I am willing to bet that, at some point in your life, you have attempted to learn a new language and given up. Perhaps you took a few classes in high school but never continued. Maybe you downloaded the Duolingo app to your phone but never touched it. Maybe you started Rosetta Stone but lost interest. Discord and the language-learning platform Memrise have a possible solution for you: the Memrise Discord app, a new GPT-3-trained chatbot that can teach you new tongues from the comfort of your Discord server.
The problem with many of today’s language-learning methods, in the experience of Memrise co-founder Ben Whately, is that they don’t force students into real-world situations. “If we spoke about cooking like we speak about language learning, people would say ‘Can you cook yet?’ and you’d say, ‘No, I’m learning about the principles of cooking and temperature control,’” Whately says in an interview with The Verge. “It’s like, let’s just do the dish.”
In designing the Memrise Discord app, Whately wanted to insert language practice into learners’ daily routines, mimicking the way it might organically come up in a country where their target language is spoken. “When you’re living in a country, every time you want to go and buy some apples, you’ve got to practice,” Whately says. “What we’re doing here is giving people that opportunity to practice what they’re doing in the context of their daily life.”
Here’s how it works. You summon the Memrise bot by typing the “/learn solo” command into the text field on Discord. (You can also type “/learn together” if you want your whole Discord channel to see your practice, which... that’s between you and your god.) You then select your native language and the language you’re learning. The bot can currently teach you 25 languages, and that’s true regardless of what your native language is.
Press enter, and you’ll begin a conversation with the bot that simulates one of 50-ish real-world scenarios. Some of these are standard (you need to check into your hotel), and some are a bit wackier (you run into an old man on the street who demands to know who you are and where you’re from). The bot will take one role — the car salesperson, the hotel concierge, whoever — and you’ll take the other.
The bot generally assigns you random missions, but you can also select one for yourself if there’s a specific scenario you want to run through. “Last summer I was in France wanting to post some letters back to England,” Whately says. “I set up a Membot to be a post office lady and my mission was to get these letters posted first class, sign for delivery. I went through and rehearsed that conversation four or five times.”
I’ve been testing this bot for about a week — it’s rolling out Wednesday as a public feature but has been available previously on Memrise’s invitation-only Discord server. I will admit that it’s imperfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s primary method of study. I’ve caught it saying words and sentences that you wouldn’t hear real people use, its questions can get repetitive, and I’ve seen it flip from informal to very stiff manners of speaking without a clear reason to do so.
Nevertheless, it is very fun to use. It is better and more natural-sounding than other language bots I’ve tried. The interactions are enjoyable, and they can be quite quick to complete depending on how advanced they are for you. I’ll admit that I got a bit addicted to them throughout my time testing this bot. I’d finish one and immediately feel the urge to dive into another. I found myself pulling it out when I was sitting on the bus or waiting in line for things.
That, ultimately, was Whately’s goal — not to comprehensively educate learners, but to keep them coming back for practice. “It’s about setting up these conversations to be entertaining challenges that happen to use the language, rather than being tests of the language,” he says.
The bot’s real limitation, in my view, is that it’s entirely text-based. That means, for one, that it can’t help you with languages that you can’t read and write in. But being able to respond to something over text is also quite a different scenario from having to formulate answers on the spot in the middle of a spoken conversation.
Whately sees this as a feature, not a bug. Because text is a lower-stress practice method, he feels, people will be less nervous about coming back and practicing. “Being able to answer in text is another step down in stress,” he says. “People start by answering in text. Once they’ve got quite confident in text, they build up to answering in voice.”
The Memrise Discord app can be integrated into any Discord server starting Wednesday. It’s currently free but will not remain so; the company is going to “experiment with ways to charge for the Membot, because there is a nontrivial computing cost to each conversation,” according to Whately. (The ultimate cost, he says, will be in the “five dollars a month range.”) So now’s your chance, language nerds: give this thing a shot while you can. It’s a fun time, I promise.