why am I learning phrases about time, say, when I haven't yet learned the words for "day," "week," "minute," etc.? Second, if I've already successfully learned the complex phrases, then I've quite likely already puzzled out their components and don't need to be retested on them.

This is part of the problem with crowdsourcing. You get a lot of content very quickly and cheaply, but it's rarely as well-organized as a professionally designed course.

Fortunately, after a while I developed some strategies for avoiding these problems, and I'll share these tips with you here:

1. Preview the course before you start, and compare it with other courses. There are hundreds of courses on Memrise, including dozens for each language, and not all courses are equal. Memrise will present the most popular courses, but popularity isn't necessarily the best criterion for judging a course. Some courses include audio, others do not; some focus more on vocabulary, others on structure or common phrases. Click on the individual sections to see what the course includes and how it progresses.

2. Don't be afraid to jump around. If the courses were all well-structured, they would build naturally, and you would want to move from A to B in the order suggested. Since this is not always the case, however, feel free to pick and choose. Personally, I would suggest learning the alphabet first, then very common phrases ("Hello," "Goodbye," "Where is the bathroom?"), then numbers, and then a good deal of basic vocabulary. With that vocab under your belt, you'll feel more confident navigating more complex phrases.
Where is the toilet: Tuvalet nerede? (toilet nerd)

3. Buy a textbook. I spend way more time using Memrise than reading the Turkish textbook I have, but that textbook has helped me a lot in understanding key rules and structures.

4. Use a real computer. Memrise is available as an app for your portable device, and that app is terrific and fun in its own right. However, I found that using Memrise on my desktop computer was considerably more demanding, and hence better for learning. Also, a number of features, such as the ability to make your own mems (see #5), are only available on the web platform.

5. Make your own mems. Memrise will automatically show user-created mems whenever they're available. If one works for you, great. If not, look for your own associations and make your own mems. You'll remember it better for having created it.


  1. "It's all pure memory. Of course, learn enough items, see enough examples, and eventually you'll deduce or intuit the underlying structure - that is, after thousands of examples. " well, this is indeed the way any language is learnt... I ll write my suggestions in an article and hope to hear some comments=)

  2. I would also like to find a solution for audio files upload to memrise, I have some ideas, but, maybe somebody knows it better.

  3. I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for the comments!

  4. One suggestion for help with pronunciation in Turkish is to check your library. I got Pimsleur Turkish 1A and 1B from the library, so it didn't cost me anything. I think it was 18 CDs of listening. Since Turkish is a language where the alphabet was recently changed, the similarity between spelling and pronunciation is a lot more logical than something like French, which has a lot of letters that aren't pronounced. My library also has a lot of Turkish movies and books, and member access to Mango Languages (which includes Turkish) which does a decent job of explaining why something is structured the way it is, and gives some cultural background. Looking at various libraries, it seems most have free access to an online language learning program. Your taxes are paying for it whether you use it or not, so you might as well.

    I also recommend finding Turkish friends online. I have four Turkish facebook friends.

    1. @Lisa: I did check the public library for Turkish books (and was kind of disappointed, actually), but I didn't think to check it for audio courses. Will do so now.

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  5. There are a lot more tips, incidentally, on the related thread over at the Memrise Forums:


  6. A couple other tips, mostly gleaned from the Memrise forums:

    Look at the course forum! When you click on a course, there is a link to the forum right next to the "Levels" button. There you can post any questions you have and read posts by the course's author - some of which may well answer important questions you have about the language.

    Also, make good use of the "ignore" function. There are a lot of reasons to ignore items: because you already know the word, the word is a cognate and therefore very easy to remember, or you're just tired of seeing it. It's worthwhile to preview each section of the course and see if you want to ignore items before "planting" them, thereby saving yourself a lot of time. You can also ignore items as you plant (look for the button in the upper right corner), and later during review (but only by getting the answer wrong, which seems silly - why can't I ignore an item at any time, Memrise?).