Culture around the world

Embracing the inner Brad Pitt: Confessions of a language coach learning Italian

Inspired by the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this year I decided to test my language learning skills. Having advised so many LinguaLift students, I thought it was time to employ my own tips.

I’ve learned languages in the past, and with so many handy tools and scientific knowledge about learning it should be a piece of cake for me to do it again, right? I was about to learn how it is to retreat to square one.

Goal—3.3% of fluency in a day

I’ve never  been interested in learning Italian. I knew some basic phrases, like buon giorno or arrivederci and seen a few operas, but have never felt a push for a linguistic adventure. This time however, I had an [extrinsic motivation]. I was going on holiday to Italy.

Having a trip sitting firmly in the calendar provided me with two important factors: time pressure and a precise goal.

It was scary to realise that is what I could achieve in 30 days was 100%, then missing a day would be lowering my potential “fluency” by about 3.3%—I definitely couldn’t afford that!

The goal was quite simple: learn the so called “tourist phrases” to cover situations I might encounter abroad. Simple, right?

Sure! But having a clear and simple goal doesn’t mean the learning process will be easy…

How my ideal plan worked

As the old English saying goes: ‘make hay while the sun shines’. I’ve booked my first trial italki class before departing from the Hauptbahnhof to the airport.

Booking a class required decisions that made me further specify my learning goal.

  • Do I need a professional teacher, or a community tutor?
  • What are the skills I can’t work on alone and what would I prefer to outsource to a teacher?
  • What other materials would I be using?
  • How often do I have time for a class?

The skill I wanted to focus on was speaking, and for the highest efficiency thought it would be best to have an hour class twice a week. For further learning materials I turned to Memrise and [their Basic Italian course]—after all what I needed mostly were useful phrases and vocabulary. I complimented this with [Mosa Lingua Italian], which in addition to customisable flashcards has handy dialogues for a variety of common tourist situations like booking a hotel room or getting a taxi.

How my ideal plan failed

In theory, everything would be going smoothly. So, let me tell you now how my plan failed.

Not knowing I had to adjust my timezone in italki I mistakenly booked my trial class for 4am. Thankfully my easygoing Italian tutor was understanding and allowed me to move the class to a different day. However, this delayed my learning by five days— a disaster for a planning freak.

I also realised that online tutors are… people too! I had to reprimand my internal 3 year old (“I want Italian and I want it now!”) and adjust to the tutor’s schedule. This meant I could only fit in five sessions before the trip.

I was so keen to learn that on the first day I probably spent 40 minutes doing flashcards on Memrise. Next day I had so much to review that even looking at that number was tiring. That’s [a prime example of binge learning]. Next time I stopped learning before I got tired— 5-10 min of flashcards a day is enough.

Embracing (my internal) Brad Pitt

Being a perfectionist I have an aversion to speaking. I would usually not open my mouth until all the case endings are in place and all the articles are mastered. It was precisely because of this mental predicament I knew I had to challenge myself and start speaking with a tutor as soon as possible.

In the past I have learned some Spanish and even though my Spanish was largely “dormant” it proved enough to understand about 60-70% of spoken Italian. It gave me a deceptive sense of confidence, because when it came to opening my own mouth … no words were coming out.

I had to get used to hearing myself butchering the language: I wrongly used “Italianised” forms of Spanish verbs, the same article for every noun, and added an “o” to English nouns. The only thing that came to my mind while doing that was the legendary scene from Inglorious Basterds where Brad Pitt “speaks Italian”.

In addition, I experienced some unexpected linguistic inferences from… Esperanto: a strong urge to use the accusative ending.

Breaking personal barriers

It’s hard to break the speech barrier. What gave me comfort was the realisation that tutors are usually used to hearing their mother tongue being slaughtered in the mouths of foreigners.

Here are a few strategies I used, which in the long run brought good results:

  • Speaking about myself and learning phrases I would be likely to use again. Thanks to this I will now forever remember full sentences like: sempre saputo che volveo lavorare con le lingue. A quite complex phrase for a beginner!
  • Composing sentences about what I or we did to practice verb forms that I would be most likely to use. Stiamo cercando per il nostro gato.
  • Speaking to my boyfriend to practice the second person: hai mai mangiato il gelato vegano?
  • Talking to myself about things what I’m doing or feeling at the moment. Molte persone mi annoiano.

This way I have amassed quite a few phrases to learn, enough to even make my own little course on Memrise. Go me!

