Ben Whately - Founder's Story

There's no such thing as being "bad at languages". Read how the ineffectiveness of classroom learning inspired Ben to co-found Memrise. The language immersion app teaches you how to use language in real life. Fast.



"There is this cultural meme that people are bad at languages. It’s not true. The academic stance doesn’t work, but people do it anyway."

Ben Whately


Not all of them. Close to 60 million users in 189 countries now learn up to 23 languages using Ben Whately’s co-creation: Memrise.



Founded in 2010, Memrise uses language immersion to help language learners acquire words and phrases they can use in real life conversations. Designed as ‘The world’s most entertaining language learning app’, videos of real native speakers and creative memory techniques turn learning languages into a fun and addictive game.


By making real-life language immersion experiences available online, Memrise offers you the closest thing to living in the country of the language you want to learn.

The result is a fun and fast route to language acquisition: Anything from holiday chit chat to full working fluency.


‘Memrise uses real world scenarios and humour to get through to learners, so it’s more about enjoying the process and learning stuff you can actually use if you were having a conversation.’


Memrise continues to grow in popularity. It won "Best App of 2017" at the Google Play Awards and can be downloaded for free on iPhone and Android, or enjoyed via our website.


So how did Memrise start?


Ben Whately on how founding Memrise:

Sat in language classes at school, Ben felt deeply frustrated.

With a stack of textbooks on his desk, he realised poring over grammar rules and verb endings wasn’t helping him acquire a language. And even worse, boring him out of his mind.


Ripping up the rulebook… the real way to learn a language

Why is learning a language so hard? Am I bad at languages? Ben asked himself. 

Surely not. The languages we speak are our ‘defining characteristic’ as human beings. So if I’m bad at languages... am I a bad human?

He didn’t accept this. People are inherently good at learning languages (we learn to speak one shortly after we’re born, remember?) So Ben looked for a fast and efficient way to acquire a language and jetted off to Qiqihar City (齐齐哈尔) in remote north-western China to see if he could learn Chinese a different way: by living and breathing the language. Through language immersion.


“We’re humans. We’re good at learning languages!”



While Ben worked at a motorcycle restoration factory, he quickly picked up the language through immersing himself in it. It hit him: The learning is in the living.

The combination of:

  1. The need to be good at his job (talking about motorcycle specifics with Chinese customers
  2. Being surrounded by (and living in!) the Chinese language 24/7 

= Ben acquired Chinese language competency remarkably fast.


Your knowledge of language vs your feel for the language.

Using this experience, Ben realised where traditional classroom language learning had been going wrong. It’s too focused on your academic knowledge of the language – rather than your feel for how it works in real life.

In other words: language learning had become too focused on the left side of your brain (the part which focuses on all your knowledge of the language rules and how they fit together).




Whereas, in reality, the right side of your brain must be working in order for you to gain a genuine understanding of the language and know how to speak it in real life. In other words: Get real-world language competency.

This right side of your brain understands the contexts, natural rhythm, and expressions that come with the language and help you get that natural feel and understanding for the language.


‘The analogy I like is with jazz piano: the right hand (controlled by the left brain) – plays the melody. This is the bit that beginners learn first. But the left hand (controlled by the right brain) adds the context and emotion. If you just play the right hand, you're not really playing the full music. 

Too often language teaching stops at teaching to the left brain and doesn't make that transition to adding in the context and emotion. That is the transition that Memrise helps you make through our Curated Immersion experiences.’


Back in the UK, he met with friend and ‘Grand Master of Memory’ Ed Cooke who had been using creative memory techniques to compete in The World Memory Championships.

While sleeping in a yurt in Ed’s garden, they combined forces with the goal to ‘transform learning to make it as entertaining as it should be’ – in the shape of Memrise. Something that would enable users to immerse themselves in language (like Ben did), but do it online… from the comfort of their own homes and also on the move. Using proven memory techniques that help you learn and cement language knowledge fast.

Instead of being handed a classroom syllabus filled with topics that may or not be relevant to people’s reasons for learning a language, Memrise’s language courses present a range of different scenarios for you to pinpoint and learn from.


At Memrise, our learners understand that the ability to speak another language is fundamentally powerful.

It enables you to:

  • Interact and connect with people you’d never meet if it wasn’t for language
  • Discover and explore fascinating cultures and increase your cultural awareness
  • See yourself, the world, and other people through a colourful new lens. And embrace that!

Enrich your mind to enrich your world. Join close to 60 million others in using their natural language learning ability today.

Start learning with Memrise