Organize This!


June 19, 2014 | 5 comments


I have found the most amazing app ever. It might be the best thing since sliced bread. It’s for learning languages (among other things, but really, languages is the cool thing).

I think the population can be divided into two groups. Those people that are good at languages and those that are not. I’m definitely a member of the second group.

I tried to (well, had to) learn 4 languages in school: Swedish and English obviously, plus Spanish and German. The latter two didn’t work out that well. Years of lessons and practice words and studying grammar and the only things I can remember is how to count to 10, maybe read a menu, and say some random sentences like “My name is Maria Helena”, “I’m from Sweden”, “Please pass the water” and “Where is the bathroom”. Those are not really that useful (except when you need to introduce yourself, are thirsty or need to use the bathroom).

A few years ago I did manage to figure out how to use the washer and dryer at a Laundromat where the instructions were in German. However, I didn’t realize that it was German until another tourist told me, so I’m not sure that counts.

(And no, the Laundromat wasn’t in Germany.)

I wished I was good at languages. I always get jealous of people who seem to be able to pick up languages wherever they go. When I was a kid, I dreamed of (and made extensive lists) of all the languages I wanted to learn. It was quite a long list. It might essentially have been an inventory of all known languages.

Once I finished high school and I was no longer required to continue to study languages, I gave up on the idea of learning any new ones. I decided that clearly, languages were not my thing and I was destined to only be bilingual. And to be honest, being fluent in two languages is pretty good. I tried convincing myself that it didn’t matter that no other languages seemed to stick in my brain (even though, secretly, it really bothered me and that list I made as a kid continued to hunt me).

The craving to learn another language was rekindled again when I started my PhD. Studying Icelandic volcanoes (and hence spending a lot of time in Iceland) made me want to learn Icelandic. Icelandic is similar enough to Swedish that I can read signs and shorter texts (and get the main point even if I don’t recognize all the words) but the sounds are very different. I could only follow a conversation if people spoke slowly and in short, simple sentences.

Every summer I spent in Iceland, I’d pick up a few more words (and some of them, I would even remember the following year).

Last summer I was introduced to memrise. It’s the most amazing app ever. It’s the best thing ever. It’s better than post-its (and I love my post-its).

There are thousands of courses to pick between – everything from trivia and memory training to science and learning languages. Each course is set up following the same general strategy: you’ll learn new words by associating them with images or memories (so called mems) and by reinforcing those connections through repetition.

The learning process is divided into multiple stages, set up like taking care of a garden. You first have to plant the knowledge and then you go through stages of growth (or stages of learning). The app will continuously test how many of the new words you retain (i.e. you need to water your plants) and the better you know a word, the less frequently it will test you on it.


Considering I have far from a green thumb, the garden analogy doesn’t seem suited for me, but it really works. It’s fun, and not too time consuming. When it’s time to practice, memrise sends you notifications like “Hello hello, time to learn” or “Now is the perfect time to refresh some learning”. Who can resist such a happy invitation?

My vocabulary has definitely improved, but the true test will be when I go back to Iceland next week.