Memrise or Duolingo? That is the question! These two competitors have been the top choices of languages learners on a budget. Both free language-learning mobile apps, Memrise and Duolingo offer lessons on-the-go and easy-to-study methods. But which one really does it better? Here we discuss in detail the whole language mobile app game, and which one, Memrise or Duolingo, gets our vote.
Changing the Game of Language Learning
Before the advent of mobile applications, learning a new language was an ordeal. Mobile applications have changed the game of language learning due to these advantages:
1. They’re not “One-Size Fits All”. Your Rosetta Stone CD-ROM has one fixed program. It certainly wasn’t built with algorithms that understood your strengths, weaknesses to provide tailored exercises.
2. They’re mobile. Using a mobile app is great because you can learn on the bus to work, queuing at the bank or waiting for that oven pizza to crisp. Books and cassette tapes tied you to your desk, or at best, the car.
3. They’re gamified. Mobile applications provide engaging interaction that your Rosetta Stone CD-ROM would drool over. Their game-like functionality with points, levels, and challenges will draw you in and spit you out a linguist.
Applications are great. Now comes the choice of which one? Two of the most popular applications are Duolingo and Memrise. Here we’ve delved into these applications to help you understand how they work and which to use for your goals.
Duolingo and Memrise take two different approaches to learning, but both are available across iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Both are teeming with game-like features such as levels, rewards, streaks and points. Friendly animations and sounds are dotted throughout. To some extent both apps use algorithms that customize the exercises for the participant. Both have more-than-acceptable design and interface, and feedback and progress reporting is strong throughout.
The exercises themselves are varied across both platforms, providing traditional tasks such as translation into English, reverse translation, fill in the blanks, sentence formation using a bank of words, and audio recognition tests. Duolingo will also provide pronunciation exercises if you enable your microphone. Both apps use testing as the primary means of learning. Continuous testing is the best way to promote active recall of information and to embed it in your memory.
That said, both have their idiosyncrasies, including the scope of content and the learning journey. Both maintain different linguistic strengths – colloquially Duolingo excels at grammar formation, whilst Memrise is the master of vocabulary learning.
What we liked: structure and gamification
Straightforward approach. Overwhelmed by the immensity of a language? Duolingo makes it simple by setting a step-by-step course for you that builds up slowly and in chronological order. Bonus: The app’s interface is better than anything out there and it always responds just how would want it to. There’s no getting lost.
Gamification like no other. Collect Experience Points (XPs) and Lingots (virtual currency) as you practice the language, with extra incentives for multi- day learning streaks and the option to compete with friends. Extra fun is added in a few cool ways: a friendly green owl named ‘Duo’ tracks your progress and gives you your XPs and lingots. Cash in your lingots at the virtual store for novel prizes, like “Bonus Flirting Skills” or a new Champagne Tracksuit outfit for Duo.
Quick bits of information. The language is broken up into consumable bite-sized chunks (linguistic groups) that will unlock for you as you move through the program. Some examples of groups include “Questions”, “Family”, “Food”, “Present tense” and “Possession”. If you’re new to a language can start from scratch, if not, take a placement test and jump to your level.
Focus on Sentence Construction. After just a few sessions you gain an appreciation for the general layout of sentences – where subjects, verbs, and objects should be placed. These skills are much more subtle, more art than science, and Duolingo outshines Memrise in this regard.
The Not-so-Good: not-so-innovative methods
Weak vocabulary building. Although the application may tell you that you “know 200 words”, that’s not necessarily accurate. While the app checks your ability to recognize the words in context (passive memory), actually producing those words on the spot (active memory) is much more difficult, and the app doesn’t help much with this.
Over emphasis on target-language-into-English translation. It’s great to be able to translate a foreign language into your native tongue, but reverse translation is a more onerous task and ultimately more crucial to grasping your target language. In contrast, Memrise places a greater emphasis on translating from both directions. This is far more useful if your ultimate goal for learning Spanish extends beyond reading comprehension.is
It gets dull. After some use, the whole experience can feel drawn-out and slow: in the end, the learning method isn’t unlike the exercises at the back of your high school textbook. Also, the app occasionally tasks you with bizarre phrases…. asking you to construct the sentence “The elephants eat rice” is hardly transferable to the real world.
