Learning Language With a Game

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Have you always dreamed of learning a new language? Make a game of it! That’s the idea behind Memrise, a new language learning website that focuses on building your foreign language vocabulary with social games, quizzes and mnemonic devices.

To help you learn new words more quickly, Memrise introduces them with clever pictures or mnemonic phrases to help you associate the word with its meaning. For example, the Mandarin Chinese character for “child” is represented by a picture of a baby in swaddling clothes, in the shape of the symbol.

There’s also social gaming element- each new word you’re presented with becomes a seed in a virtual garden. Players “tend” the plants by practicing the word and taking quizzes. One of Memrises’ co-founders is a neuroscientist, and the quizzes are supposed to be scientifically calibrated to come at just the right time and with just the right level of difficulty to keep the game challenging but not discouraging.

As co-founder Greg Detre explained to MSNBC.com, the game is “trying to teach you how your memories work. If you don’t nurture them on a scientific schedule, they die just like flowers. But we are also at the same time trying to make your learning visible and social and useful.”

Memrise’s creators claim that the game can help you learn new vocabulary words five times faster. However, other language experts point out that vocabulary is only one piece of the puzzle.  Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn told Technology Review that Memwise “seems to work relatively well for teaching vocabulary But that’s only a small part of learning a language.”

If you want to be able to string the words you’re learning into something that makes sense, you’ll also need to understand how the language is structured. Without proper grammar and syntax, you’ll just be throwing together a word salad. Still, for learning vocabulary, Memwise seems like a fun alternative to flashcards and boring drills. Currently, it’s available in Mandarin Chinese, but other languages are in the pipeline.