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Memrise.com – a new Japanese Vocabulary Learning Resource

About a month ago I discovered a site called Memrise.com. They are a new startup with a different spin on practicing vocabulary words. It is the brainchild of Greg Detre, a PhD neuroscientist from Princeton, and Ed Cooke, a Grandmaster of Memory.

This mix of these two great minds is clearly evident in how the system is setup. This isn’t your typical drill them until you drop way of practicing. It is well thought out and just generally a fun system to use. If they get an iPhone app, I might just quit Anki cold turkey.

So, let’s take a quick tour of what Memrise is all about. First off, deck selection:

Selecting a Deck in Memrise

You’ll notice at the time of this writing, there are only two featured languages on Memrise.com, Chinese and English. They are currently working hard to change that by working to implement some new features that are needed for Japanese. In the meantime though you can still practice Japanese vocabulary, which just so happens to be the category with the second most number of words Hurrah!

Memrise featured decks

It’s my dream to some day surpass French. If everyone contributes a word, we can do it!

After clicking Japanese, you’ll go to a sub-menu with several different kinds of decks. Currently there are a few unofficial wordlists for the different levels of the JLPT here. Although these decks are added (and edited) by users, they are generally pretty reliable and contain the standard vocabulary that you see in most of the JLPT wordlists floating around the net.

Memrise Japanese Wordlists

After selecting a deck to study, you’ll be sent off to your garden area, where you’ll have some seeds to plant. Seeds are new words that you haven’t learned yet. With memrise.com when you first learn a word, you ‘plant’ the word in your garden. After the seed has been growing awhile (usually at least 4 hours) you can then harvest the whole plant. Once it is harvested you’ll have to water it from time to time to keep it from wilting.

This is a clever disguise for another concept you might be familiar with, Spaced Repetition Systems or SRS. The difference here though is that it has been built into a game, so that it suddenly becomes a whole lot more addictive.

Another cool feature of Memrise is that they will email you reminders to come back and water your plants to keep them from dying. This makes it so much more helpful and interactive then some other systems.

Once you’ve selected a deck, you need to practice it or ‘plant the seeds’.

Practicing Vocabulary Cards in Memrise

By clicking on the ‘plant now’ button, you’ll be whisked away to drilling mode. Here new words will first be shown to you with the Japanese and English. There is also a section for mems. Mems are devices that help you to remember the word.

Memrise First Time Card

There are currently 4 types of mems: mnemonic, sample, etymology, and pronunciation. Here you can add text, pictures, as well as embed links to other resources such as videos. This is apart of the memrise system to help connect the word in your brain in every way possible.

Memrise StatsThere is also a handy stats bar off to the left that keeps track of all your stats for that particular session. You can also see your total rank in the system. I’m currently trying my best to stay in the top 1000. It can be a little difficult to stay there though.

The stats bar also keeps track of how many words you have seen this session.  A typical session of drilling includes about 7 words to learn.  The bar above the words seen stat is your progress through the current session.  Below words seen, you can see how many points you’ve earned.  You currently get 20 points every time you answer a multiple choice question correctly and 50 points for every type-in answer you get perfect.  You get partial points for a type-in question if you misspell the word slightly.

After you’ve completed your first session you’ll be whisked off to a tally screen that tells you how many points you scored as well as lets you know how much time you have before you can harvest your new words. As you can see, I’ve been neglecting my garden of late. I need to do some watering!

Memrise Summary

The Future of Memrise

Memrise is still in its early days, but it is a powerful way to practice vocabulary and kanji. They are constantly improving the system, and pretty soon will be adding some more Japanese specific features like separate fields for kana and kanji. That way you can practice either typing in just kanji or just kana (currently some decks require you to type in both).

I’ve been speaking with the folks at Memrise, and I’ll be helping to contribute to the site over the next few months. If you’d like to see something added to the site or changed, I’d love to hear about it. I’d especially like to hear what kind of decks you’d like to see.

Over the coming months, I’ll be contributing featured decks that correspond to the different JLPT levels.  The first one is currently available at http://www.memrise.com/set/10002844/n5-vocab-list/.  Currently this deck is a bit buggy, because they are testing it and implementing new features. However, I encourage you to stop by the site and give it try.  The people at Memrise are really interested in getting some feedback on how the deck looks.  So, if you’d like to see something added, be sure to leave some feedback at their site (in the handy feedback window at the bottom of the garden) or leave me a comment and I’ll pass it on.

Put it to Work

Are you practicing vocabulary? Get on over to Memrise and see how you like it. Let me know your thoughts about it in the comments below.

P.S. Do you love vocabulary? Great! Join my newsletter and learn more ways to learn vocabulary.

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Tim August 20, 2011, 5:46 am

    That’s great, Mac. I’m definitely going to check it out. I’ve been using Renshuu.org for a long time. I really like Michael’s take on learning vocab and what he’s done with the site, but if it had plants most of mine would be pretty wilted by now!

    Mind you, infrequent vocab revision isn’t as bad as no revision at all. But really, studying only vocab does get tedious. So hard to make time to force yourself to practise and study, isn’t it!

    • Mac August 20, 2011, 4:25 pm

      It’s the consistency that builds the memory really. That is what spaced repetition systems are all about right? I’m not completely familiar with renshuu.org although I stop in from time to time. It looks like a good system, and I like a lot of the games he has setup.

      Anyway, give it a try and let me (or them) know what you think. I’ll probably be talking to them again here soon, and I’d like to hear any feedback that you have.

  • Bob August 21, 2011, 12:19 pm

    I went back and tried it after this post. I like it so far. Using it for French and Japanese. With the Basic and N5 decks, I should have enough to do while other decks are being developed.