Transforming talking into the truth

The time has come to go to Italy. You know that moment when you pass the passport control your mind goes crazy attempting to piece together the foreign reality? It’s like the opening credits from the Matrix, where random letters float around trying to form words but mostly failing to do so…

You could say my linguistic adventure was a failure. Most of my attempts at communication in Italian ended with the menace of the linguistically globalised world: Italians replying in English. Deep inside I think I expected to be “perfect” in Italian, and that didn’t happen. However, let’s see what I have achieved:

  • Confidently greeted people in shops and cafes— not a small achievement for a shy person.
  • Understood 60% of a conversation of my Italian friends.
  • Understood menus.
  • Said a whole sentence about the internet to a hotel receptionist, in order to get the wifi password.


We found better internet than this, but it was too hilarious not to photograph.

Where did I go wrong?

A few things were lacking in my study plan. If your goal, like mine, is to learn to communicate in the language, here is some advice for the future:

  • Seek out contact with native speakers. Start the same conversations with different people—the first two times you will by shy, the third time you’ll have practiced enough to gain more confidence.
  • Don’t think too much: speak the language before doubt settles in and you switch to English. After having defined the language environment as being English speaking it’s much harder to revert to a foreign language.
  • Before going for a trip, set yourself little tasks to complete and make yourself accountable to your travel buddy. The tasks can range from simple: say hello to the waiter, to more courageous, like: come up to a street musician and say you like how they play.

What’s next?

Since returning and reflecting on my learning experience I have purposefully put Italian to the side. Once your language mission was achieved, there is no need to add working on an extra language to the long list of your daily tasks. Responsibility is knowing when to say “stop”.

Written by the lovely Guest blogger, Marta Krzeminska from LinguaLift!



The Membus in Denmark

We disembarked from the ferry onto Danish soil, delighted (and very proud) to have reached our final* country of this truly epic languages tour. Our Membus has so far travelled around 8 countries, and filmed thousands of locals en route, to create a brand new “Meet the Natives” mode for your favourite language-learning app, Memrise. You can already enjoy the videos for French, Spanish, Portuguese AND Italian, with many more coming soon…

Read on to discover how we created the Danish chapter of our video dictionary, and successfully wrapped up this final leg of our intrepid European mission!


Our first (and yet penultimate) port of call was Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, and where Josh, our QA whizz from the Memrise office, came to help us out, at the same time, incidentally, as enjoying his very first experience outside of the UK. And where better to first step foot on the continent than this charming coastal port, accompanied by the coolest multilingual camper in Europe and its formidable crew.

We couldn’t have done it either without Cille, our Danish volunteer no°1, who hitchhiked all the way from Germany to join us (together with her trusty ukulele), and our unshakable Ukrainian filmmaking duo, Diana and Kateryna.


Altogether, they were a force to be reckoned with as they went out spreading the Memrise word and filming the locals within all the cute boutiques and bistros that Aarhus had to offer. As a university town with very strong student vibes, we always managed to find lots of young folk soaking up the sun in parks and upon piers, more than happy to take a break from studying.

In the evenings, we enjoyed visiting all the town’s funkiest spots, such as the contemporary art museum with its rainbow-fuelled roof, and Godsbanen, a converted old goods train station, where we danced away one night upon the ancient tracks, whilst enjoying an example of quality Danish DJ-ing.


And then, much sooner than we would have liked, our final journey on the Membus was upon us, and it was made even more memorable by the breathtaking crossing of the bridge from the island of Funen to the island of Zealand. All crew members gathered at the front of both decks to admire the beautiful views stretching out before us, with Renato singing his favourite tune (Crocodile Rock, Elton John), making the moment even more sentimental.


In Copenhagen, Anne, our Danish Head of Learning Innovation back at Memrise HQ, arrived to help us make the most of the end of this magical ride, but more importantly, make our final rounds of videos as punchy and dynamic as possible. We also welcomed Mary Jo, one of our top Kickstarter backers, who normally spends her time as an air hostess. She was probably horrified by the lack of safety on board (for example, when we discovered, 3 months in, that you could very easily open our emergency exit from the outside, making our routine and meticulous locking up duties totally futile).


During the days, we discovered that each neighbourhood in Denmark’s capital had something different to offer, whether roaming elephants in Frederiksberg Gardens, fellow hippies in Christiania, or hipster hangouts in the meat-packing district, and we found some exceptionally colourful characters to film in each.

Every night, the bus’ lower deck played host to one culinary triumph after the next. One of the highlights was a mouthwatering array of smørrebrød (typical Danish bruschetta), prepared by Anne’s lovely dad Jens.


The final night’s feast was a true culmination of all the most enjoyable and special moments we’ve had on the bus, with Renato at the helm of the kitchen, stoking up a sumptuous roast lamb (a grand accomplishment with the bus’ limited cooking range), many ceremonious poppings of many champagne bottles, as well as speeches, presents and cards galore.

