The MIT Tech Review recently published a piece on Memrise, a new personal language study solution that uses mnemonic brain hacks to accelerate the learning process. Memrise makes heavy use of cognitive science, game dynamics, and social networking with the hopes of making users' study time more efficient. The software's primary calling card is a cognitive technique called vivid encoding, which demands that each new piece of information presented to a user be associated with some relevant picture, or context. This is based on the theory that speed and clarity of fact recall is directly related to the number of connections that the brain makes to new information. Unsurprisingly, Memrise has chosen Mandarin as its first major language release, likely due as much to the language's inherent image-connection opportunities as to its rising popularity. In order to encourage disciplined practice, Memrise assesses users rapidly and frequently, often immediately after new information is presented.
Of course, the language learning market is already saturated with reasonably useful solutions, so the fact that Memrise is worth any real publicity at all is a testament to its degree of innovation. Unsatisfied with confining its theoretical backing to the presentation of content, Memrise extends its use of cognitive science into the realm of user disposition. Specifically, Memrise employs a number of game dynamics in order to keep the user entertained while they learn. Ed Cooke, one of the product's cofounders, explains that the motivation for this is twofold. First, he hopes that adding an entertainment value to the lessons will keep users coming back for more, effectively increasing the frequency of study sessions. Second, and far more subtly, he claims that small game dynamics like Memrise's representation of new information as seeds that need to be tended into flowering plants put the user in the proper emotional state to learn effectively. Emphasizing this point, he explained to the Tech Review that "learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you've learned".
In a not altogether unprecedented move, the creators of Memrise also chose to include social networking features in their technology. Users can compete against facebook friends, vie for top spots on leader boards, and even produce original content. I can't speak for the effectiveness of inter-user competition, but one look at the number of language lessons that have been built by users alone is all it takes to realize how very beneficial user-generated content is to the product. And whereas other sites that crowdsource content creation put learners at the mercy of the content creator's talent, Memrise makes creating effective lessons easy because it puts the full-force of its cogsci powered engine behind everything users create (though the connections written by some users are tenuous at best).
I demo'd the product for a bit, and while it looks extraordinarily promising, it still runs a little buggy. With time, however, its certainly possible that Memrise becomes a major player in the field of personal language study. Whether or not it does succeed, I'm extraordinarily interested in how effective its theoretical background ends up being.