What do you get when a Grand Master of Memory and a Princeton neuroscientist team up to create a language learning app?
One that’s purpose-built to get you learning without forgetting.
Since becoming available in 2013, Memrise has become one of the most widely used language learning platforms out there.
Memrise is a learning program available online and for mobile, and the mobile app has downloadable lessons for use offline. It offers material in a huge number of languages, and a bunch of non-language-related content such as geography quizzes, trivia, and Harry Potter spells.
It offers language instruction with the use of flashcards and a handful of basic exercises. It does offer some grammar explanations and material for advanced learners, but it’s probably best suited for beginners.
The amount, and wide variety, of content available in the app can make navigation kind of a headache. There are some well-structured courses, especially for beginners, but once you progress far enough it becomes less clear how you should proceed; it’s really up to you.
I used the app as a beginner learner of Italian, an advanced Spanish language learner, and as a beginner of a less common language, Albanian. Memrise was by far the most useful for learning Italian as a beginner, the others not quite as much.
The layout of the program is pretty basic in theory: you begin by searching for a course you’d like to take. The site itself can feel a bit chaotic, though. Since there’s so much user-generated content, the options feel endless.
This is just a taste of what my search for “Advanced Spanish” turned up. The courses created by Memrise show up first, and then the user-created content is listed in order of relevance and popularity.
For each course, you can see the amount of time it will take to complete and the number of people taking it.
The quality of courses created by Memrise users varies dramatically.
While searching for advanced Spanish courses, I came across some that were collections of words based on their frequency of use and others that were groups of Spanish expressions that didn’t have much coherence.
Some of the user-created content is specific and could be very useful: slang expressions, business lingo, specific grammar points, etc.
In search of Albanian language material, most of the user-created courses had no audio component. This made the courses totally useless to me; learning a bunch of big words I can’t pronounce is very difficult and not worth much.
The official Memrise courses generally offer a much higher value. There are seven Memrise courses for the most popular languages they cover, and the instructions are available in a variety of languages, making it useful for non-native English speakers as well.
There are currently official Memrise courses for 21 languages.
Less common languages like Mongolian only have two official Memrise levels available.
The flow of most courses is logical and intuitive. They start off with basic words and phrases and slowly get more advanced. There are also short grammar lessons spread throughout some of the courses.
At the beginning of a new course, you’re presented with vocab and a translation. This is done with short videos of native speakers saying the word or phrase.
I liked that the app provides literal translations of phrases, even if they don’t quite make sense. I could see some people having a problem with this though, instead favoring a method that avoids thinking in English as much as possible.
When you first encounter a word you’ll be tasked with identifying its written form and the meaning in English, as well as the audio.
The lessons alternate between eight different types:
We’ll talk about the Chatbots and Grammarbots later, they don’t show up until higher levels and are only available for premium subscribers.
Memrise automatically suggests which type of lesson you should do, either practicing new material or review. You can do whichever you like, but for the most part, it makes the most sense to go with whatever is suggested.
This lesson type starts off with a video of a native speaker saying a word.
Your job is to listen and find the Italian match. I found the use of videos engaging and helpful; it’s easier to listen to someone you’re watching than just an audio clip without any visuals.
Next, you’re shown the English translation.
This is where you can create a mem (described below) or add it to your “difficult word” category.
This is repeated for the new words that make up the lesson. Memrise also throws in review activities like the ones mentioned below that help to review what you’ve just learned.
Mems are all user-created, and you can create your own if you can’t find one you like (or one at all). I was a little disappointed that I didn’t come across any vocab for the Memrise Italian 1 course that had mems already created. If I wanted to use the feature for this course, I had to create my own. This was the same for the other Level 1 Memrise courses I checked out as well.
The process is pretty easy to do, and there are instructions from Memrise on how to create a good mem. The three steps are: association, imagination, and visualization
By associating the word or phrase with what it sounds like in English or whatever it makes you think of, and coming up with an image that represents that thought, you’ll remember the word much more effectively.
Here’s a mem I created for “good luck” in Italian.
The app makes it easy to add images and text, but you’ll have to use your own image or find one online and then save it to your computer in order to upload it.
Fluent Forever has a similar feature, but with a built-in search function so you don’t have to leave the app to find an image.
The hardest part of creating mems is doing the association/imagination/visualization steps. It can be hard to come up with associations that make sense and it requires patience. I didn’t end up using the feature extensively because of this.
The app feels like it’s best used for quick and easy study and memorization. Creating mems slowed down the process too much for me, so I avoided it.
The classic review is very basic. It consists of a few practice activities and doesn’t introduce any new material. I thought it was a good way to practice the vocab and phrases.
You get plenty of chances to practice reading, writing, and listening to the language.
This is an example review activity where you practice writing the language you’re learning.
The speed review is a fast-paced multiple choice quiz that uses the words and phrases you’ve learned so far. This is the most game-like feature that Memrise offers, and while basic, it’s fun.
In the speed review, you’re supposed to answer the question as quickly as possible. The faster you do it, the more points you get. You’ve got three lives, and you lose one each time you choose incorrectly.
This is one of the features that are only available with a paid subscription. It’s a collection of words that the app has identified as especially difficult for you and words that you’ve identified as difficult yourself.
The function of this feature is very basic. Selecting the difficult words exercise brings you to a basic review session of the difficult words.
My guess is that this feature is most useful after you’ve learned more than a few hundred words through the app. Then the ability to practice just the most difficult words would be beneficial. Until then, though, the benefits of this feature are minimal.
