Memrise, I don’t know what to think

We’re barely a month into our relationship, but I don’t know how I feel about Memrise anymore.

I’ve been using Memrise to learn French and German vocabulary for the last couple of weeks as part of my ‘ten per day’ aim. I chose Advanced French 1, and Advanced German 1 – and as I write now, I have mastered 106 items!

There are some great things about Memrise:

  • The UX is lovely. Both the app and the site are brilliantly designed and the navigation is intuitive. I knew what I was doing as soon as I started using it (and I wish I could say the same about lots of other language-learning apps out there!).
  • You can see your progress. It’s great to revisit items that you’re struggling to remember – or even items that you haven’t seen in a while – thanks to the long-term memory function.
  • The gamification is fun. Well, er… yes. That’s the point. Although I question the popularity of the app when I can study 20min of French in a week and still be in the Top 10 on a leaderboard. Are there really so few people studying French? Has anyone ever not been in the Top 10 of a leaderboard?
  • There is a variety of task types: multiple choice, scrambled phrases, lexical chunks, translations… they really force the user to engage with the content, and also prevent task fatigue.
  • It’s free. Enough said.

But there are some not-so-great things about Memrise, too:

  • In many user-created sets, the language grading is virtually non-existent. I have no idea what makes any word in Advanced French 1 ‘advanced’, but it definitely has nothing to do with the CEFR. Le cauchemar (‘nightmare’) and je suis PACSé (roughly the equivalent of ‘I’m in a civil partnership’) are in the same set, as is les juifs malmenés par l’histoire (‘Jews mistreated by history’). User-created sets are great because it means you can personalize your own content – and of course Memrise gets a load of content for nothing – but with this comes the irritation that what someone else has created may not fit with your requirements. Or it may be wrong (le bac is not ‘a tub’…).
  • The quality of the distractors can be compromised. Multiple choice task distractors are usually taken from the current or directly preceding vocabulary set – which makes sense. However, when a vocabulary set can contain long phrases as well as single items (see above), it’s pretty easy to get everything right by guessing on item length alone. I lent my phone to a non-French-speaking friend and she managed to score just as well as I did, despite not understanding anything she had ‘learnt.’

From my point of view, the ‘not-so-great things’ about Memrise compromise the app. Weak content does not support the learner. And it’s mainly user-created content – so the quality is likely to vary wildly.

But despite all of this (issues that would simply not fly if they were to crop up in an ELT publisher’s materials), I am actually learning these new words – and they’re sticking.

So now what?

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