Look Out, Rosetta Stone: Memrise Has a New Vision for Learning Langauges

In my life, I've studied four foreign languages, two of them thoroughly enough to attain near fluency, and the early part of that trajectory was always pure drudgery. A big stack of flashcards, many mugs of coffee or tea, and lots of repetition.

Sure, some companies have done things that make the process of learning languages more contextual and conversational -- and supposedly fun. But putting the basic building blocks in place remains a royal pain. That's in part because learning languages is something better done by younger brains.

It's also something that we do very visually when we're younger, but more with symbols as we get older. Spoken language practice, where one can actually visualize the speaker pronouncing the words, is a small fraction of language training.

Memory Science and Athletics

So, last week, I tried the language learning tool offered by a new company called Memrise and was blown away. The Oxford, England-based outfit was founded by Greg Detre, a PhD neuroscientist from Princeton University, and Ed Cooke, a Grandmaster of Memory -- you know, like the memory freaks profiled in this amazing New York Times Magazine article last week.

This duo came together to tap into the latest research findings about how to learn quickly and effectively. Detre provided the science, while Cooke provided the chops that come from being a professional memory athlete (yes, there is such a thing), a bizarre life form that thrives on learning massive amounts of information and performs astounding tricks with mental imagery to ensure near total recall.

The basic premise behind Memrise is simple. The free website turns rote symbolic learning into more dynamic image recall and recognition by converting words and written characters into entertaining, highly memorable pictures. Think of the representations of the constellations like the Big Dipper and you have the general idea.

Tapping Into the Strong Visual Mind


To test out the system, I elected to learn basic Chinese characters.

For my first word, Memrise took the pictogram that signifies the word "woman" and overlaid it with a nice Flash motion graphic of a woman with her arms outstretched, which fit perfectly into the footprint of the pictogram. This embedded in my mind the image of the woman with the pictrogram laying out the outline.

It was ingenious, tapping right into my visual recognition capabilities, something all humans have in spades as part of our evolution of facial recognition and other pattern-recognition skills that were required before the rise of writing.

I blew through a few more similarly constructed pictogram/graphic combinations and was sorry such a tool wasn't available back when I was learning Russian with flashcards. Memrise also provides assistance in writing with short videos of a hand writing the words or pictograms that are covered in its drill sets. The site even has group features that allow you to make friends with others learning languages and "socialize," an idea pioneered by another learning site I love, Grockit.com. (Thanks for the GMAT help, guys!)

Here's a nice description of the motivations and goals of Memrise from the site:

From the science of memory, Dr. Detre brings an acute understanding of how best to strengthen memories, by testing and reviewing them over time in the most efficient manner. From the art of memory, Grandmaster Cooke brings an understanding of how learning rejoices in anything that is pithy, colourful, humorous, fantastical, attractive, scary, important, unusual or vivid.We think that learning can be a special kind of creative pleasure, and we're building impeccable learning products that will help you learn quicker and more creatively than you ever thought possible.

At present, Memrise offers only a limited subset of language learning modules, but I imagine it's planning to add many more in the near future, if resources permit. It's too early to say what this will mean for other online language tools and, more important, for Rosetta Stone (RST), the publicly traded company that has dominated the e-learning business for languages. Based on my experience, I'd say that companies charging big bucks for premium language-training products are likely in for a rough ride.

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