Mem up your memory

Although I’ve managed to learn various languages, I used to struggle and grapple with learning new words. I hated it. The endless lists of words and definitions, which you’d read over and over again. With and without music in the background. With and without yawns. With and without a concentrated look on your face.

All in hope that there was a method to this madness.

Yet, all in vain all too often.

I’m not a natural learner of words (if there are any at all). I need to see them. Look, peer and stare at them. Use, say and play with them. 7, but preferably more times, thank you very much Mr Thornbury. That’s all great in the class. But how the hell do I do that at home, on my own? (speaking to the mirror was not on the cards – that’s for alcoholics).

Then I had a revelation. A burning bush moment. Eureka!

The skies opened and a creaky old voice cheeped from above: Go to and thou shalt be saved!

And so I did. No questions asked – even though the cheep and the awkward grammar begged a few.

It was about ten months ago. Since then, I’ve learned over 2200 new words in four different languages – with about 90% retention rate – and have loved every single moment of the process.

Memrise is so simple, but so effective that I wish it’d existed when I first went to a language school all those years ago. And the idea is not even knew.

Since antiquity, people have been using mnemonic devices (no, they’re not iPhone aps) to aid their memory , whose paths are mysterious, roundabout and slightly illogical. For example, it is much easier to remember a new word if we link it to a sound, image, smell or a funny anecdote. All this will make it more memorable and vivid. To give you an example.

Forest is der Wald in German. A quick and easy way to remember it for me with Memrise was to create a mental image (a Mem) of the Walden pond:


Much easier to remember than a dry der Wald = forest, isn’t it?

Then Memrise will automatically prepare a series of exercises, which will force you to use each word you’re learning in that session – yes you’ve guessed correctly – the magical 7 times. All sharp and sweet – 5 new words in around 5 minutes.

Of course, one learning session is not enough for the word to anchor in your long term memory. For this you need repeated learning sessions at certain intervals of time. But we’re all too busy all too often. We forget, and by the time we try to do some revision, the words are long gone, faded, and we have to start from scratch.

Here’s the smart thing. Memrise will tell you when and which words you need to revise. Those you’re having problems remembering will pop up more often until you start getting them right. Each revision session placed at a right interval of time to maximise your retention success.

Each learning session will finish with statistics, so you know how well you’ve done. You’re awarded points for accuracy, every new learned word and every Mem created. And you compete against your Mempals.

Very geeky, I know. But very addictive. And incredibly effective.

You create your own courses or you join the thousands already out there. To top it off, it’s not just languages, but also economics, Greek mythology, politics, art, trivia, you name it.

Can you hear the creaky voice cheeping from above? Mem up right now!

19 thoughts on “Mem up your memory

  1. Apologies for being the sceptic that rains on everyone's parade, but to my mind Memrise is a profoundly flawed site, so I'd just like to offer up a more critical perspective to balance out the gushing enthusiasm above.

    The site is sold as having built-in recycling and revisiting of items and including examples of usage, and so on – and I can easily see claims being made about how the images aid earners with visual memories and so on.

    However, it really doesn't take long to see the flaws that are so evident.

    (1) The definitions are terrible! they're often poorly graded and sometimes harder than the words themselves.

    Just a few vary basic examples from the first one I've looked at – The Garden set that's part of the CUP pack on here tells us the following:

    AGRICULTURE = farming (the false assumption that words operate synonymously! How does a learner then know what the difference is between these words, or when to use when and when the other?)

    FROST = an air temperature below the freezing point of water (not only poorly graded, but also just plain wrong in this case!!!)

    (2) The repetition and randomness of what comes up next very quickly gets very annoying very quickly – and you're never tested on usage, which is the key issue related to the acquisition on new lexis, but rather only on basic meanings.

    (3) They're all still essentially single and fairly randomly connected words that don't help you say anything meaningful about the topic they're supposed to be helping you talk about. So you study the GROWING PLANTS set and learn the words agriculture, hedge, frost, harvest, organic, root, rural, seed, etc. – if you're lucky – and then what? What might you say with each one? How do they get used? What're typical examples? There's been no thought paid to this at all.

    (4) The examples they DO have are frequently weird and untypical.In the WAR section, for instance, CHARGE comes first with a picture of the charge of the light brigade of something, but with the word ATTACK on it. There's then some American civil war thing where it says ATTACK=CHARGE, then “The bull lowered its horns and charged! Then what I guess is a Spanish translation – Caricaa!!!!!!! Hardly useful priming of common or typical usage, is it?

    (5) The fact you can then add your own 'memory aid' means anyone and everyone will soon be adding all manner of random madness up here that will just build layer upon layer on user-generated nonsense.

    I could go on . . .

  2. Thanks for your comment, Hugh.
    I can totally see where you're coming from.
    1. I agree that some definitions are very bad. This is because they are uploaded by the users. However, they're not all bad. In addition, if you use it in class, you can type in the definitions yourself, or check the ones you're students are providing, therefore, ensuring they're all correct.
    2. It hasn't annoyed me, to be honest. The words that come up are the ones you have studied. In a random order, it is true, but I can't see why this is wrong. Regarding the lack of testing on usage, I totally agree with you. It's a big flaw of the website. However, if you're using Memrise as a supplement to your class work, then the students can try out the words they have memorised in class, i.e. check if they can use them appropriately. I view it as a memory aiding tool, rather than the ultimate solution to learning a language.
    3. This again depends which course you choose and how you put in the lexis and definitions. Since you can create your own courses (which I think is usually better than relying on what others have prepared for you), then you can and should revise whole chunks of language. For example, 2 – 3 word collocations, words + prepositions, idioms or functional language.
    4. Again, this is because the users create the mems, and sometimes they are not totally appropriate. However, you can always create your own or report for revision the ones you feel are wrong. Most of the time, I end up creating my own mems and examples because this makes them more memorable for me.
    5. Yes and no. I agree that there will always be a fair amount of crap on any user-generated website. However, if you know where and how to look, you will easily find real gems. And if other people's definitions or mems really annoy you, then you can create your own course and mems.

    All in all, I can see where you're coming from, but I don't think you should dismiss the whole idea of the website based on a fairly small sample. I've been using the website both as a learner and with my students, and usually the feedback from those who really gave it a shot for a few weeks was very positive. And so were the effects. I noticed a huge difference in terms of vocabulary range between the students who used the website, and those who did not.
    I can definitely see the disadvantages mentioned by you. But then, no learning tool is perfect, as there is no one right method of learning a language. And Memrise is just that: a tool. How you use it is entirely up to you. But my experience tells me that it can be a real memory aid.
    Whether you will actually use the words you memorise is a whole different kettle of fish. But we could say the same about the words our students learn in class.
    I'd really encourage you to give it a shot with your students, as a little experiment. For example, if you have 2 groups on more or less the same level, use Memrise with only one of them, and see what happens. It'd be interesting to see the results (always wanted to do something similar but never got around to it). Set up a new course. For the first week or two add the definitions and words yourself, and help the students create mems. Once they get going, I usually appoint a different student every week to add the new words, and check that they do it correctly.
    Let me know what your thought are. I appreciate your comment. A bit of scepticism is always needed. I'm one myself.

  3. Hi Tanveer,
    Thanks for writing. Of course. Perhaps a good place to start will be my series of posts on learning languages, starting with '5 language learning myths' ( and then 5 steps to fluency:
    Let me know if they are helpful. If you need any more specific help, please write to me again. You can also find me on FB @Polish your Languages.

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