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I will never forget these 10 words (or the 10 words I learned yesterday, or the 10 words I learned the day before that)

March 7, 2013

Planting: 4 minutes

A picture of a main standing on a mountainside, sun bright behind him.  “A sun ray on a cloudy day makes me smile“.  Sonreir.  To smile.  I’ll practice this word six times before the session is done, but for now I move on to the next word.  Feliz.

The memory trick (or mem, presumably short for meme) attached to feliz is a festively dressed cartoon hispanic rodent, looking very happy and yelling “Feliz Navidad”.  It doesn’t quite make sense, but the unusual image — combined with my familiarity with the phrase feliz Navidad — does a pretty good job of keeping the word in my head.Window

I hit enter, and I’m presented with four different spanish words.  I have to choose the one that means ‘smile’.  Sonreir.  I select it, hit enter, and move on.  I will see that word five more times today.

As the lesson moves along, I’m answering fewer multiple choice questions.  More and more I am simply given the English word and asked to type out the Spanish equivalent, until that is the only type of question I am given.

sonreir, feliz, expresar, el sentimiento, el placer, nervioso, la soledad, triste, la angustia, la inquietud

I’m using Memrise, an online tool to help learn vocabulary and facts… and never forget them.  This promise is contingent on one simple behavior: visit every day, and tend to your garden.  The garden is the prevailing metaphor of memrise, and in this metaphor I have just “planted” the seed of those words in my brain.  In approximately 4 hours, they will be ready to harvest.

Harvesting: 2 minutes

I do this every day, once per day, so that means I have plants ready to harvest from yesterday.

preocupar, el sentido, increible, diferente, el cabello, digno, listo, orgulloso,  la madurez, la descripcion

It’s been a long day, but I manage to type out 8 of the words correctly on my first try.  When I miss one, memrise shows me the definition and then puts it in the back of the deck.  These plants will not go unharvested, and the correct memory will get refreshed — and strengthened — in my brain.

However, that doesn’t happen just in one refresher course.  That’s why you water.

Watering: 5 minutes

A memory is constantly decaying as new neural patterns are built on top of and around it, and if the memory is not refreshed it will slowly fade into oblivion.  However, you don’t have time to constantly review every word you’ve ever learned.  That’s why I have the computer calculate the exact day when the memory is about to disappear, and then remind me.

Memories don’t decline in a linear fashion.  They decay, disappearing quickly at first and then slipping away slower as there is less of it left.  In practice this means your chance of remembering it correctly falls as time goes on.  However, when you refresh that memory by repeating the word association the memory is strengthened again… and this time, it decays less quickly.


Herman Ebbinghaus, a 19th century German scholar, was the first to rigorously study the decay of memory.  Before him the consensus was that you could not perform experiments on higher-order mental processes like memory, but instead of listening to the masses he invented a new field of psychology.  He discovered a rough formula for the decay of memory, and then created a companion formula which told him the ideal time for refreshing a memory.  Memrise, as well as similar systems like Anki and Supermemo, use a modified version of that formula.

And now the formula told me that I had words I needed to review.

la fortaleza, moreno, menudo, fingir, la barba, callado, el chiquillo, la prisa, la mujer, inteligente, la apariencia, el humor, el saludo, la risa, seriamos, habian sido, vivia, hablais, el animal, extender, acordarse, mediante, abierto, la fuente, a traves de, traje, tuve, diria, diciendo, cai, salido, britanico, diverso, la direccion, el pie, posible

I miss four words, which means I get 89% correct. One is a spelling mistake, another a gender mismatch.  The other two I simply wrote the wrong word.  This is in line with what Ebbinghaus predicted, and it makes me feel pretty good about where my skills are going.

1 year

1 year after starting this regimen, I will know 3650 words.

I’m not going to list them all.

Approximately 3 months and 10 days after starting, I will know 1000 words, which is enough to know 79.6% of the words in the average spanish fiction book.  After 6 months and 20 days I will know 2000 words, which is enough to know 86.1% of the words in the aforementioned fiction book.  As the year goes on, the gap continues to close.

Somewhere in that time period, vocabulary becomes no longer an issue.  There are conjugations and idioms, yes, but the biggest barrier to understanding is off the table.  You can read books, learn grammar, and talk to native speakers at any point in your language learning journey, but as you have more words to say you become much more comfortable.

More importantly, I find this program to provide a quick and convenient sense of achievement that I don’t get through many other methods.  A textbook provides no feedback and requires lots of effort in organizing your study session that doesn’t directly contribute to your learning of the language.  Struggling through a difficult book or talking to a native speaker may provide quicker learning, but with the side effect of using lots of mental energy and, sometimes, engendering soul-crushing frustration and despair at your inability to understand.

This program, on the other hand, takes away all the effort that isn’t directly related to your target language, organizes the session around your learning history, and then shows you how far you’ve come.

That’s great, but will it teach me Spanish?


Memrise is not a complete learning solution.  It is great at teaching you facts and vocabulary, which is one necessary component of language-learning, and the one with which I have traditionally struggled most… but only reading, writing, and speaking the language can actually make you fluent.  In addition, the words are presented as simply another term for their English counterparts, with no context in the target language or consideration for the various shades of meaning that native speakers understand.

Still, memrise is great at what it does.  If you need to learn vocabulary… enjoy!


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  1. The permalink

    The “festively dressed cartoon hispanic rodent” is Speedy Gonzales.

    • Thanks! Given the research that went into the rest of it (yes, this is last night’s data… I taped myself doing it) I’m not sure why I let that one issue slide.

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