As an aspiring polyglot, I find myself bragging about what I can do with other languages and pining for a chance actually to be functional in them. The days of high school and college, when I *got to* fill my schedule with foreign language classes, are long gone.
Thankfully, we have entered the era of the app. Now we have not just a plethora of language learning options, but a schmorgesborg.
After trying out a few, one of them deserves its own profile: Memrise, which is available on Android and iOS. If you want to know why they seem to have cracked the code on a business model for effective language learning that provides an affordable service, it’s worth reading on.
A little on my linguistic background: I’ve studied Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, and Arabic in formal settings while dabbling in Aramaic. I wouldn’t call myself fully fluent in any of them, but certainly fluent on a daily basis with Hebrew and holding my own reading Spanish newspapers. I’ve always wanted to find the time to refresh on all of them and move on to others; however, over the years it seemed unrealistic.
“The fundamental reason came from my experience in competitive memory championships, including the practical application of cognitive hacks to improve the speed of learning,” says Memrise co-founder Ed Cooke, who’s won his share of those competitions. “The main principles are repetition or rehearsal, specifically the concept of space repetition,” or spacing out reviews an hour after learning, then a day, a week, etc.
They rely on a combination of repetition, active recall, and mnemonics, or memory aides. They’ve invested a lot of resources into building up the popular languages: English, Spanish, French, etc. Now, they’re hoping to launch a video dictionary through a Kickstarter campaign that will bring them on a cross-European trip to record native speakers of various accents and speech styles, somewhat similar to this video they produced:
They last raised financing in excess of $5 million in December 2012 from the likes of Audrey Capital, Avalon Ventures, Balderton Capital, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures. While they don’t have another round scheduled, they are currently bringing in revenue.
“We wanted to build business for the long term, unlike our friends in the other app,” referring to DuoLingo. “We’re almost profitable,” he adds.
Considering they’ve worked with far less than the $83 million that DuoLingo has raised but have an active monetization plan brings up a lot of questions about their more famous rival. Memrise is also not breaking people’s wallets with their prices.
Less popular, more options
Still, with an operative business plan and experience raising capital, we asked why they need to take to Kickstarter instead of going for a Series B.
“One of the reasons for the Kickstarter campaign was not just financial but to continue building our community of people, using it to recruit a community of volunteers.”
Thankfully they have reached their goal and then some, with about two days left to go at the time of writing.
Memrise offers far more languages than DuoLingo, mainly because of the permissions it gives users to create new courses. You can find Catalan, Basque, and several dialects of Arabic in Memrise’s curriculum. They are sometimes more limited, dependent on the time they volunteer. If you’ve used DuoLingo or language learning apps like Lingual.ly, you’d be comfortable with Memrise, but probably slightly more exhilarated. You are in an arms race to learn more than other users, competing for the top rank of the week, month, and all-time.
The app doesn’t have the utility that the desktop version has, though the app is far sleeker and lets you move faster. Long term, Cooke says they want the app to surpass the desktop’s functionality.
I started using the A1 German program, hoping that besides a tongue I’d learned well but didn’t have a lot of memory of, I could move on to something I knew better like Spanish and then a language I knew nothing of, say Portuguese. Nope. On the mobile freemium, you get the first choice and that’s it. Learn it well. On the desktop, however, you can access other courses. The app has some degree to go in saving preferences for other languages.
If you get every answer right during a session — which is honestly not difficult no matter what language you’re learning — you should come out with 2,350 points. You can set daily point goals for yourself. If you set it around 6,000, you’ll hit it in no time since you’re too hooked to put the program down. The points add up, and personally it felt a little more awesome to see myself at #99 out of thousands of other German-learners with somewhere in the neighborhood of 140,000 points for the week over the eight or so tokens I get every few rounds on DuoLingo.
You are introduced to three or four new words or phrases with each lesson. It could be a word like Apfel (apple) or a phrase like “Sie ist schön” (She is beautiful). While they present full sentences, they never offer variation unless they reintroduce the entire sentence. For instance, they might give you the words for “grandma” and “grandpa” (Oma and Opa respectively) while they give you a complete sentence containing words you previously learned (“Das sind meine Mutter und mein Vater” — “There are my mom and dad”). But, they won’t force you to give the translation for “There are my grandma and grandpa” until you’ve been introduced to that sentence in its entirety.
It’s definitely a powerful and easy-to-use solution for tutoring or classes themselves.
“We have an awful lot of usage in schools,” Cooke tells Geektime. “The teachers love it and the kids enjoy it. In that context, teachers put their own content on Memrise, but exclusively on the website. Secondarily, there are a number of organizations building courses for their students at a higher level.”
“We think an amazing learning experience is learning it effectively and feeling good about yourself.”
The app was created in 2010, the brainchild of co-creators CEO Ed Cooke and Greg Detre. We recommend trying out the premium version, which provides access to more listening exercises — in my experience, the most valuable — and advanced vocabulary.
They count some 20 employees and over 1 million users, and maintain their offices in London. You can check out their Membus Kickstarter campaign below.