πŸ‘πŸ» Method πŸ‘πŸ» Review — Memrise

The next review is yet another giant in the language learning industry. Like Duolingo, there is a focus on so-called games to teach languages to users. Since its release in 2013 onto the mobile market, Memrise has garnered more than 20 million users, learners of various languages to various subjects. Using flashcards as the main mode of learning, Memrise tries to tie in fun with language learning, often with debatable success.

From the primary methods of language learning, it is seemingly easy to identify the supposed main objectives of using Memrise as a learning aid. It tries to introduce rich, real-life language content, using vocabulary commonly used in the everyday life of a native speaker. Some of these do contain video clips or audio clips meant to assist with pronunciation and familiarisation with stress patterns and accents. While words and phrases can be taught relatively smoothly, it does fall short when showing learners grammatical patterns, although that is not quite the main intended learning objective set out in this application.

With this in mind, in this review, we have to treat Memrise as a learning method for a more specialised aspect of language, instead of an all-rounder sort of application like what Duolingo tries to be. Memrise is intended for:

  • Learning new words in a user’s target language
  • Learning basic phrases
  • Familiarisation with pronunciations of new words and phrases, through audio or video playback
  • Engaging learners in learning languages in a fun way

Memrise, however, is not made for:

  • Learning grammatical patterns in the target language
  • Building reading and writing skills, except in vocabulary expansion and familiarisation
  • Developing conversational skills

As we can see, Memrise appears to be more “specialised” in some areas, leaving out several important aspects of languages. Therefore, Memrise, although a handy learning aid, should never be used alone in learning. It serves to complement another established learning method, while helping learners build and familiarise with new or existing vocabulary in the target language. Understanding this niche, we would break down the review into the following sections: Thematic vocabulary, language diversity, audio-video integration and interactivity.

Thematic vocabulary

When a user accesses a Memrise course, they are introduced to a set of words organised by themes or other categories. These word banks are normally compiled by community users or some members of the Memrise team. Thus, while some of the courses have words nicely organised into thematic categories, such as food, colours and numbers, others may take a different approach to organisation.

An example of a Memrise thematic unit, although it may not necessarily be logically organised (Beginner’s Tamil course)

Memrise uses a spaced repetition learning method to try to teach new words in the user’s target language, a common method performed using flashcard-based learning. Newly introduced words are first shown to the user, and depending on the user’s ability to memorise and familiarise themselves with the words, those easier ones (marked by more correctly answered questions) will appear progressively less often, while more difficult words (marked by fewer correctly answered questions) will appear more often. Learners can adjust the number of new words learnt in one session, which can range from 5 to 25.

Memrise applies the Leitner system of spaced repetition, sorting words based on how well the learner knows each flashcard. (Beginner Mongolian course)

More specifically, the Leitner system of spaced repetition is used, where flashcards are sorted according to how well the learner knows each flashcard, into respective learning boxes. When the user is prompted with a question, they will try to recall the solution on the flashcard. If correct, the flashcard is sorted into the next box of slightly higher proficiency; if incorrect, it is sorted back into the first box. Over time, the user will be able to review some of the cards, re-sorting the cards based on how well the user has remembered them. This method of learning serves to try to teach words and phrases in the target language in a relatively low amount of time, which is well-implemented by Memrise’s flashcard algorithm. Overall, Memrise does seem to do well to apply this learning method in accelerating the rate of learning vocabulary in a target language, fulfilling its intended objectives.

Language diversity

Due to the rather community-based approach to language learning, users can develop their own language flashcard courses, encompassing words from languages beyond the normal scope of even Duolingo courses. From indigenous languages like Ainu and Inuktitut to more commonly learned ones like Japanese and German, Memrise does really offer a wide variety of languages, with 16 offered on the app, and perhaps more than 100 on the website.

In addition to the massive amount of languages covered, users also try to use flashcards to tie in the language’s writing systems, like the Cyrillic alphabet or Hindi characters. These are accompanied by audio playback, giving learners a chance to learn how the characters are pronounced, or the sounds that the characters represent. The coverage can be quite inconsistent, since the pronunciations of some letters can depend on stress, or its “interaction” with other letters in a syllable or word. While this makes learning syllabaries somewhat suitable, it can struggle with conveying some alphabets, and teaching logographic systems like Chinese hanzi will be stretched out over a longer learning process.

Audio / Video integration

While like Duolingo, Memrise lacks a pronunciation guide for respective languages, it does come with both audio and video integration, depending on the course a learner chooses. Native speakers provide these audio to allow learners to pick up how the words or phrases are normally spoken and articulated.

