Coke or Pepsi?
Superman or Batman?
And in the field of language learning, which comes out ahead: Memrise or Duolingo?
These are some tough choices. But by the end of this post, I’ll settle the score.
Are you ready to dive deep into each platform?
- Memrise vs Duolingo: Who Wins?
Memrise vs Duolingo: Which of These Popular Language Learning Programs Is Right for You?
Available: iOS | Android
What Is Memrise?
What would you call an app that is designed to help you remember words?
Right—Memrise seems like the perfect name! It seems even more so when you realize that one of the app’s founders, Ed Cooke, is himself a memory grandmaster.
The other two masterminds behind the project are Ben Whately, who studied experimental psychology at Oxford:
And Greg Detre, a neuroscientist who studies the science of remembering things:
So, the very first thing you need to know about Memrise is that it was shepherded by guys who know what they are doing.
The next thing you need to know is that Memrise is a flashcard app/software… on steroids. These are not your grandmother’s flashcards where she writes Spanish words on one side and their English translations on the other. Memrise works with audio, video and text.
When you are looking at video clips of native speakers (and replaying them as often as you want), rifling through a bunch of audio samples and typing your answers on a keyboard, you know you have come a long way from grandma’s ol’ school flashcards.
Memrise uses spaced repetition to help users remember vocabulary. This means that difficult words show up in the exercises more frequently while those that you have already mastered are replaced by newer words. Memrise’s algorithm “knows” the words you are struggling with because of instances when you make errors while the app is testing you on a particular word.
Say you are given an audio clip of the Spanish word “¡Hola!” (“Hello!”), and the app then asks you to pick its English translation from the given choices. If you answer, “Thank You,” for example, Memrise thinks, “Hmmmm, he got that one wrong. I better drill him more on this.”
On the whole, Memrise is an excellent app for learning target language vocabulary. It offers plenty of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Italian. Many of the app’s anchor languages have been developed by the Memrise team itself, but there are also loads of other language courses that have been created by the users themselves including lesser studied languages such as Afrikaans, Ainu and Ojibwe.
The basic app is free, but a premium subscription can be affordably purchased one month at a time, annually or for a set fee as a lifetime subscription. This premium subscription allows learners to use the app offline as well as see detailed statistics about their progress.
The Memrise Interface
Memrise is available both as an app and as a website. The two interfaces are intuitive and sleek. You will not have too difficult a time navigating them.
The app and website do vary a bit in terms of what is available and what can be done on each platform (and sometimes they do not sync perfectly).
With its “flashcard” technology, Memrise can do more than teach you a language or help you memorize new words. It can basically help you memorize anything: trivia, capitals of the world, currencies, geography… you name it! It can also teach you the vocab for any subject: design, history, science, etc.
And, with this “flashcard” technology, Memrise users can personalize decks. As a matter of fact, a lot of content on Memrise is user-generated, and this is one of the program’s strengths. You can learn so much just by clicking around and exploring their “Courses” section, and you can even create your own deck. The website reflects this and shows you the many things outside of language that you can learn with Memrise. The app, on the other hand, seems to focus on language learning. (It also prompts you to upgrade more often than most users would like.)
There were plans in late 2019 to move these user-created decks to a separate app called “Decks,” but after user dissatisfaction on the decision, Memrise decided to leave all courses accessible as-is in one program. So you’ll be able to continue making use of all the program’s functionalities, including user-created content, in one place!
Below, we will look more closely into what is under the hood of this great learning tool.
Making Words and Phrases Memorable
There are two main activities that can be done in the Memrise app. The first is “Learn,” and the second is “Review.”
The “Learn” section is further divided into “Words and Phrases” and “Learn Grammar.” These divisions are self-explanatory. You will probably spend most of your time initially in the “Words and Phrases” subsection, drilling new vocabulary, looking at videos, listening to audio clips and tapping correct answers for any given task.
The “Learn Grammar” subsection is where you get a little bit of grammar instruction. The operative phrase here is “a little bit.” Do not expect too much handholding. You will get grammar highlights but not the deep instruction that some students may be looking for. (But for the grammar concepts that they do tackle, expect the same engagement and finesse offered in the vocabulary section.)
