A year or so I found a site called Memrise, which is basically a really advanced memorization card system for helping you memorize stuff. I puttered around with the Mandarin course they had on there, found their system so-so and promptly forgot about the site.
Then in May of this year I happened across the App for it on the iTunes store (it’s also available on the Google Play store) and decided to give it another whirl. It’s free, and so are the courses, so I selected the Introductory Chinese deck they had on there and began to use my phone to study Chinese hanzi characters.
To say I was blown away was an understatement.
Suddenly, I was not only learning Chinese, I was actually remembering what I learned and it was sticking like it had never stuck before. Memrise’s system of testing is amazing at helping you remember what you’re learning, and I have to say I’m a true believer! The learning itself uses several different methods to help you remember whatever the information is, most of which are fun or at least enjoyable, and then the system also comes back and has you review the material you’ve learned on a semi-regular basis to reinforce it at key intervals to improve retention. Pile onto that an interactive community-based approach to learning where people trade memorization tips and can have memory competitions, and it’s a whole new way to learn.
To date, I have learned 1076 items, most of them since the start of May, and I can say I easily remember 80-90% of them very well. Today I finished Level One of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Chinese proficiency test vocabulary, and I can say with confidence I could write the actual test tomorrow and pass by a wide margin. I couldn’t wait to start Level 2 of the HSK, which has just over 1200 items itself (a single item in this case is the Chinese character and its Pinyin pronunciation guide, so that’s really 600 words in Chinese, not 1200) and am already at Level 8 of 54.
All this in little chunks of 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times a day when I have spare time. Each level is broken down into smaller “lesson” chunks that can be finished in a few minutes, so it’s easy to just do them on your phone when you’re waiting for something or someone. When you need to refresh your memory of older material, your phone will also notify you, which is handy, since there are certain key learning times. It’s easy, convenient, and most of all, it’s actually fun, especially when you find yourself really remembering the material and being able to call it up at will.
Now that I’ve gushed about Memrise as a tool, I should put in a few comments as someone who’s been using it for a few months. First, the App version for your phone or tablet (see the video above) is way better for learning that the actual website itself, the website turns the learning into a timed pressure game, whereas the App version uses a series of more fun visual learning exercises. Second, not all Memrise decks are created equal, as most of them are made by the users themselves by borrowing material from textbooks or other sources, so you have to hunt around for the best decks. I recommend sorting the decks by Popularity, since the most popular decks tend to be the highest quality ones. (And are often ones made by the Memrise staff or employees like Ben Whatley, who made the amazing Mandarin ones!)
And finally, Memrise is a place for memorizing rote material, not advanced concepts like grammar. So, for example, I’m learning vocabulary, and only Mandarin vocabulary, I have to go elsewhere for grammar or dialogues. This is a great way to build up large amounts of knowledge, but Memrise isn’t there to help you use it, just remember it. This isn’t a flaw, it’s simply what Memrise is designed to do, and if you need more helpful resources you can ask about them or discuss them with other learners in the forums that go along with each learning deck.
Overall, Memrise is a great example of using gamification (making things into a game) to make learning easier and more effective, and I can only wish we had something like this years ago when I was studying Japanese in University or French in High School. If you’ve got something you want to learn, check Memrise out, it’s free (for now) and is a lot more productive use of your time than playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, but just as fun!