I started learning Mandarin back in 2005 after I moved to Seattle from Iowa. Rather than try to use self-paced learning solutions, I opted to hire a tutor and work one-on-one. Seven years later, I still have a Chinese vocabulary on par with a small child, in part because I don’t have a need to use the language on a daily basis. I’m pretty sure an extended stay in China would change that, but it’s also not a practical option at the moment. Rather than have my language skills degrade over time, I stay on the lookout for learning tools that can help me maintain my level of proficiency and possible expand my vocabulary as well.
Memrise is my latest language learning discovery. The company was founded by memory athlete Ed Cooke, who is one of those people capable of memorizing a shuffled deck of cards in under a minute and long strings of numbers in under an hour. If you’ve heard of the book Moonwalking with Einstein, Cooke is the guy who taught author Josh Foer.
That bit of background about Cooke is significant, because Memrise applies the same techniques memory athletes use to remember what most would consider useless bits of data to the much more practical need to learn a new language. And the process of learning the words is actually quite fun.
There seem to be several primary techniques that work in favor of getting new information, like new vocabulary in a foreign language from your short term to long term memory.
Mnemonics are one of the biggest factors – Memrise has created a collection of mnemonic devices to help you create associations between things you are familiar with and the words you are attempting to learn. When tested, the mnemonic helps with recall. If you don’t resonate with the mnemonics in the system, you can create your own.
Chunking of information – Memrise breaks down learning into small collections of words, so that it’s easy to focus on a few words at a time. You can initiate learning of several groups of words at whatever pace you choose to set, but they remain in chunks that are easy to practice.
Repetition at the right time – while we all understand that repeated practice of virtually anything can lead to rote memorization, it’s understanding the timing that’s really the key to learning quickly and efficiently. Memrise has devised an algorithm to remind you when it’s time to repeat words. Rather than waiting for you to come back when you are ready to study, Memrise tells you when the time is right.
Gamification makes learning fun – Putting yourself in the mindset where you are motivated to learn is a great way to increase your overall retention. I know I’m far more likely to remember things that are tied into a “fun” experience. Memrise uses the notion of planting a garden of memories that you grow and harvest to move new information into your long term memory.
I haven’t made the time to start reviewing all 250 words included in the Mandarin program on Memrise, but that is probably my next step. I can already see a difference in my retention of a few words that I use very infrequently and I have a feeling that adding more words to the mix make things more interesting.
You can also learn facts from a variety of topics using Memrise, along with plants, animals, and dozens of other subjects. If you want to impress your friends on trivia night, Memrise may be the tool to make you unstoppable.
The other key thing that should make Memrise interesting long term is the ability to use it as a memory aid. There’s been a fair amount of study around memory and learning that suggests that acquiring new knowledge helps stave off the deterioration of memory as we age. Using a learning tool like Memrise, that relies on existing memories to build new ones, can only help flex those mental muscles (metaphorically speaking, of course).
As of this writing, Memrise is free, so the barrier to learning something new, and remembering it indefinitely, is merely your motivation to sign up and get started.
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