A huge thank you to everyone who helped us out on the way; to all the filmmakers and linguists who joined us in each country and went out filming come rain or shine, and to all the lovely Europeans whom we got to meet and film en route, without whom we couldn’t have pulled off this impressive feat. We cannot fail to mention all the various mechanics either who fixed our bus along the way, as well as our dedicated and downright mad driver Renato, for just about keeping us on the straight and narrow.


We at Memrise are hugely excited by this new Meet the natives mode, and couldn’t have imagined any other way than the Membus tour to make it come to life. Membus 2016, it’s been a real adventure. But it’s not all over yet – check out our ongoing and upcoming filming projects in Russia, China, Korea and Japan, (albeit without the bus) on our Instagram account!

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*due to certain height restrictions in Germany, our bus was barred access, which meant that we couldn’t travel through the Netherlands with the bus, as originally planned. But fear not, we will complete the Dutch video dictionary at some point soon, just without the bus! Watch this space 🙂

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The Membus in Norway


The Membus keeps going as strong as ever on its adventurous mission across Europe, filming locals en route in order to bring the brand new “Meet the natives” mode to your favourite language-learning app Memrise. Meanwhile, the team back at HQ have been working hard to integrate all these videos into the app, meaning you can already enjoy this mode for French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian! For a quick recap of what the project is all about, check out our site here.

Read on to find out how we finished collecting the videos for the penultimate chapter of our video dictionary, Norwegian!


The Membus team had reached perhaps its most momentous day to date. A random decision by our CEO Ed to have our front bus sign say “Oslo via Rome” has turned into quite the motif for the Membus. Never has anyone, I’m sure, been so determined as we were to make it successfully to the Norwegian capital. The ride, however, wasn’t quite as smooth as you could hope for.

We came across a low-lying bridge (I mean, it was bound to happen eventually) on the motorway. I swiftly disembarked from the bus and began to block the oncoming cars, all the while guiding our driver Renato in reverse in order to take another exit. There really is nothing that we won’t do to make sure that bus completes its mission…

So it was with great pride and satisfaction that we rocked up at our residency in Oslo: an extensive marina bang in the centre of the city, with striking views of the horizon dotted with sailing masts, and beautiful beaches right on our doorstep.


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To top off this charming Norwegian scene, we had a charming Norwegian! Meet our latest assistant Magnus: the finest raconteur of cultural tales that ever has lived. His fountain of knowledge and enthusiasm for Norway was a pleasure to behold, and certainly meant we got to film and experience some truly traditional treats. Also along for the ride were a series of visitors from the Memrise office: Maria, our fierce Russian translator, Lien, our user support and office manager (which turns into a war scene as soon as she leaves for more than a day) and Eszter, our talented designer. I think it was beginning to dawn on them all back home that the tour was almost over…


Oslo was a fantastic city to film in, with the modern Opera House becoming a firm favourite as a backdrop, for its myriad different angles and architectural slants. We also had a great day shooting at Oslo University, thanks to Caroline, a student there whom we bumped into late one night in a newsagent, and who loved the sound of the project so much, she willingly (and very efficiently) rounded up all her classmates the next day to be filmed on campus!


We moved on next to Kristiansand, where, as luck would have it, Magnus grew up and where his family still lives. As well as performing valiantly for our video dictionary, his parents treated us to a slap-up barbecue, Norwegian style (a veritable meat-feast and a delicious home-grown apple pie being the memorable highlights). Probably a good thing we went for a really really long hike the next day in the nearby nature reserve…

Despite the thunderstorms and torrential rain which battered our beloved bus over the 3-day stretch in Kristiansand, it survived as heroically as ever, as did the crewmembers onboard, meaning that we have now successfully finished the Norwegian video dictionary. Fantastisk!


And then there was just one ferry ride between us and our final country of the tour – Denmark! As we watched the port drift peacefully away from the tail end of the vast ColorLine Cruiser, it began to dawn on us how close we were to completing our epic mission across Europe. The Memcrew felt excited and more ready than ever to wrap up the final chapter of the video dictionary, with the Membus forever by their side.


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The Membus in Sweden

Upon a balmy August evening in Stockholm, with the sunset irradiating through the archipelago, the Membus team was finally and joyfully reunited with its beloved double decker! There it was, exactly where it was meant to be, standing taller and prouder than all the lowly other mobile homes in Stockholm’s finest camper park. Renato welcomed us back in at the entrance, announcing that night’s menu with his usual enthusiasm: tuna steak with pistachio butter sauce, his new (and by far his greatest) culinary invention of the trip.


