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Grow a new language in your head

Memrise

A mnemonic device shows the transition between a picture depicting strength and the Mandarin character for strength. Such devices help us remember words, according to the founders of Memrise, a website that teaches you words of a foreign language.

For adults, learning a new language is often a long, frustrating process that inevitably ends up in failure. A memory expert and a neuroscientist hope to change that with a new online software package designed to make learning the vocabulary of a foreign language fast, fun and rewarding.

"Really good successful learning needs to be vivid, imaginative and creative. It needs to be active. And if you can make it a bit social, that's great," Greg Detre, a neuroscientist and co-founder of Memrise, the online destination to learn foreign words quickly, told me today.


The website is built on the metaphor that our minds are gardens where memories are either flourishing or wilting. When users learn a new word, they get a seed that they tend and grow into a healthy plant by correctly passing well-timed tests that force the users to recall the word.

To help users learn the word, the site offers up mnemonic devices. When learning the word man in Mandarin, for example, Memrise transforms the character for man into a cartoon of a man. Users are also encouraged to come up with their own devices. These devices, the founders say, make the words stick in your mind and enriches the recall experience. 

To help plant and tend the memory, the site uses an algorithm that tests you on the word when the memory of it is most likely fading your mind.

"It is trying to teach you how your memories work," Detre explained. "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."

The fun part hinges on choreography behind the scenes that props the tests at the time and a level of difficulty where you have to work a bit to get the answer, but that you will likely get it right. In other words, the tests make you feel like a genius, which feels good, so you keep on learning. If the tests were too hard or too easy, you might quit, Detre noted.

The site also lets you play along with friends and strangers. Comparing your garden with others fires up the competitive spirit, for example. Users can also share mnemonic devices and encourage each other to learn new words, fostering a sense of community.

Memrise bills itself as teacher of words in a foreign language. "That's only a small part of learning a language," Luis Von Alm, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-creator of another online learning website, Duolingo, told Technology Review.

Detre agrees that Memrise alone will not teach you a new language, but, in his opinion, is the "best way to learn the words of a new language." And learning vocabulary, he added, is "the right way for the brain to kick itself into learning a new language."

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Tip o' the Log to Technology Review's Kristina Bjoran

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).