Memrise – Language Learning App #2

Duolingo is probably the first app new language learners encounter, but Memrise is not far behind ( And, for some folks, it may be a better choice, mostly because it offers a huge variety of languages…some very obscure to Western ears, like Telegu (from southern India). I have Indonesian (supposedly the easiest language of all to learn) as one of my choices, as well as Spanish.

The interface is similar to that of Duolingo, but significantly different at the same time. Hard to explain, but you know you are definitely in a different tool. For one thing, it’s less cartoonish than Duolingo, which will appeal to some who are put off by Duolingo’s approach. At the same time, Memrise uses spaced repetition and aims to help you learn five new words per day in your target language. There is an icon of a tree branch on the right-hand side of the screen, which gets a new leaf every time you successfully learn a new word. Additionally, there is an audio icon, which allows you to hear the word, or phrase, as many times as you desire – and, you are also expected to be able to read the word before you are considered to have learned it.

I use Memrise in conjunction with Duolingo because it exposes me to different words. As I indicated before, there will be those who prefer one over the other.  But, in my mind they are basically the same app, with minimal interface changes. I suppose some will consider Memrise to have a more “adult” approach. Personally, that is not particularly important to me.

Memrise is free, and it is available on iOS, Android, and on the web

( I could not find it in the Windows store.


Easy Vocabulary

A lot of folks think the only way to pick up new vocabulary in a language is to memorize long lists of words or to run through flashcard after flashcard. Both have their merit, but there are easier sources from which you can draw new vocabulary.

  1. Advertisements – Ads are written so that kids can comprehend them. Whether radio, television, or print, the vocabulary level is likely never to rise above what the average fourteen-year-old could easily understand. This is a good thing because it allows us to develop a foundational vocabulary upon which we can build a more sophisticated well of words. Print ads, in particular, are an exceptional source of material. They are almost always very short – rarely more than one or two sentences. Often, you can discern the meaning of the phrase by looking up a single word. This will strengthen your ability to read the language. Additionally, when you listen to radio or television ads, you’ll begin to recognize the words you’ve been reading (unless the presenter is talking at a 10,000 word/second rate – then, you’re kinda screwed – luckily that is the exception).
  2. Kids shows – There is a Spanish language television show called Reino Animal, which is just an outstanding place to pick up some pretty solid vocabulary and phrasing. The show is geared toward pre-teens, and is a factual show highlighting various facts about the animal kingdom. It’s got both written and spoken material, and the presenter almost always reads what is written on the screen. Although there are many other examples, I am highlighting this particular because it truly is interesting, and some of the episodes are available on YouTube.
  3. Sports shows – No offense to sports fans (I am one), but sports shows – in any language – are not written with the intelligencia in mind. Like ads, they are written so any teenager can comprehend what is being said. The Latino world loves sports. Spanish language shows in the U.S. cover just about any sport that could interest you: American football, basketball (men’s & women’s), hockey, and international football, just to name a few. This is one of the times I’d recommend you run the Spanish language subtitles. You cannot possibly catch every word, unless you are already fluent. And, you should not try to catch every word. They just move too fast.  So, just look for phrases and words that will give a you insight into what a specific sentence says.  This is a great place to hear the cadence of the language.
  4. Infomercials – Infomercials suck. Unless you’re trying to learn a new language. Then, the simplicity and repetition provide powerful learning tools. The spoken words are often slow, and it’s relatively easy to pick up the phrasing and cadence. You should not concentrate on trying to catch everything said. Instead, focus on repeated phrases, which will be pounded into your brain. Some of these phrases are used in other venues, and will be useful. Just don’t llame ahora!

Going to stop here. More to come.

¡Hasta pronto!


Language Learning Tool #1

Let’s get started with a discussion of some of the various language learning tools available for use. Most of the ones I go review will be of the free variety, at least to start. Budget is always a concern for most folks. Free does not always mean bad either. Some of the free resources compete rather well with their paid counterparts. Some free resources are only free for a few levels of tutelage, then charge you a fee to continue with the program. By then, you’ll know if that resource works for you. This is important because not all approaches work for everyone. You have to find what works for you. If you are an older learner, you may find that the gamification approach doesn’t work well for you, while reading does. Of course, that can be true of younger learners, too. My point? We all learn differently, and what I like may not be what you like. Or, it may be dead on.