More than happy to be back in the bosom of the bus, and joined the next day by our latest Swedish assistants Magnus and Kenny, we were armed and ready to kick off with the Scandinavian video dictionaries! Both keen Memrise users, and very clued-up (luckily for us!) on all the best spots in the city, Kenny and Mag helped us pin down all the locals to film, that is, when the locals weren’t off chasing Pokémons…


Being reunited with the bus, however, of course meant we were presented with all those bus-related challenges that had begun to feel more and more distant over our travels through Germany. Number 1 on the list: a trip to the mechanics (our old favourite) to fix the gearbox, the indicators, and the electric systems. So pretty much everything. No rest for the wicked then!

Although it involved 3 consecutive daytrips (including a melted engine battery one early morning causing a total standstill), thanks to the lovely team at Bus Market Sweden, the bus was fully back in working action – hoorah! A special thanks to the lovely CEO, Russian-born Max, who treated us to a delightful lunch to help us forget all the mechanical woes. And at least it gave our latest assistants a real slice of bus life!


Amidst all this motorized madness, the filming teams spent the days exploring all the islands, from Gamla Stan to Södermalm, visiting Fotografiska and the blue Konserthuset as they went. The final day was spent visiting a variety of start-ups in the city centre, thanks to our CEO Ed Cooke and his wealth of European contacts in the tech world. We particularly enjoyed filming the staff at Tictail, a social shopping platform for up-and-coming designers. Thanks for helping us out!


We moved on next to Orebro, a lovely little town west of Stockholm, where we cycled to nearby nature reserves, checked out the Big Day Out Festival in the central island, and reveled in our 5* campsite (a step up from our Stockholm digs). With the help of our friends Maz (BBC wildlife film-maker extraordinaire) and Igor (robot-maker and the glue that kept the team together through the tough times), we successfully completed the Swedish video dictionary – tack alla!


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Next dictionary, Norwegian!



The Membus in Germany (minus the bus)



With video dictionaries for 4 European languages already completed, the Membus team is continuing valiantly across the continent, filming locals en route as part of its mission to bring a brand new “Meet the natives” mode to your favourite language-learning app Memrise. You can already enjoy these videos on the French and Spanish courses (with Portuguese and Italian coming shortly!) For a quick recap of what the project is all about, check out our site here. 

Keep reading to find out how we went about creating the next dictionary in line – Deutsch!

But first, some background details: due to a variety of reasons (that we still don’t quite understand) the bus wasn’t allowed to enter Germany. That, however, didn’t stop the Membus brigade! We decided to travel through the country by train instead, leaving the bus in the safe hands of our driver Renato, as he embarked upon a solo and courageous mission through Eastern Europe. We were to join forces once again in Stockholm, where we anticipated the most joyous of reunions.


The first city on our route was Munich. The team was joined by German-Egyptian filmmaker Yasin, Memrise’s own German translator, Mario, Lena the linguist from London, and the adventurous, Membus-backing American couple, Angie and Robbie, who, incidentally, organize language-immersion cruises. What about a MemBoat next year?

With just one camera at our disposal (the other was in Venice with the rest of the team, who were showing Google how we roll), we had a determined plan of what and who we were looking for on the streets of Munich.

“You’re asking where the toilet is, man – say it like you really need it!” While Yasin (also a trained actor), spent the day encouraging commuters at the Hauptbahnhof to deliver phrases with as much dramatic effect as possible, the other team recorded die-hard Bayern Munich fans at the Olympic Park, and surfers at the Englischer Garten.


Before heading to the capital Berlin, we made a cheeky stop-off at Leipzig, and welcomed Melita and Yannick, our latest filmmaking team. Here, when we weren’t filming at the converted cotton mill Spinnerei, or cycling to Lake Cospuden in our free time, we got a real slice of German culture by attending a very “underground” party in the woods (so underground, in fact, it took us more than an hour to find it, and so underground that the playlist was mainly Justin Bieber) within the Eastern depths of the city.

And so, while we continued on train up north to Berlin, Renato’s solo mission through Eastern Europe was going as smoothly as ever, “except” (and here I quote Renato directly) “for the price of coffee and water that goes up every day, except for the drier that doesn’t dry, and except for the two hours of hail and thunderstorm between Salzburg and Linz, which almost flooded the bus’ lower floor.”