This feature helps with figuring out stress patterns in those that have a heavy emphasis on them, like Portuguese, Russian and perhaps Ukrainian. Similarly, it helps users in distinguishing tone in languages with complex tone, or even simple intonation patterns like Chinese, Vietnamese, and Swedish (anden has two meanings depending on intonation). The playback for a word helps users deal with how a word is read, or ironing out how to pronounce relatively foreign sounds. Overall, this is an extremely helpful feature to have, especially when no phonetics guide is given.

Video integration in the Memrise Icelandic 1 course.

The video integration, according to Memrise, features native speakers speaking their native language in their hometown. Their intention is to learn to understand “authentic voices and accents”, as well as “taking in the scenery” and “getting a sense of culture”. From my experiences in the Icelandic course, I feel that the video aspect in integration is not as well done as the audio. The video integration should be meant to help with lip reading, or figuring out how the mouth should be shaped to produce some vowels. While propagating the idea of coupling scenery with authentic native speaker recordings, Memrise may have missed the arguably better point about video integration.

The audio however, is made well enough for learners to attach characters or letters on flashcards to the corresponding sound, although clarity can be inconsistent based on the target language, and the microphone quality used by the native speakers. As many courses are developed by the wider community, additional static, white noise and background noise is often a minor problem encountered by learners when they pursue a course created by the community. This problem generally cannot be well helped, since not everyone in the community has access to proper audio recording equipment.

Interactivity

There are predominantly two types of questions — one multiple choice, and one one spelling. There is not much diversity when it comes to interactivity, as these primarily serve to assess the learner’s ability to match words to corresponding translations in the target language. The lack of visuals on the flashcards may pose an issue to visual learners, or people that require visual aid to learning. In contrast, Duolingo has some questions asking for corresponding translations for single words, often attached with their own original images as visual aid, drawn in their unique Duolingo style. A suggestion to make Memrise more conducive may to allow such visual aid support in addition to flashcards, although this may not sit well with the wider community creating flashcards for typical functional use.

This is one of the few types of questions normally displayed in Memrise, this meant for familiarising learners with simple, short phrases (Icelandic 1 course)

When a learner makes an incorrect response, Memrise can suggest a mnemonic aid in the form of Mems, often containing puns, memes, or some mnemonic text which serves to aid the learner in memorising and remembering the word. These are normally made by the community, and suggested to these learners, and learners may also have the choice to create their own mnemonic aids. While it has been a unique feature of flashcard-based applications like Memrise, recent bugs from 2017 – 2020 have seen users complaining about the lack of support for Mems, or the withdrawal of Mem support in some courses. This of course, has drawn criticism, although there may be some indication that the teams in charge are working on this issue.

An example of a suggested mem for memory aid, some also include mems on pronunciation. (Beginner’s Tamil course, 2020)

There is also a so-called point-and-shoot mode, where using item recognition, Memrise tries to identify real life everyday objects to match with translations in a target language. Available almost exclusively to mobile devices, Memrise, with this method, is trying to expand its interactivity on the application. This may be still in its infancy, but it does show a proof of concept.

The point-and-shoot mode in Memrise, using your camera to identify everyday objects around you and match to corresponding translations in your target language.

Final Remarks

People may often ask if Memrise is better than Duolingo or vice versa to learn some target language. This is quite like comparing apples to oranges, since these applications of different natures, focusing on different aspects despite both being language learning applications. There is no “better” application, but one that serves their intended function in a more effective way. In any case, Memrise does serve well to expand a learner’s vocabulary, and try to speed up the rate of acquiring new words. While audio integration is overall satisfactory, the video integration by native speakers can probably do better to focus on lip reading, or to use a scenery more representative of a hometown as opposed to a generic urban, or suburban background.

Important advice for learners and prospective learners include the need to couple Memrise with a proper language course like books or lessons rather than using it as a standalone, as Memrise is essentially just a means of building vocabulary. Unlike Duolingo, however, this flashcard method can still be used to acquire more complex vocabulary. Some users have created flashcard courses for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), from N5 to N1, encompassing thousands of words.

The Language Closet Rating: 7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Note: This rating is based on user experience, criticism and evaluation through this post. It is in no way an objective stance, nor is it a static rating. This can change if Memrise undergoes marked improvements or changes, which will warrant another review here in due time.

How would you rate Memrise? How has Memrise shaped your learning experiences? Let us know through the comments!

Afterword

This is probably the second application I got around to using, which I started out with German back in 2013. Over time, I got to learning the more obscure languages in terms of the availability and accessibility of learning resources for the language. It, in several cases, has helped in exploring the vocabulary of a language, but I have since outgrown the method, and pursue other methods which I find I could do better with. Writing a review has been on my mind for the past 2 years, and I am glad to have published a complete one here.

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