The second main section of the app is the “Review” section, which is further divided into six different activities: “Classic Review,” “Speed Review,” “Difficult Words,” “Learn With Locals,” “Pronunciation” and “Listening Skills.” Some of these are premium features, so they require a subscription to be accessed and used.
You will have already encountered most of these activities when you initially learn words and phrases. But here, they are split into specific categories for further focus. If you want to specifically review pronunciation, for example, head to “Pronunciation.”
Here is a quick look at what each of these subsections offers:
This drills you on the words you have already learned (no new words are introduced). You will once again take on different tasks that allow you to engage and work with the vocabulary. You will do back-and-forth translations, type words into boxes, listen to audio clips and arrange phrases in their proper order. This is where your learning is cemented, and this feature is available for free to all users.
This is a run-through of all the words you have learned, but with the added pressure of being timed. For example, you will see an English word and four options. Your job is to tap on the correct translation of the English word before the allotted time expires.
The longer you take, the more your screen will be taken over by the color red. The speed review is an important gauge of how well you recall learned words under pressure, which reflects how deeply embedded the vocab is in your memory. This feature is available for free to all users as well.
A session here will give you the chance to really drill those words marked by the app as “difficult.” Maybe you made multiple mistakes during the learning session. Those relevant items are added to the “Difficult Words” section. Another way of populating this subsection is by marking the words yourself.
If you encounter a word which, at first sight, sends a chill up your spine, you can preemptively mark it as difficult and it will be added to this section. This will afford you more opportunities to practice the word. Keep in mind, however, that the “Difficult Words” feature is only available to paying Memrise users.
This has everything to do with sounds and how you are able to make out the different words of the target language. Some words in languages like French have pronunciations that are quite different from how the words are spelled. This subsection lets you listen to audio clips and hone your ears to the tonal flow of your target language, but users must subscribe to a premium membership to use this feature.
Just because you have consistently tapped on correct translations does not mean you know how to actually say a word. This section prompts you to pronounce the words and phrases you have learned.
After paying for a premium Memrise membership, speak up on your phone’s mic and say the word or phrase just like the native speaker does. Memrise’s technology will “listen” and determine if you have done it reasonably well. If not, do not worry, you can always try again.
Learn With Locals
Now, this is where the platform really shines—even the spokespeople for alternative Memrise programs would probably agree.
Here, you work with short video clips featuring native speakers to learn the most basic expressions. The advantage here is that you are not just seeing pictures or hearing audio. You are actually seeing short clips of native speakers demonstrating how words and phrases sound. So, you have the benefit of both audio and moving visuals working together to make the vocabulary really stick.
This is where the target language comes alive through you observing facial expressions. For example, you see a smile when a native French speaker says, “Merci!” (“Thank You!”) or pursed lips when she says, “Non” (“No”).
In the “Learn with Locals” subsection, you really begin to understand the communicative aspect of the language. This feature, however, is only available to premium members.
Keep in mind, however, that even though you’re “learning with locals,” this is not the same as practicing with native speakers. You are not actually having a conversation, and even though there is native audio, the clips are rather short. In fact, I would argue that the clips are too short even to create a worthwhile immersion environment, which is one of the best ways to learn.
Contrast this, for example, with a language learning program like FluentU.
FluentU uses authentic videos—like music videos, news clips and inspiring talks— to immerse you in native content and teach you how real conversations sound in context.
With Memrise, you can personalize each flashcard by creating a “mem.”
“Mems” are mnemonic devices in the form of text or pictures that help make the words and their translations memorable to you.
For example, for the Spanish word “Hola,” you might add a picture of a bearded man holding a donut in one hand and waving “Hi!” with the other. So, in your head, you are thinking, “There is a hole in the donut and it could be the letter O in hola. And, the guy holding it is waving hi or hello. Perfect!”
So, for you, that picture makes “hola” stick in your head. You decide to make it a “mem” so that each time “hola” is presented, the donut guy also appears.
How are you going to set that up?
Well, making one is really easy. (Note that it is much better to use the web version of Memrise for this.)