In Berlin, we stayed in a converted factory – helpfully named Die Fabrik – in the trendy and vibrant Kreuzberg district, a stone’s throw away from the remaining section of the Berlin Wall. During the days, the relentless rain forced us into laundromats, second-hand vintage shops, and currywurst houses, to carry out our filming. We also had the pleasure of going to visit the offices of Eye Quant and shooting their enthusiastic staff, particularly the boss Fabian, who got highly creative with the videos!

By the evenings, the rain had stopped and the sun came out to produce striking pink sunsets across the city. We loved roaming Berlin at night, with highlights including a stand-up improv show at the Comedy Café, a party in an abandoned chalet, and an afternoon of open-air karaoke at Mauer Park.


And so, after 4 train rides, 1000 km, 3 cities, 1000 Germans, 5000 phrases, and with one very special bus and team that just keep on trucking, we have completed the German dictionary! Very soon you’ll be able to learn German directly from the Germans themselves. Which, as we all know, is the best way to learn any language…next chapter, Swedish!

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Hund – dog

Hauptbahnhof – train station

Englischer Garten – English Garden

Jawohl! – Yessir!

Überaus – exceedingly

Laundromat ­– launderette

Currywurst ­– curried sausage

Olympic Language Facts
Culture around the world

Olympics Language Facts

Who is excited about the Olympics this year?

We thought it would be cool to collect a few fun language facts about the Olympics for you to enjoy!

1. The official languages of the Olympic Games are English and French.

2. Rio 2016 has been critiqued to be the least Francophone Olympics thus far.

3. Michael Phelps reportedly said that learning Mandarin is harder than winning 8 Olympic Gold medals in the pool.

4. American TV broadcasters tried to urge the Rio Games to change the language for the opening ceremony to English instead of Portuguese, so that the American team would march in towards the end in the alphabetical order (‘United States’ instead of ‘Estados Unidos’) making American audiences watch the ceremony till the end.

5. The sign in American Sign Language for ‘Olympics’ is based on the sign for ‘chain’ which is based on the ‘connect’ sign. So ultimately it’s the sign of the Olympics.

Let the best ones win!


The Membus in Italy: Part II


The Membus is continuing in its mission to record videos of native Europeans. Meanwhile, the Memrise team back in HQ are working hard to incorporate all these videos into a brand new “Meet the natives” mode. You can already enjoy the videos from our French and Spanish parts of the journey on the app! For a quick recap of what the project is all about, check out our site here.

Read on to find out how we finished collecting the videos for the Italian chapter of our dictionary….

There was just time for a switch over of the Membus’s human cargo in Rome before heading to our next destinations. We welcomed two new filmmakers – Klamer, who’d joined the tour in Spain and couldn’t resist coming back for more, and Julia, a Canadian living in Bologna who makes award-winning films in her spare time. We also greeted our new assistants – Alfio, economist and pizzaiolo from Bergamo, and Yula, happy Venetian linguist.


When Matilde suggested a detour to her native Tuscan village of Cetona, we agreed it would be a great opportunity to film a different side of Italy. On arrival, we parked up in the nearest field and were welcomed to a delicious garden lunch with Matilde’s lovely parents, who seemed completely at ease playing host to a large double decker bus and its 8 inhabitants, singing Italian ballads over a glass of digestivo. 

Thanks to the people of Cetona’s enthusiasm for our project, we were really able to capture local village life in our video dictionary, from pensioners gossiping in the central square to local business owners standing proudly outside their shops.

After this ideal rural break, the team were re-charged and ready for Bologna!

Julia was the perfect Bologna hostess. Despite only having lived there for a few months, it seemed that wherever she went there were people clamouring to offer us free drinks, find us large tables in busy restaurants and, of course, be stars in our videos! We would also like to thank Hyperting, cool Italian start-up who joyfully acted for our video dictionary.


We sampled as much tagliatelle al ragu as we could during our 2 days in Italy’s gastronomic capital, and explored the medieval city’s arched colonnades and leaning towers. Our last night was spent under the stars in the huge open air cinema set up in the main square.

It was then time for our last stop – Venezia! The enchanting lagoon city didn’t disappoint, and with Yula to guide us through the labyrinthine streets, we were able to track down locals (despite being in a city where tourists can outnumber locals 2 to 1).


Venice was also where Google decided to film us for a video about cool startups. And we certainly fit the profile! It was the ideal setting for them to shoot the team at work, what with the gondolier we convinced (forced?) to participate, and the amazing backgrounds of this magic city.

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And so, 1600km travelled, 1200 locals met and 5000 videos of beautiful Italian language captured (as well as all the hand gestures), it was time for the team to say goodbye to amazing Italy. You will soon be able to learn directly from Italian native speakers!

Enjoy more pasta pictures on our Instagram 🙂

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