Appy With Languages

Appy With Languages

My body decided that the first few days back in Cambridge would be a great time for me to get ill.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted to be ill in the holidays either, but if I were to choose when was an inconvenient time to be overwhelmingly dizzy with a cough and sore throat that kept me up all night, I wouldn’t have chosen now, right before term begins and when I’m desperately trying to get work done. My plan was to settle into a diurnal routine, get some good nights of sleep and have some productive days — but while I went to bed at a decent time yesterday, I kept waking up to cough and then struggling to get back to sleep.

At this rate, I’ll be starting Lent Term not only behind on work, but also exhausted. I had a productive day yesterday, but right now I don’t feel well enough to do anything except curl up in an armchair with my phone.

So, I decided to learn some medieval Welsh vocab on Memrise. I started doing this a few days ago — along with Duolingo for modern Irish, I’m trying to use these language-learning apps consistently. But I was taking a slightly half-hearted approach to Welsh. Now it’s about the only thing I feel I can manage, so I’m working a bit harder on it.

I’ve been using Memrise for a long time, since it was relatively new. I remember reading about it in the paper and thinking something so useful must cost a lot of money, but at the time it was totally free, and even now you don’t have to opt for a paid plan. I have to admit, though, I think it’s gone downhill as an app.

Memrise has a few really useful features, especially when compared to other language apps like Duolingo. You can make your own courses, which is helpful if you’re trying to learn specific vocab for a test, or want to work on an obscure language like medieval Welsh. There are leaderboards for everyone doing a particular course, not just the people you’ve added as friends. You can make “mems” to help you remember things.

However, I think the aesthetic has become way less focused. Memrise talks about vocab in terms of seeds and growth. You “plant” new memories, then water them until they flower (in your long-term memory). This aesthetic and terminology remains, with each word being represented by a flower that slowly buds and flowers as you work through a level. But while this used to be the theme of the whole app, it’s now got a strange space theme to it as well.

Screenshot of a Memrise course with space aesthetic

Take this screenshot, for example. The “garden” theme is still there, as seen by the icon for learning new vocab. But apparently we’re planting seeds in space.

(And sure, I know that’s not entirely incongruous, I’ve read The Martian. But it seems a little odd.)

The leaderboards, too, have changed; where the levels previously all contained the word “Mem” (even if it sometimes felt forced) like “Memocrat”, they’re now just random spacey words, as far as I can tell.

Screenshot of leaderboard with level

I mean, what does “Ziggy” have to do with languages, or Memrise, or anything? It feels considerably more juvenile than before, too, and I wonder if the shift is because Memrise is trying to appeal more to younger users.

And yet its most annoying feature is how hard it pushes the paid plans. I guess this is inevitable, and all apps do it. Duolingo shows ads at the end of every lesson and then gives you the option to remove them, for example. But Memrise has a more irritating way of doing it. The “next up” button will indicate that you should learn new words or “water” fading memories — or it’ll suggest the “difficult words” function. Once you click on that, it’ll inform you that you need a paid subscription to access this.

I don’t mind there being a paid version of an app with more features, but I dislike the way it’ll show the options as though you can use them and then only when you click tell you that you can’t; the way it loads it up as if it’s a viable option feels deceptive. And since I can’t really afford to pay for a year’s subscription, and it’s not worth it when you’re only using your own courses than don’t have audio or other extra features, I wish there was a way to disable it.

None of this is new, and it’s one of the reasons I drifted away from using Memrise after my French A-Level was over. But I’ve yet to find another app as effective for learning vocab (note: not for learning languages), so I always end up coming back to it, especially when I’m too ill to do proper work.

It’s a shame, though; while I realise it wasn’t sustainable once the app gained popularity, I do wish it had stuck with the earlier version, where it didn’t have a more complex paid version. Even once a subscription feature was introduced, the app was far less obnoxious about it before the weird space-themed redesign which so muddles Memrise’s aesthetic.
My issues with Duolingo are different, but I find its “streak” (consistency) feature motivating — Memrise has a similar thing, but it’s much less obvious and effective. It’s also more helpful than Memrise for learning an entirely new language, such as Irish, rather than learning vocabulary to support actual classes or pre-existing knowledge of a language, as I’m doing with medieval Welsh.

Between the two of them, I’d like to think my language skills will improve, as long as I can keep going with the daily usage. Memrise encourages binge-learning, I think, while the Duolingo daily goals and streaks and so on encourage regular and consistent practice. I’m trying to use both every day, in moderation, but I don’t know how well I’ll do once term begins.

However, I am a bit sad about the loss of the old Memrise design, even if it hasn’t existed for a fair while now. But maybe I’m in the minority and other people think this one’s an improvement — who knows?

Are you learning any languages, either independently or in classes? Are there any apps you use besides Duolingo and Memrise that you think are helpful or better?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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