As the words are initially presented to you during the learning phase, there is a “Help me learn this” button. This is your first step to mem creation. Click on it and you will get to see if other people have already created a mem for the word or phrase. Some words may already have several mems created by other users, and you might decide to use what is already there. Or, you can add your own mem by clicking on “+ Add a mem.”
You will then be given the chance to upload the picture that you want and even write a caption or accompanying text. Anything goes—you can choose any picture or write any text. Think of something that is going to make the word stick for you.
“Mems” are highly personal. Since you make them yourself, they are meaningful and memorable to you. But, that does not mean you cannot share them. Other users can also benefit from the mems you make.
Some learners forgo this feature and simply make do with the standard Memrise presentation, thinking it takes too much time to find that perfect picture or write that ideal caption. I think this is a big mistake. In order for something to be memorable, you need to wrestle with it. You need to invest time and effort into it.
The very act of creating a mem—searching for the picture and thinking of a good caption—is a memory-enhancing process. Yes, it is time-consuming, but it will also embed the word in your memory. As a result, you will be much more likely to remember the vocab.
In other words, your brain becomes actively involved in the learning process instead of just passively memorizing things.
Chatbots and Grammabots
In addition to the four premium review features, Memrise Pro also comes with two additional “techie” features: the chatbot and grammabot functions.
If your imagination works just fine, you might enjoy the journey this feature offers. The goal here is to let you practice the target language without the stress of embarrassing yourself in front of a real person.
The chatbot transports you to the country where your target language is spoken. He then lets you “interact” with the locals.
What actually happens is that you will be placed in an imaginary situation, say, a “Meet & Greet,” with a friendly local (a bot). You will be given options of what you can say in a standard back-and-forth conversation. For example, you can pursue an interaction by saying, “¡Hola!” back to a stranger who is trying to get to know you, or you can click “Adios” to extricate yourself from the scenario.
This feature resembles a choose-your-own-adventure game in a chat environment, and while it doesn’t allow for the most spontaneous conversation, it definitely doesn’t hurt. It is only available with the later levels of major languages, though.
This is a chatbot that focuses on grammar and parts of speech.
This is essentially the “Learn Grammar” section but in chat form. The grammabot will send you messages that explain different grammar concepts. It will then test your comprehension of the lesson. For example, it will ask you to arrange words in the correct order.
These two features obviously offer a number of possibilities for improvement. However, more content needs to be developed so that users do not cycle through the same lessons over and over again.
You now know the ins and outs of Memrise.
Next, we will head over to the green corner and look into the language learning platform Duolingo.
Available: iOS | Android
What Is Duolingo?
Offering 35 language courses for English speakers as of June 2020, Duolingo is a behemoth of a learning platform. The app alone has already been downloaded over 100 million times. You cannot get into language learning without coming into contact with, or at least reading or hearing about, Duolingo. (The discussions from its forums alone can often crop up in your Google searches.)
Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker. The former invented the “Captcha”:
And the latter is a multi-awarded entrepreneur and brilliant Swiss computer scientist:
Duolingo is a language learning app and platform that shares a lot of the features we have already talked about with Memrise. That is why these two programs have naturally been pitted against each other. Duolingo offers language exercises and drills that train users in both vocabulary and grammar. It engages learners through tasks like translating between languages, identifying pictures, listening to audio and typing on a keyboard.
Duolingo bills itself as “the new way to learn a language,” incorporating game elements into its standard operation.
The first “F” of the Duolingo philosophy is that language learning should be “fun.” Later we will talk about exactly how Duolingo injects this into every lesson.
The second “F” is that it is “free.” (Isn’t everything though, these days?)
Duolingo earns its keep some other way, so you get a ton of material without ever spending a dime. Not much is hidden behind a payment wall—no new content or intrinsically advanced features are offered.
You even get the sense that Duolingo is not really pushing very hard for Duolingo Plus, its premium subscription option, which is quite an affordable monthly subscription fee. Other than getting rid of ads, Duolingo’s premium program doesn’t offer much outside of an offline mode and allowing users to have unlimited “Hearts” (lives, so to speak, when trying to test out of a level).