So, let’s get started on my first tool review of:


A lot of language learning bloggers turn their noses up at Duolingo, the number one most popular language learning app on the market. They see it as childish, simplistic, and without any real lasting effect toward creating fluency in the chosen language.  There’s truth to those criticisms, but they ring hollow in light of the fact that Duolingo is one of the best places to start that is available on the market.

And, that is just the point – it’s a place to start. One of the key problems with learning to do anything is getting started. This is especially true of adults who love to say, “I’m too busy.” Duolingo takes those excuses away.

  1. Duolingo is free.
  2. Duolingo is available on all major platforms, so you can take it with you anywhere.
  3. One lesson takes less than five minutes.
  4. You can configure it so that you succeed.
  5. Gamification makes it fun and provides you with immediate feedback.

Speaking specifically to #4, you can configure it so that you only have to do one lesson per day in order to get credit toward a streak.  Or, you can configure so that you challenge yourself and are required to complete five lessons per day to earn your continued streak.  I split the middle and require myself to complete three lessons to keep my streak going.

The interface is quite simple and cartoonish, hence the childish criticism. But, one of the key tools used by competitive memory pros is absurdity.  They encourage you to associate what is to be remembered with something that is sort of crazy.  So, it’s not really that weird an idea to make you associate a language word with an odd image. The application uses spaced repetition to build up your cognizance of words and phrases. That is…you learn something…you learn something else…you go back to the first thing…you learn something else…you go back to the first two things…et cetera. This is a proven learning technique.

There are forums for discussion of stickier points of grammar and questions, as well as the ability to translate online articles, which can then be critiqued by other students. You can immerse yourself as deeply into this as you want.

They cannot make it any easier to begin to learn a new language.  And – they have a ton of languages available.  Esperanto, Spanish, Irish, French, German, English, Welsh, Russian, Italian  – just to name a few – and they are working on more (which they let you put into your queue for when they go live). Will it make you fluent? No, but it will give you some basics and let you have a leg up when you begin to explore more rigorous resources. And – this is big – you WILL learn something. You will not come away empty handed. You will be able to say something in your chosen language.

It’s a place to start. That’s always the most difficult place to find.

¡Buena suerte!

(Available in the various platform stores for download, or you can simply go to


How I Plan to Approach This Blog

I plan to post new posts on Sundays and Thursdays. Real life may get in my way, but this is my goal.

On Sunday, I plan to keep it personal – talking about how I am approaching my own language learning journey. These posts will reflect my personal roadmap, as well as explain why I am doing this or that. The whats. The whys. The wherefores.

On Thursdays, I’ll review tools and resources. These posts will provide you with practical items that may aid you with your own personal language learning journey. There will be a mix of objective and subjective; but, I’ll always try to be honest. And, I will always advise you on where and how to acquire access to the tool or resource.

I welcome comments. Due to spam, comments currently must be approved by me. So, if there is a delay in seeing your comment, that is why. Hopefully, I can ferret out a more efficient method of accomplishing this task. Abusive comments will be ignored.

Just a note about advertising – Right now, I am using the free plan WordPress offers. So, they toss a few ads on each page to help pay for my use of their product. I say this because I have zero control over what ads appear. Their appearance is NOT an endorsement by me. Whenever I upgrade my account and begin to commercialize my blog, I will tell you specifically.

I hope you learn something new today.

Brainscrubber Lives!

Reviving The Blog

It’s been years since I added anything to my very well received blog. After leaving Saudi Arabia, I found myself disinterested in maintaining regular posts; so, it kind of died off. It was not that I had nothing interesting to say, but I just did not have the energy for it.

That’s changed, now. I have several new interests, chief of which is language learning – particularly from the perspective of an older learner. So, I’ve decided to chronicle my language learning experience here in this blog.

A New Direction

One of the most commonly cited reasons for why someone cannot learn a new language is that they are too old. Language learning is for kids and young adults. Kids pick it up faster, and the brains of young adults are quicker and retain more than do those of older adults.

While those assertions have a certain degree of truth to them, I am going to call bullshit. I am fifty-six-years-old at the time of this writing. I’ve reached the point where I have to search for a word that is just out of reach a whole lot more often than I used to have to do. But, I am still a very intelligent person. I still can analyze a situation and come up with a solution. And, I have a lot of life experiences in the old databases with which I can create comparisons to current challenges and map out a path to where I want to go. I have met very few older people who are not able to say the same thing.

So, I have decided there is no better time than now for me to learn a new language. Language learning results in newly created neural connections – the powerful data highways that allow us to function in life. This aids us as we grow older, helping us not only to sharpen our memories, but also to help fight off dementia. But, just as importantly, we gain a greater insight and understanding of another culture, which enriches our lives. I like that part.

Where To Start

I have begun with learning Spanish.

This is a rather natural choice for me. I was born and grew up in the southwest United States, and I have been exposed to the Spanish language for as long as I can remember. I learned Spanglish (street-level English/Spanish blend) by osmosis as a kid. I learned greetings. I learned profanity (most of us used Spanish cuss words more often than we used English cuss words). And, I learned how to ask simple questions. It is a language about which I have always wanted a deeper understanding.

So, I set a simple goal: to be conversationally fluent enough to hold a thirty-minute general interest conversation, solely in Spanish, by the end of 2016. I started way back in January, and I have made a tremendous amount of progress in only three months. I am inviting you to join the rest of my journey. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll decide there is a language out there that beckons you to give it a try.

I will review tools, techniques, and other resources. While I will emphasize how older folks can use these, the information is broadly applicable to anyone at any age. So, come along. Let’s learn something new together.




In Memoriam: Evelyn Nash Williams Thom Strohmaier

My mother-in-law, Evie Strohmaier, died today at the age of 96.  She died peacefully in her sleep.  A person can’t ask for much more than that.

I’d be hard-pressed to name someone I’ve known in my life who was a better person than Evie.  I mean that sincerely and not as a platitude.  In a world characterized by mother-in-law jokes, harsh depictions of mothers-in-law, and husbands and wives doing anything they can to avoid their mothers-in-law, I was blessed with one of the kindest, warmest, and most genuine women on the planet as my mother-in-law.  There are an awful lot of folks who will agree with me, an awful lot of people with empty spots in their hearts right now.

I was doubly blessed in the fact that she liked me…a fact she made clear on more than one occasion, both to me and to her daughter.  Before we moved to Oregon so that Cristina could care for her parents, before they hit their 90s and age slowed them down significantly, Ed and Evie often came to San Diego.  During those visits, Evie and I often talked about this or that – innocuous conversations.  Except, they were never truly innocuous.  If you really took a moment  to examine what was said, the crafty ol’ gal was checking out just how I was treating her daughter and grandson and great-granddaughter.  Apparently, I passed muster.

Evie was born in Blue Hill, Maine on October 31, 1912.  She seemed to take special delight in the fact she was born on Halloween.  It was so against ‘type,’ and it brought a mischievous twinkle to her eyes each year, matching her very dry razor wit.  A very New England wit.  She lived in Maine for over 40 years, and it showed, particularly in the way she downplayed a lot of the things she did in her life.  She, or my wife, would tell me these stories about things Evie did through the years – things that most people would find kind of exciting.  Evie would respond, a little grin on her mouth, “It was fun.”  And, we’d move on without much ceremony.

She was an independent woman.  According to my wife, this proved the case until close to the end.  As such, Evie didn’t much appreciate the realities of aging.  When I was home last Christmas, she fell a couple of days prior my having to leave and go back to work in Saudi Arabia.  She was still in the hospital when I left, and true to form, she was more concerned that Cristina and I were not able to be alone that last couple of days than with the fact she was in not such good shape.  That’s who she was.

The last time I saw her, she was lying in a hospital bed…sort of belying the very vital woman I knew for nearly 20 years.  I’ve decided not to remember her that way.  Rather, I’m going to remember the woman who offered a quiet, but haughty, little smile whenever she managed to beat my socks off at Scrabble.  I’m going to remember the woman who worked in the church serving line at the soup kitchen into her 80s.  I am going to remember the woman who would bounce out of her chair and snap into action mode whenever a friend needed her.  That’s who I will remember.

The Only Candle I Have Today

I’m burning a candle for you today, Evie…
bright red, with a spicy scent that
fills the room with memories of Halloween and
the Fall season into which you were born.
It’s the only candle I could find,
and some might think it odd
to burn a red candle for a woman
who neared a century of life.
But, I know about you rushing out the
door to meet the ship;
weekends at the Plaza and the party in the Embassy.
Not buried as one – in ignorance – might think,
a little flame flickered safely in a special place,
carefully cultivated like a prized orchid,
ready to burn brightly when the moment,
like a fanning breeze,
brightened everyone’s day.

Copyright 2009, Greg Hubbard