This May Be The Fastest Way To Learn A Language

For the longest time I’ve been studying foreign language vocabulary with index cards. Problem is there’s no optimal way to dump old words from my stack and introduce new ones. How do I know when I’ve mastered a word? How many new words should I attempt per day? These questions mean I’m experiencing inefficiencies that retard the learning process. Along comes Memrise, a web app that is flashcards on steroids.

Memrise quizzes you on words with a multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank system. More importantly, it helps you memorize words by telling you a mnemonic that other users have found helpful. Here’s what the founder of Memrise had to say about his system in a recent Guardian article:

“The idea of Memrise is to make learning properly fun,” Ed told me over coffee on a recent visit to New York to meet with investors. “Normally people stop learning things because of a bunch of negative feedback, such as worries about whether they’ll actually get anywhere, insecurities about their own intelligence, and a sense of it being effortful. With Memrise, we’re trying to invert that and create a form of learning experience that is so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV.”

I’ve been using it for Polish and it’s 100% more enjoyable than paper flashcards. The key elements, I believe, are that it forces you to type in the words and tests you just enough so that you don’t waste time on things that your brain already knows. It also has a built-in braking system that forces you to stay away so you don’t burn yourself out.

If you have spotty internet, you can also try Anki, a software based flashcard system that achieves a similar result.

Read More: How I Learned A Language In 22 Hours

32 thoughts on “This May Be The Fastest Way To Learn A Language”

  1. You can use the Leitner System to do spaced repetition with paper flash cards, you know.
    I prefer paper and pen to computer based systems because the physical act of hand writing out the questions and answers improves retention. It’s been researched. (Also getting away from digital screens for a couple hours a day is nice.)
    For learning Chinese/Japanese characters, for instance, a great trick is to trace out the character with your left foot or the top of your head. Involving your body will better burn it into your memory.

    1. I see your point, but Anki does the same and syncs with your laptop and android. You can also add sound files for difficult pronunciations.

  2. Speaking of languages, I speak Spanish fluently and enough German & French to get around. Here in the states, if I meet a native speaker of one of these is it a higher DHV to start using their tongue early on, or should I throw it out after already getting some repoire? Also, does that vary according to how well I speak it?

  3. @Roosh
    Yes indeed, thanks for posting this. And if you get any more urges to discuss language learning, please give in to them. This sort of thing is incredibly useful in a lot of ways.

  4. thanks, I ‘ll definitely look into this. I was thinking of using Rosetta stone or Pimsleur for learning some French or German and maybe I can us this as a supplemental tool.

  5. Of course, flashcard may be the fastest way to learn a language because of its structure, forms. I wanna share my own experience. Superflashcard is my favourite tool. I feel interested in its great database and well-organized. I think it is more convenient than Anki. It allows downloading and installing free so I can study any language everywhere.

  6. This is true for some values of “Learning a language”
    To become native-level fluent/literate, including non-accented pronunciation, requires about 10 years worth of concerted effort (8 hours a day of exposure, at least some of which is interaction with native speakers)
    For the pronunciation part, you need a year or two frontloaded of listening to high-quality native speaker speech in a variety of contexts (eg. not just TV, not just radio news broadcasts, not just scholarly or literary language) before attempting to speak so that your brain can be properly entrained first.
    I’ve never learned a language at the minimal level required for a pickup. What’s the ETA on that with a 8h/day time budget?

    1. Is your 8h/day a true 8 hours though?
      You don’t need to be fluent to bang girls in foreign languages. I did it in Russian when I was barely conversational. Depending on the language, 2-4 hours a day for 3 months is sufficient.

      1. I would include some passive exposure in that 8h (eg. listening to news reports in the language while on the train, etc), but only active listening.
        I made the most progress when I had the benefit of 8h/day of instruction in the language + spending all my extra time hanging out with my monolingual-in-target-language buddies every day
        Most important things is to keep out of the ex-pat purgatory! I find all the environmental exposure to the other language is negated when speaking english with someone. Spend enough of your time with expats and you’ll be Sisyphus with your language boulder, never getting any farther up the hill. I’ve seen it more times than I can remember
        As another aside, I found true fluency to make pickup harder. You lose some of the innocent charm of a newbie speaker trying to find his feet. It gives you a funny charming vibe, and you have to work for your vibe when you’re properly fluent. Bad language skills make you like a surreal joke factory for native speakers (“I KISS YOU!!!!!!!”)

    2. “To become native-level fluent/literate, including non-accented pronunciation, requires about 10 years worth of concerted effort (8 hours a day of exposure, at least some of which is interaction with native speakers)”
      That is BS. The problem is that Native Fluency, as defined by academics, also constitutes the ability to READ and WRITE in the target language at a high level. I care for neither. Just verbal fluency is way easier and faster to attain.
      10 years of concentrated study is absolute mastery of a language, which might be useful for immigrants but for most people mastery of a non-English language is a waste.

