Steve Toy: Memrise Is a Language Learning App That Is the Opposite of Textbook Learning

September 26, 2022
  • Memrise is a language learning app that is the opposite of textbook learning: it’s enjoyable and effective. Founded in 2010, Memrise has quickly grown and now over 63 million people in 189 countries learn languages with us to better themselves, connect with others and with the world around them.
  • Memrise’s courses have one thing that textbooks don’t: real-life language. Our team of in-house linguists are not only experts but also passionate about teaching you the language they speak themselves in everyday life. To add to the richness, our courses are packed with thousands of video clips of native speakers speaking in their native language, in their hometown. So you can learn to understand authentic voices and accents, as well as taking in the scenery and getting a sense of the culture.
  • At Memrise we call this the Learn > Immerse > Communicate loop. A loop from which you can’t opt-out when you are in a country that speaks the language you are learning.

Tell us about yourself?

Interestingly enough I was a political lobbyist in my first role after college. I wanted to enter politics to make the world a better place.

I quickly discovered that politics was messy, inefficient and not my preferred path for improving the world. As a result, my second job was with an interactive TV start-up in Silicon Valley called ICTV.

There I simply jumped on every job that needed to be done from taking out the trash, to writing business plans, to helping define the product.

It is here where my jack of all trades journey really began. By doing anything and everything that needed doing I got experience in virtually every facet of a growing business which is useful to someone in my current role.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

You do not have to decide what you are going to be when you grow up at the start of the journey, or ever. I started my career as a political lobbyist.

I have been in a crazy amount of different industries. Nothing about my career path has maps to a conscious decision made in college and followed through the years.

Since that’s the reality for most of us, don’t stress about what you are going to do with your life. Do what is right right now.

Everyone’s incentive and focus are rarely lined up perfectly. Knowing where everyone’s “cheese” happens to be will make understanding their behavior much easier.

What problem does your business solve?

Memrise was founded with the fundamental purpose of helping individuals enrich their minds on the way to enriching their worlds. We do that by helping people communicate with each other by expanding the languages they know and understand.

Given that inspiration and mission, we have never been about helping people pass a language test. We have been all about helping people understand each other.

Almost everyone that has embarked on a language learning journey and had the good fortune to travel to a country that speaks the language has had a similar epiphany. One learns a language ten times faster when they are in the country than in a classroom or on an app alone.

Memrise is looking to bring our users the benefits of immersive learning like you get when you are in-country, without buying a plane ticket. Memrise will always be in your back pocket or the palm of your hand.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

The most persistent thing I have used my time, talents and treasure to advance is adult literacy. The age old phrase, “Give a man a fish feed him for a day.

Teach him to fish, feed him for life.” is the best way to encapsulate my feeling on the importance of literacy.

The ability to read is the essential table stakes to navigate this world. Without it almost nothing can be done effectively.

With the ability to read almost anything can be pursued and accomplished. I started tutoring almost 30 years ago and remain engaged in the cause of adult literacy to this day.

What is your magic sauce?

At Memrise we are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) techniques to help people learn a language more effectively and quickly. Specifically, we are using natural language processing (NLP) and natural language generation (NLG) techniques to speed people on the path to faster understanding and communicating with others.

We at Memrise and most academics believe that the best way to learn a language is to go to a country that speaks the language and immerse yourself. This is effective because you are constantly in the position of learning some words, trying to understand them when they are spoken by native speakers with different accents in different contexts and then trying to use those words to be understood by others.

Memrise’s pedagogy and offering seeks to take users through this Learn, Immerse, Communicate loop as effectively as if you were in another country with two distinct improvements.

We use NLP to filter the world in which you are immersed to the words you have learned thus far so you have a fighting chance to understand the words coming at you.

We use NLG to allow you to try using the words you have learned without any fear of human judgment: a fear that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to learning a language.

Because we are able to do this with machines, we can do it at a scale that heretofore was impossible to attain.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

Our goal is to be the best language content company in the world. One of the most important ways we do this is by having overwhelming content.

We want to connect the world’s content to any user’s learning journey. So, if you want to learn Italian through football, you can do it. If you want to learn French through cooking, you can do it.

We’re looking to “filter the world” based on your interests and where you are in your learning journey. This means we can remove all the irrelevant topics and complex language when you’re new to the game.

We are also looking to continually use the latest and greatest technologies to give our users an edge in accelerating their learning. This means using technology to develop chatbots that are finally good enough to have conversations with people on given topics at various levels.

In the future, it will mean a rich metaverse where people can go “in-country” with the communication tools they need, all from their laptops.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

We need people to realize that you can’t really learn a language by memorizing words. You need to hear the language. You need to speak the language. And you need to immerse yourself in it. That is the only path to learning the language.

How do people get involved/buy into your vision?

We want the world to understand that Learning, Immersing, and Communicating is essential to acquiring a language. We believe that you simply cannot learn to speak a language without all three legs of this pedagogical stool, and Memrise is the only option out there that combines all three.

To get people involved, We simply need to:

Continue to make, curate, and filter all the world’s content part of one’s learning journey, so we connect with people’s interests at their current skill level.

Develop places free of judgment where people can practice using the language they have learned before they try it in real life.

Sign up to Memrise for FREE here:

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