Limited content. The entire Spanish track will teach you a combined 1’500-2000 words, hardly extensive, and once you have completed it you are left with few options. The Immersion feature allows you to delve into the world of translation, and fine-tune your study through the translation of articles online. The Chatbot feature can provide novelty but it is primitive and not for everyone. If you’re seeking to expand your horizons further then you are left with little option but to look elsewhere.
What we Liked: a Science-backed approach to memory
At first glance Memrise is just another language-learning app that uses flashcards with quirky accompanying photos (kind of like memes), followed by vintage translation and audio exercises. Nothing special right? Well, you’re wrong.
Totally Innovative. Peeking behind the facade of Memrise lies a new approach to teaching, based totally on best-in-class brain science. Founded by a Grandmaster of Memory (Yes, that is a thing) and a Princeton neuroscientist, Memrise is all about the method.
Mems make you remember. The first part of their method is the use of Mems, which are quirky mnemonics, etymologies, photos or example sentences that appear under the flashcards. By relating the text to other stimulating material, Mems bring the language to life and help you retain information better than a regular flashcard.
Spaced-Repetition doesn’t let you forget. Memrise uses finely-tuned algorithms that keep the words you’ve learned fresh by testing you at optimal intervals. Spaced repetition ensures that you come into contact with a word at least 6 times, a number that the neuroscientists have calculated is required for a word to enter your long-term memory. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Memrise is the market leader when it comes to learning new vocabulary and phrases.
Pleasing, subtle gamification. Memrise uses the metaphor of a growing a garden to document the learning journey. Just like a plant or a tree, your memory is an organic living organism. Shown on the home screen, your garden will thrive the more you learn and refresh your knowledge. Each new word starts off life as a seed and as you hurdle the varied tasks for that word, it grows until it flowers.
The Not so Good: inflexible design and limited reach
Crowdsourced content. Just like you cannot take Wikipedia as Gospel, everything on Memrise hasn’t been created by experts: since the content is wide open to creation by the community, there can be bumps and potholes along the way. The most common frustrations are those of missing content (such as images), and a lack of flexibility with your language usage. Constant reminders of “premium features” can also be a pain.
Strict translations. Languages contain multiple variants for the same word, and diverse ways of constructing sentences. In Spanish there are four words for ‘car’, and different ways to express verbs (e.g. yo como, como). While Duolingo will give you free reign of expression, Memrise will usually insist you stick to the form displayed on the flashcards. This can be aggravating.
It’s just for vocabulary. A common note on Memrise is that it is most effective for learning new vocabulary and phrases, but falls short when it comes to sentence structure and grammar. While it is true that many of its courses are concerned with the sole aspect of vocabulary, that’s not the full story. Memrise also offers specific and extensive courses on grammar, conjugation, pronouns and other aspects. My top tip: Take Memrise’s own Spanish courses for a much more rounded educational experience.
What we recommend
Both of these applications will help you with your language learning but in different ways. Duolingo is great for warming up to a language and trying it on. It takes a universal and all-encompassing approach in a clean, consistent format. Memrise, on the other hand, is great for those committed to learning a language. While it cannot compete with Duolingo with regard to its aesthetic, new innovation and variability, it isn’t far off, and its core offering is solid.
We think Memrise’s teaching method is simply more effective and its scope is greater. Sure, it doesn’t incorporate voice recognition, but if you’re set-up in a host country, speaking practice is going to be the least of your worries. It’s the quick accumulation of vocabulary that you want. On Memrise I always have the urge to “water the plants” and grow my garden. It always keeps your brain ticking and I rarely lose interest.
So, if you want our advice in answering the burning question of choosing Memrise or Duolingo, here’s the scoop: if you’re looking for a companion to help you on your trip abroad, start with Duolingo to get a generally feeling for the language and structure, but utilize Memrise’s proven methods for the real learning and memorization.
So, we won’t say this was a trick question, but let’s just say, we live in the Land of And. Why not benefit from the best of both worlds… if you can?
Ready for that face-to-face, intensive way of learning a language while being immersed in a Spanish-speaking culture? Check us out on our website.