The Duolingo Interface
Like Memrise, Duolingo is also available as a website and as an app.
Whether you are working on your computer or going mobile, you get to experience the same instinctive interface. The layout is easy to navigate and you should not have any issues getting where you want to go. But, just like with Memrise, the website and app do not always perfectly sync. (This is what naturally happens when tech teams are tinkering behind the scenes and trying to make the product a little better.)
In terms of fonts, colors and graphics, Duolingo is a little bit more playful than Memrise, as it features cartoon-like images. And, of course, do not forget Duo, the lovable green owl who is the face of Duolingo. This cutie peeks out from your screen every once in a while to cheer you on.
There are also plenty of dings and dongs, sounds that tell you each time you get a correct or incorrect answer. The app is pretty vocal, meaning that introduced words and phrases often come with an audio component—which you would do well to repeat after. There are courses, however, that are missing audio such as Swahili and fictional languages such as High Valyrian from the famed “Game of Thrones” TV series.
So, for best results, even if you are on your phone and using headphones, it is better to be somewhere private where you can say the words aloud. Duolingo would not mean very much if you just master tapping on the right answer without ever opening your mouth.
That said, let’s dive a little deeper into Duolingo and see what it brings to the language learning table.
Building Memorable Sentences
As mentioned earlier, many of the mechanisms for learning that we have talked about with Memrise also exist with Duolingo.
Your language course is one long learning “tree,” which is divided into numerous mini-sections that go from the absolute basics to an intermediate level. Each mini-section has an over-arching theme, like sports, recipes, couples, etc.
There is a set sequence to these sections, and each one is locked (greyed out) until you complete the previous sections satisfactorily.
Duolingo gets you to perform different simple tasks, like matching words and their translations, matching images with their foreign language names, saying a word or phrase presented on the screen, listening to audio or typing on the keyboard—practically the very same type of exercises in the “Words and Phrases” section of Memrise.
They drill the vocab items over and over, from English to the target language (and vice versa!) so that what you are learning becomes firmly embedded in your long-term memory.
Duolingo starts with vocab and slowly builds words into phrases until you get to full sentences. There is a seamless transition between old words and new ones because they are presented side-by-side. The mastered words are slowly phased out while the new ones are gradually worked in. Before you know it, you have already picked up several new words in your new language by simply working on pint-sized tasks. Each mini-section also comes with a “Tips” page: this is essentially a lesson tutorial that briefly explain grammar and vocabulary usage notes related to the lesson.
Admittedly, Duolingo’s sentence examples do have a lot of room to improve. Sometimes they can be funny, sometimes even downright weird (there’s even a whole subreddit about its sometimes ridiculous example sentences). Users might find that the sentences they are working on are not especially helpful in actual conversations.
Gamified Language Learning
Duolingo says it only takes five minutes a day to learn the language. But, you can bet your bottom dollar that they want you in the Duolingo ecosystem for the long haul.
Look at how the whole experience is set up: The platform has poured gaming elements into every lesson, making it fun and motivating. There are also game elements in Memrise, but it just seems that Duolingo has the high ground on this one.
Each move you make in Duolingo is recorded. Each correct answer has a corresponding number of “Experience Points” (XPs), and the longer you work on tasks, the more XPs you earn.
Reaching a certain number of XPs leads to “lingots.” They are the virtual currency of the platform that you can use for things like buying bonus skills and power-ups. You can even give lingots to other users and spread goodwill. You can also use lingots at the virtual store to buy different costumes for Duo, the mascot.
In my opinion, Duolingo has not really tapped the full potential of their lingot system. If they add more uses for these, it could potentially be a game-changer.
Another metric to watch out for is your “Streak.” This refers to the number of days that you have met your daily XP goals. (You can set your goals in the “Settings” section.)
Additionally, Duolingo uses “levels” to determine the complexity of the material and the mastery you have of a topic. After completing the lessons each mini-section a first time, the next mini-section is unlocked. You can return to previously-completed mini-sections, however, and level them up, each level making the material harder and asking more and more from the learner.
