23 June 2011

A Fresh Approach to Foreign Language Learning

Learning languages is fun and easy -- if you are a small child. If, on the other hand, you have allowed your critical window of language development to close without having learned multiple languages, you have a serious challenge to face in trying to add languages to your verbal repertoire. But a new team of learning gurus are in town, and they aim to make language learning fun and easy again, even for you old codgers who are long past your peaks!
A world memory champion and a neuroscientist have joined forces to create a language-learning website called Memrise, which combines mnemonic tricks with a game to help users learn quickly and efficiently. Its carefully paced learning structure and competitive points system, the app's developers believe, make their site more effective than other language-learning tools.

Memrise makes learning a game with virtual gardens that users must tend. As they do, they also earn points and thereby fight their way up a community-wide leaderboard.

Mandarin Chinese and English are the only languages that have been rolled out yet, but others including French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Arabic can be used in beta form.

...The premise is that each word or phrase is a seed for users to plant in their gardens. A new word is planted when a user is exposed to it. Once planted, the seed sprouts in a few hours and must be harvested—that is, the user is tested, typically by having to type out words or choose characters, depending on the language. With each success, a plant is moved to a greenhouse, where it will thrive or wilt depending on how well the user tends it by practicing with the word.

"Learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you've learned,

" says Memrise cofounder and memory champion Ed Cooke. That's where many language-learning aids lose users, he says—the presentation fails to engage users and make them want to learn.

The Memrise learning method is based on three principles. The first, Cooke says, is one of the most important aspects of memory training: vivid encoding. In order to recall otherwise arbitrary words, the user's brain benefits from connecting them to an image. The more associations to a word the user makes, the quicker and clearer the recall. Memrise provides some associations for users—the Chinese character for "man," for example, transforms into a cartoon drawing of a man. But it also encourages users to submit their own verbal mnemonics. For instance, in one French session, the phrase "une boucle" (which means "a loop" in English) is paired with a user-submitted mnemonic about a roller coaster: "I hope they boucle us in securely. This roller coaster has so many loops."

The second principle of Memrise's approach is to remind users systematically. Using an algorithm developed by neuroscientist and cofounder Greg Detre, the app is designed so "plants," or words, wilt when not tended to. The user interface tells users which plants are wilting, a problem they can remedy by "watering," or repeated testing. Reminders pop up when a user is most likely to forget new words, rather than at random intervals.

The final Memrise principle is adaptive testing, which means that questions vary in difficulty according to the user's performance. "Other language sites get this wrong," says Cooke. "It's really important that you test these memories at the right time and in the right way." _TechnologyReview
In an age where machine language translation devices are growing on trees, one might wonder why humans would take the trouble to fill their minds with foreign sounding words and phrases when machines could do the work for them. And yet there is that "use it or lose it" dynamic at work, where entire parts of the brain are taken over by other -- perhaps more mundane -- tasks if certain skills and abilities are not exercised or learned.

Humans have not yet begun to learn how to use their brains. Research into memory and learning is helping to slowly unwrap the marvelous present so carefully packed and perched on a stalk above our shoulders. But most people will not want to take the trouble, when there are so many mind-numbing ways of killing time out there.

The choice between the next level and the Idiocracy is made on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.


Bookmark and Share


Blogger PRCalDude said...

Machine translation really does not work very well. They're trying to using statistical algorithms to refine it, but they're still far off.

This language program sounds like Anki or SuperMemo for languages.

Thursday, 23 June, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This site needs a way to assist pronunciation. Ideally, it should input users' spoken attempts, and provide useful corrections.

Bayesian approaches have evidently helped a lot with in-lab machine translations, but I've not noticed the benefit in free web products.

Monday, 27 June, 2011  

Post a Comment

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts