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!


What I have used…so far…part 1

Although I have been learning Spanish off and on for most of my life, I decided to get serious about it at the first of 2016. As I stated before, my goal is to carry on a 30-minute, general interest conversation, by the end of the December 2016 in nothing but Spanish.

I am using a lot of tools, resources, and approaches to get where I want to go.

From a tools perspective, I am making use of a variety. Duolingo is the foundation and  provides me  with a reliable source of learning vocabulary. While some of the vocabulary likely will not be part of my end-of-the-year conversation, I’d say a good 80% of it will be. I relish learning new words; but, just as importantly, I review previous lessons on a regular basis. Duolingo makes this easy by providing end of lesson review exercises. So, you click on that option, and you can review an entire section in one exercise. Occasionally, I will redo all of the exercises in a section. This helps to reinforce the lessons and vocabulary, which can slip away into the ether without such review.

Immersion is another method I am using to reinforce the language.  The purpose with this method is to acquaint my ear with the cadence and sound of spoken Spanish. So, I watch a couple of Spanish language broadcast channels. Often, they are on in the background, and I really am not paying a lot of attention. Just hearing the words and the music of the language. Oh, and I do listen to Spanish music, too. The styles and genres of Spanish music are numerous. So, it is pretty easy to find something you can tolerate, if not outright like. I like a lot of it. Last night, I watched the first episode of a Spanish language series on HBO. I didn’t catch it all; however, between what I do know, and the few words I did look up, I was able to follow the story and plot.  I plan to repeat it until I do get it all. Luckily, it comes with Spanish subtitles, which is a help right now.

I also translate stories from local Latino periodicals – available for free at most of the local taquerias. Since, as a native of the Southwest,  I consider Mexican food to be my native cuisine (along with chicken fried steak), I am able to pick several different papers up on a regular basis .  Most newspapers are written at an eighth grade level; so, it’s perfect for exposure to a level of communication the general population is expected to know. It’s interesting to see words actually used to communicate complex ideas. I find that I am beginning to recognize conjugated verbs when I read them. That is gratifying.

That’s it for this post, but I have a LOT more to share. On Thursday, I am going to discuss a couple of translation tools I use. Next Sunday, I’ll discuss more with regard to my general approach thus far.

¡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.




The Language Learning Curve – 2

I apologize for taking so long to get back to this subject, but a few events have intervened.  Plus, I realized that I have way too much info to devote only one post to online language learning resources.  I’m going to have to use several such posts on that subject alone.

I want to highlight the Podcast101 family of sites today, which are partial-pay sites.  That is, they rope you in with substantial free resources, then get you to pay for an expanded set of resources.

Let’s start with the site to which I subscribe,  Don’t be put off by the fact I’ve highlighted the Arabic language site…there are eleven (11) different language sites operated by Innovative Solutions.  An individual can learn Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, English, or a slew of Survival Phrases in any of these languages.  I came across this organization via their Survival Phrases podcast, which is available in limited numbers for free on the iTunes website, as are the podcasts associated with all their language courses.

On the website, a student can download all of the podcasts (both audio and video) for free, as well as a PDF document associated with the lesson.  The video podcasts are also available via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.  With payment, the student gets a line-by-line transcript page with audio, a vocabulary word bank, the ability to create flashcards based on the saved words in the word bank, a voice recorder, and the ability to obtain all of the podcasts (both audio and video) via a single, customized feed in iTunes.  The latter is very handy.

I’ve never used the voice recorder, and it did not work when I tested it for this post.  I plan to contact their customer service group, which was very helpful when I had a problem getting the video podcasts to download via my customized feed to iTunes.

The lessons generally cover one theme, and the vocabulary is small enough to retain easily.  The lessons run from about 7 minutes (Survival Phrases) up to 15 or 16 minutes for detailed themes. The audio is professional – more so, perhaps, than the video – but, the video is pretty good, too, except for the volume level of the music.  There are also cultural notes provided for download, which are very interesting.

Be careful of regional differences in the target language.  In Arabic, there are many regional dialects, though the most common would be Egyptian due to their ubiquitous movie and TV industry.  I have found it necessary to double-check some things I learned in the ArabicPod101 lessons with my native-Arabic speaking friends here in Riyadh, who speak yet another version of Arabic.  The original lessons were in Modern Standard Arabic, which is formal; but, they’ve now settled in with Egyptian Arabic.  We’ll see how that goes.

On the whole, I am pretty happy with this approach to Arabic, which functions as just one of the many prongs in my efforts to learn the language.  Your mileage may vary.

Next time, we’ll discuss