Every time I come back from Taipei, I resolve to study up on my Chinese. In an effort to actually roll that ball a little this time, I signed up for yet another account on my friend Greg’s startup, Memrise, a few days ago. I’m plugging it now because the service has improved to the point that I think I might use it enough to make some real progress. Practice sessions are low-stress and bite-sized enough to do as a break at work in lieu of, e.g., checking Facebook, and they’re online, which means I don’t have to drag my Rosetta Stone CD to work or buy a CD drive for my laptop. I think they’ve bought into the Farmville game just enough to keep users motivated—the governing metaphor for your knowledge is now a “greenhouse,” where you sprout seedlings (e.g. recently learned meanings of Chinese characters), and a “garden” where you maintain them after they’ve sprouted (i.e. you’ve practiced them enough to solidify them somewhat in your brain). You’re informed when a piece of knowledge is solid enough to be moved to the garden, and if the site’s practice schedule determines that you aren’t practicing an item in a way that best solidifies it, you’re warned that it’s “wilting.” There is a social aspect to the site, which I haven’t used yet.

I’m also appreciating some aspects of the Chinese relative to the year I took at Princeton. There was a lot that was good about the Princeton method, but the one thing it left me weak in despite copious practice was characters. Princeton’s approach, like most language courses, starts out training you in phrases you’d be likely to speak, e.g., “I am an American,” the first five characters I learned in Chinese 101 at Princeton. Memrise’s approach to Chinese seems a bit weird by contrast because you’re learning things like “fetus” and “ladle” and “field,” all of which seem entirely crackers unlikely to arise in casual conversation. But those characters form the roots of more complex characters that go into words like “dumpling” and “old” and “fish”—the sorts of things you might be likely to read on signs or menus. And it is a lot easier to remember “earth + ladle = old” than it is to remember the character holistically. Your eventual goal is holistic memory, of course, but in the near term what you want is just to be able to recognize the characters, and being able to combine them out of their elements this way is incredibly useful even when the combination doesn’t make sense (and it rarely does). In fact, it’s so useful that I understand why people who really get it can delude themselves into thinking it does make sense.

Anyway, I don’t know to what extent the cognitive science behind the mnemonics and practice schedule represents an advance on, say, Rosetta Stone, but Greg assures me it’s a lot, and I think the motivational aspect is likely to be even more powerful. When I’m goofing off, the effort of digging out my Rosetta Stone CD and special headset and getting everything spun up is a big obstacle. Keeping a Memrise tab open in my browser is easy enough that I’ll click over to water my cute little knowledge garden in lieu of a Facebook break.

I definitely would not counsel anyone to rely on Memrise alone for Chinese pedagogy, or probably any other language pedagogy; I think grammar requires a different approach. But I think the Memrise approach is going to be very useful and powerful for vocabulary, which is an immense hurdle especially in character-based languages. For the first time in a while, I’m a little bit optimistic that I might pay my next visit to Taiwan as a semi-literate. That’s a sufficiently amazing prospect that I’m prepared to be preemptively grateful for it.

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