      1. “That is BS. The problem is that Native Fluency, as defined by academics, also constitutes the ability to READ and WRITE in the target language at a high level. I care for neither. Just verbal fluency is way easier and faster to attain.
        10 years of concentrated study is absolute mastery of a language, which might be useful for immigrants but for most people mastery of a non-English language is a waste.”
        If you’re learning a foreign language to go sightseeing, order lunch and pick up girls for ONSs, then you are totally right that full fluency is overkill. The most common hundred words along with a dozen sentence patterns will get you by.
        However, there are a great many advantages to having learned another language at a deep and complex level. There are the obvious intellectual advantages in having access to a whole other set of thought-patterns enabled by a parallel way of thinking about concepts, and direct access to a complete other set of great literature. It also enriches you culturally, giving you contrast with your own culture and enhancing both in subtle ways. A complete understanding of culture can only come hand-in-hand with the language in which it is lived.
        There are also doors that open to people who are fully bi-lingual and bi-cultural. I beat out 1000 other applicants for 6 positions in the Olympic broadcast team for the national broadcaster of a country. I had full access to all venues, met and interviewed many famous athletes and celebrities, and had the baddest DHV imaginable. For that month I was an unstoppable pussy magnet.
        Also: LTR? You might meet someone in those ONSs you want one with. There’s a reason most international marriages end in failure, and it’s not because “she got westernized”. If you can’t communicate effortlessly (that includes her mastery of English), then you’re just asking for it.
        You seemed to be calling deep fluency a bunch of useless BS. I can assure you that the investment in yourself is paid back many-fold in ALL aspects of your life. My comment was for language learners that have ambitions larger than being able to discuss the weather.

  7. Memrise doesn’t give me a sufficient number of words at once for it to be useful for me — I have to spend a long time “planting the seeds” for ten words in order to add it to my “garden.” Also, I’m not sure which Polish sets you’re using, but when it upgraded to 1.0, it wiped out some of the better sets.
    I prefer to learn words in sentence form, as the individual words only sink in when I see them used in context with other words. It also gives you a better intuitive sense of grammar, which I think is superior to spending too much time on theory. Quizlet and Anki both have some decent sets with complete sentences, and I also recommend sites like,,, as that company also uses the spaced repetition method while also giving you the opportunity to learn with complete sentences. They don’t have a Polish site yet though — resources for Polish on the internet are pretty limited, as it’s not a very popular language to learn.

    1. And after learning about 1000 words or so, I think comics in the target language are really helpful, as the text is based entirely on dialogue (rather than narrative, which doesn’t resemble how people actually talk) and the pictures serve as good visual aids.

  8. I prefer using Anki along with a plug-in so that I can match my pronunciation with a native on each rep.
    lkj, I agree that hand-writing is useful for learning. I’ve had good results combining Anki for my vocabulary while handwriting example sentences for words that I’m getting stuck on.
    You don’t need to spend a year or two before speaking with natives. That is crazy to me. If you really want to learn a language you have to be willing to sound stupid for a while.

    1. The front-loaded heavy listening phase is only if you want native speaker level accent-free speech. Not a problem if you don’t mind sounding like apoo, borat or some other language-mangling stereotype in the language you’re trying to learn. An accent can be sexy, but people subconsciously equate eloquence with intelligence. Most of the time it makes people treat you like an intellectual midget. You will certainly sound stupid in your target language for a while, but if you don’t handle your accent at the outset, you will pick up bad habits that could get in the way of full fluency.

        1. Advice from the trenches, bro.
          Take it or leave it, but don’t hate on it unless you’ve got something to say

  9. I already use Anki, and I’m interested in memorization techniques. Do you guys think it’s the case abandoning Anki and moving to Memrise? Or do you use both?

  10. About accents – after years my accent in Spanish is still busted more than it should be. I consider it an asset not a liability so there’s no plans to work on it. As far as I can tell it’s never affected me in a negative way. People form their opinion of you from a number of factors and accent is far down the list.
    If you’re just learning a language to get girls in the sack knowing enough to tease her and make her laugh in her own language would be a watermark to shoot for. That proficiency will be different for each guy since it’s affected by humor, wit, spontaneity, etc.
    Unless you’re learning to increase career opportunities or your bucket list includes being a news anchor in Colombia or Russia no need to be self-conscious about it.

  11. SRS is pretty good for memorization as long as you’re doing textbook work too. Focus on one method and all you’ll get is vocubulary.
    Anki gets a lot of attention but the iPhone/iPad/iPod app costs a ridiculous $25. There’s a program out there called Flashcard Elite that is advanced SRS but has a free iOS app. I used both Anki and Flashcard Elite and was fine with Flashcard Elite to save me $25. The downsides are that it doesn’t really sync with anything except Quizlet but I recommend it for anyone using iOS and interested in trying out SRS for memorization.

  12. Uczysz się polskiego? Miło słyszeć! Pozdrawiam z Polski i życzę sukcesów!

  13. I’ve been using Pimsleur Russian for about two years, and just started Memerise: Russian a few weeks ago. Definitely like it so far and it’s really helping me to learn the Cyrillic alphabet in particular.

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