The listening skills portion is made up of a few different audio review activities.
In this activity, you’ve got to select the Italian audio that corresponds to the English words.
In this one, you just type what you hear. For longer phrases, you drag and drop words in the correct order instead of typing the whole thing.
These exercises are simple and pretty good practice. You get points based on how many you get correct, but it’s relaxed practice without time limits.
I appreciated that there are several different voices, both male and female, for each piece of audio.
This is an exercise that I only ever saw as part of the official Memrise courses. It’s a bunch of simple exercises with videos of native speakers speaking the words and phrases.
The videos make the app more engaging than if it was just audio recordings, and it’s kind of fun to see how the actors deliver the lines.
Other than being slightly more engaging, though, this activity isn’t much different from the others.
The Chatbots and Grammarbots are only available with a paid subscription, and they’re an interesting way to interact with the language.
This is the set up: it’s a chat-style activity where you choose what to say from the available options. There’s a lot of emojis involved and the bots are quite cheeky.
I can see this activity appealing to some and not to others. I wasn’t a big fan of it, mainly because I didn’t feel like I was getting that much practice.
I came across this Chatbot in the Level 7 Spanish course, and you can see just how much English is being used. While some more complicated Spanish was required further into the conversation, it was still dominated by English.
It was cool to feel like you’re using the language in a real context — that’s something that is missing from the rest of the app — but I wished the conversation had been completely in Spanish.
The Grammarbots are very similar to the Chatbots, but they focus on grammar.
They talk you through grammar points and give you opportunities to put sentences together. Like the Chatbots, they’re pretty emoji-heavy and probably not for everyone.
While I preferred the way Memrise teaches grammar in the normal lessons as opposed to the Grammarbots, I see how they add value.
I’m all for unique ways to interact with grammar and attempts to make learning grammar more interesting, and I think this type of activity might work well for some people.
One of the cool things about Memrise is the amount of content available. There’s even a whole list of native American languages. All of the less common language courses have been created by users, however, and it makes a big difference.
I sampled a few of the rarer languages and found that almost none of them had any audio available.
The user-created courses are almost exclusively made up of flashcard activities using translations of the words and phrases. The mem feature is still available, and I actually found quite a few premade mems.
You’ll obviously need more than Memrise to learn these languages (or any language, for that matter), but it could work as a useful premade flashcard program, not unlike Anki.
What’s available on the website and what’s available in the mobile app varies a bit. The Chatbot and Grammarbot functions, for example, seem to only be available on the website. This is bizarre to me since the bots seem like a natural fit for mobile.
A feature that’s available on the mobile app and not on the website is pronunciation practice. This is also puzzling, why isn’t it available on the website?
The pronunciation practice uses voice recognition technology to assess your speech. Simply record yourself saying the phrase and get either a pass or fail from the app. You can listen to the native speaker as many times as you like.
This feature is ok, but it’s hard for me to trust software for this kind of feedback.
I prefer resources like Speechling for practicing pronunciation. The free version allows you to record yourself and get feedback from teachers who actually listen to what you say. The paid version allows for unlimited recordings.
There are three options for people looking to purchase the full version of Memrise.
Monthly subscription – $8.99/month
Annual subscription – $5.00/month — For this plan, you pay the full year’s price upfront.
Lifetime Membership – $99.99
A lot of what Memrise offers is available for free, and trying to figure out exactly what the differences are between the paid and free versions isn’t easy.
The answer provided in the Memrise FAQ states that the “full experience” that comes with the subscription includes “complete official courses and a variety of learning and review modes.”
To make things even more confusing, Memrise has a sister site, Decks, which is completely free and made up exclusively of user-created courses.
This site doesn’t include the official Memrise courses or the features that come with them: it’s a more straightforward flashcard app.
To be more specific, here’s what the premium version of Memrise offers that the free version doesn’t:
- Difficult Words function
- Grammarbots and Chatbots
- Learning statistics (these are limited)
- Full range of official Memrise courses
Honestly, there isn’t that much extra value associated with the premium version — much of the official Memrise courses are available for free. There’s so much value provided by the free version that I don’t think it’s worth paying for in most cases.
Memrise certainly isn’t the only flashcard program out there, but it does offer a bit more than some of them in the form of pre-planned courses, video, and audio.
If you’re more interested in a no-nonsense and completely free flashcard app, Anki is probably a better bet.
If you decide to use Memrise to build up a good base of vocabulary, you’ll want to supplement with some resources to help you improve your speaking skills. italki is a great resource for those looking for a one-on-one tutor experience, and Speechling is great for pronunciation practice.
Memrise is full of content and would be useful to just about anybody that wants to build a basic vocabulary foundation in a new language. Once you get beyond this stage, however, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
I mainly used Memrise to study Italian in preparation for a two-week stay in the country. What I wanted out of it was to learn some basic phrases and build some basic vocabulary, and Memrise helped me get there.
Just by taking the Italian 1 course I can now use a bank of words and phrases that I’m sure will come in handy in Italy. I can introduce myself, ask if there’s wifi, and I have the tools to make some other basic sentences.
Did I need the premium version to accomplish this? Absolutely not.
Memrise is a good tool that offers a lot of free content for those looking to build up some basic ability in a foreign language. For more in-depth practice and study, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
I’m a former EFL teacher turned freelance writer and self-proclaimed language enthusiast. I can’t quite seem to kick the habit of moving countries and have lived and worked on four continents so far.