After five “level ups,” the mini-section becomes golden, meaning you have mastered the skill. These act as progress bars, and the golden status eventually goes away (appearing “broken”) the longer you do not practice.
While this is a great way to review, it is a little bit of a time-waster to have to review an entire lesson if you really just forget a couple of words. Duolingo could definitely benefit from a Spaced Repetition System, like other language learning programs such as FluentU.
After clicking on a word in a transcription, FluentU users can turn this word and its accompanying audio into a flashcard and add it to a customized deck.
Moving forward, learners never have to guess which words need review: FluentU does that for them with progress bars under the “Fluency” column. A full progress bar means the word is learned, and every flashcard revision increases a word’s progress bar.
Duolingo also has leaderboards that tell you your position vis-à-vis others.
I think the most important metric is the “Streaks” number, the number of consecutive days you have worked on Duolingo. Language learning needs consistency. If you work at it erratically, you will never reach fluency. So, you better make those “Streaks” as high as you possibly can.
Lively Forum Discussions
One awesome thing about Duolingo is that you can post a comment at practically any point in your session. Every time you see the message icon, it means there is already a discussion happening about that particular question. These threads are fertile with insights from native speakers and fellow language learners.
Duolingo has some of the most active language forums around. They are wellsprings of insight and information. That is what happens when you have around 300 million users worldwide. There are bound to be interesting and engaging discussions all around.
While Memrise makes the platform social by making “mems” shareable to others, Duolingo can boast of these lively conversations going on between learners who are sharing language resources, asking study advice or just engaging in a random conversation between kindred spirits. You will never feel alone.
Check out this even deeper look at Duolingo and whether it works or not.
Supplementary Duolingo Programs
In addition to the base Duolingo trees, some of the more popular languages have additional features that can be helpful in learning.
Firstly, Duolingo also has a “Stories” feature, which can easily rival Memrise’s chatbot function. For English users, Duolingo “Stories” are only available for French, German, Spanish and Portuguese. The stories also happen in a chat environment. You are taken to a specific scenario where you need to answer comprehension questions in order to move the story along. For example, in a French story between a husband and wife, you might be asked to choose the correct word that you hear or that works in the sentence.
Further, Duolingo has developed podcasts for two of its most popular languages, Spanish and French. These are a great way to learn these languages on the go.
Perhaps the feature that most rivals Memrise, however, is Tiny Cards. Like Memrise, Tiny Cards uses flashcards and a Spaced Repetition System to teach vocabulary. There are decks to supplement all of the Duolingo tree-structured courses as well as Duolingo Stories and the podcasts. There is even an option for learners to create their own flashcards as well as loads of user-generated decks with accompanying audio.
If you’re studying a language such as Spanish, all four of these features—the base “tree,” Duolingo Stories, Spanish Tiny Cards decks and the Spanish podcast—would create a very well-rounded learning program.
Memrise vs Duolingo: Who Wins?
So, after all has been said and done, which one is the better platform: Memrise or Duolingo?
- User-friendly interface.
- Elegant vocabulary-learning tool.
- Ability to incorporate user-generated content.
- Video clips featuring native speakers make the language come alive.
- Too much push for the upgrade & arguably lackluster premium features to match.
- Does not have many grammar lessons or much content for advanced learners.
- Limited native audio and speaking practice.
- User-friendly interface.
- Can teach you grammar and sentence structures.
- Gamified learning.
- Active language forums.
- Lots of native audio and supplementary materials (only for most popular languages).
- Needs more relevant sentence examples.
- Does not have much content for advanced learners.
- Limited speaking practice.
So, who wins!?
Clearly there is only one winner… and that is you, the language learner!
You have access to two (three, if you count FluentU!) of the most technologically-advanced language learning systems developed by folks who love what they are doing and who have learners’ interests at heart.
For instance, if you want to learn vocab, maybe you can start with Memrise to get the ball rolling, and when you want to graduate to sentence structure and grammar, you can opt for Duolingo. (You can take Duolingo’s placement exam and skip to the later lessons.)
These platforms are certainly not mutually exclusive. They nicely complement each other.
I salute all of your efforts and wish you the very best on your journey to learn a new language.