    • Mac August 24, 2011, 2:50 pm

      It shouldn’t take too long. I’ve been working on these decks every day for last couple of months. Hopefully I can at least get N4 out soon-ish.

  • Bob August 25, 2011, 1:51 am

    Update: Overall I like it; but, there are some errors in the decks I have been using. Some of the words in the basic deck are not in my dictionary and my Japanese friend does not know them. I.e. Saa. Maybe it is new slang.

    Some of the spellings do not seem to be standard. Especially double vowels. Instead of ‘ou’ they use just one o in the spelling answer. It also does not seem to like the spelling of hashi or ikutsu.

    The feedback box does not work when I tried to comment on it.

    As an IT person, I can be critical of computer systems; but, I still see a lot of potential and I know it takes a lot of work. I am looking for to revisions and expansion of the site.

    • Mac August 26, 2011, 2:41 pm

      Yeah, some of the user created decks have errors and inconsistencies. That is part of the reason why I’m working with them to create ‘featured’ decks that are generally controlled by one user that can edit and modify the deck. Right now anyone can edit a deck, which makes it a bit chaotic at times. People will change definitions in the middle of your testing and things like that.

      They are going to be rolling out a feature in the future that allows users to discuss changes such as deleting or updating certain definitions. Like I said, it is definitely in beta mode at the moment, but I’m excited to see it grow. I really like the new update to the site they did.

  • Alex August 31, 2011, 4:38 pm

    I am hoping they implement some sort of user-based ranking system, so that “crappy” decks aren’t shown with “good” decks. But I guess this system could work both ways, as people may abuse it, so I hope the developers find a way to make sure only the best decks are shown.

    • Alex August 31, 2011, 5:10 pm

      Also I’d like to suggest maybe adding Kanji to the seeds/cards?

      • Mac September 4, 2011, 1:45 am

        What deck are you talking about? Most of the decks have kanji, the deck I’m working on has kanji, but it won’t be shown until you’ve ‘harvested’ the plant. Also, it is a bit hard to see because it is in the upper right corner where the pronunciation guide is for other languages. I think they are working on a different template that displays them a little bit more prominently though.

        • Alex September 6, 2011, 4:46 pm

          Just noticed them, they’re really small, but they are there. Thanks.

    • Mac September 4, 2011, 1:43 am

      They are going to do this in the form of featured decks. I’m working on the first set of them that are divided out by JLPT levels. In the future, they’ll authorize a few more users to create ‘good’ decks. Right now it is a bit willy-nilly.

      • Paul November 14, 2011, 1:04 pm

        Great, i’m working through the N5 deck now, i’m really closer to level N3 so i’m looking forward to an accurate N3 deck!

        • Mac November 17, 2011, 3:27 pm

          I hope to get working on the N4 and N3 decks after I pass the N2 (hopefully this December). They take a lot of work to clean up and standardize, I’ll keep working on them though.

  • Tracey August 31, 2013, 11:43 pm

    where do you sign up for the newsletter?

    • Clayton MacKnight September 2, 2013, 5:56 am

      For the site? There should be a green box off to the right, or one just above these comments where you can sign up.

  • Ytter January 6, 2014, 2:18 am

    I don’t know whether you’ll see this – it’s been awhile since you posted this – but I can’t see how to get to the comments at Memrise.

    I’ve been working on the katakana lessons and am wondering about the choice of words used for examples. For example, is it worth the time drilling on the difference between “hamburger” vs. “hamburger steak” when a search on Google Image shows both items being served on buns, supposedly the crucial distinction? And according to Jim Breen’s dictionary, フィレ = ヒレ. “フィレオ” is apparently not an independent term any more than the “fillet-o” of the of McDonald’s “fillet-o-fish” that he refers to: “フィレオフィッシュ; フィレ・オ・フィッシュ (n) Filet-O-Fish (McDonalds) .” After all, it’s not as though borrowed terms written in katakana are a rarity in Japanese.

    And surely there’s someplace else to eat in Japan?

    I’m going to take a break from Memrise for a while. I’m a clumsy typist in any language, I find I’m spending too much of my free time these days dealing with the consequences of typos rather than learning Japanese.

    I appreciate the push to get the Japanese IME up and running, but at this stage (that is, the very beginning), writing by hand rather than learning to spell “fish” as “f – i – ss- yu” probably makes more sense.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 8, 2014, 11:47 pm

      Ytter, バーガー and ハンバーガー have somewhat different meanings. I suspect the reason Google image search is coming up with similar images is because the words are spelled fairly the same. Anyway, the idea is, if you go into a ハンバーガー restaurant (like Bikkuri Donki), you might be surprised to see that there are no actual burgers. The idea was to point out that there are two separate things in Japan, where as in a lot of other countries there are only burgers.

      There are other places to eat in Japan, but if you’ve ever been to Japan I’m sure you’ll agree with me that McDs is ubiquitous and anyone visiting Japan will most likely hit one up. Also, it gave me a chance to have people practice フィ (the small イ) which is a bit of a tricky concept at first. I mean it is a little hard to understand how that is pronounced unless you have some frame of reference. Most people know what a fillet o’ fish is so, I used that.

      I agree that writing out by hand is pretty handy at first, but realistically speaking, you will only probably ever NEED to know how to write your name in katakana. You probably won’t be doing that much writing by hand these days. So, if you have the time, writing is good practice, if you don’t, you can skip it, you’ll pick it up later if/when you do need it (for work or forms or something like that).

      Anyway, the comments on the Memrise site are under ‘forum’. But, I hope this makes some things clear for you.

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