by John Fotheringham

Spanish is one of my next target languages and I was quite excited when Amanda Moritz of Brainscape asked me to do a review of their new Spanish language learning app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

There’s no better excuse to study a language and play on my iPod touch than doing a product review!

What I Liked

Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of flashcards. I much prefer to just listen, read, and speak. But Brainscape does an excellent job with what can otherwise become a rather boring aspect of language study. Here are some of the app’s best features:

In App Training

The first time you use the app, it will help guide you through how to use it. For example, here is what pops up when you rate your first card:

You rated this card a 2. The higher your confidence, the less often you will see this card. Also, tips will occasionally pop up showing you how to get more out of the app.

Audio Files for Each Flash Card

One of the biggest problems with most flashcard systems (both paper and digital) is that they only focus on one skill: reading. With Brainscape, however, you can actually hear each word or phrase every time your review a card. This not only helps improve your listening and speaking skills, but also improves retention (brain research shows that the more senses you employ during study, the better your memory becomes).

From Words to Sentences

The app’s “Spanish Sentence Builder” does a good job of slowly building up your vocabulary from individual words into phrases that include a combination of previously studied words.

Excellent spaced repetition

As noted in The Science of Brainscape:

Repeating an easy concept too soon risks wasting your time, while repeating a difficult concept too late risks your having to learn it all over again. By employing user-controlled spaced repetition intervals, you can ensure that less familiar language is repeated more often, while better knows words won’t be repeated as often.

Usage Explanations on the card

Many flashcard systems only show you the key word and its meaning or pronunciation. Brainscape Spanish! cards also provide usage notes so you actually know how to use the new word or phrase.

Ability to delete cards as you go

You’d think that this would be an obvious feature, but I’m surprised how many flashcard apps don’t allow you to delete cards as you go, if at all. Brainscape also makes it easy for you to suggest an edit if you find any mistakes or missing information.

Specific topic decks

In addition to all the basic words you will need in daily life, the Brainscape Spanish! app also includes specific decks on a variety of topics, including business, food, medicine, transportation, technology, and geography.

Ability to sync the app with your account

Apps are a great way to review languages on the go, but if I am at home or the office, I prefer the increased screen real estate allotted by a computer.

What Could Be Better

The following additions would be nice, but both represent rather costly endeavors, so I can understand if they doesn’t happen anytime soon, if ever…


As noted in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, “vision trumps all other senses”. Adding stock photography to the flashcards would not only improve retention but also make study more inherently more enjoyable. This would also require less translation, allowing the student to spend more of their study time within instead translating to and from the target language and English.

Sample Sentences on All Cards

Although I like Brainscape’s sentence builder approach (gradually progressing from individual words to more complex phrases), it would be nice to have example sentences even in the very beginning so you can start getting used to a wider range of Spanish vocabulary and structures. While you might not understand much beyond the target phrase or construction, I find that having this extra input speeds acquisition and improves enjoyment.

Like any language learning tool, the key is balance: if used in combination with other sources of language input and output (listening to podcasts, watching Spanish television programs, reading blogs, speaking with friends or a tutor, etc.), Brainscape’s Spanish! iPhone app is an excellent addition to your your language learning arsenal.

Brainscape Spanish! Press Release

iPhone app teaches you Spanish using “smart flashcards” and brain science

Brainscape’s researchers from Columbia, Yale, and MIT have developed a novel language-acquisition approach they call Intelligent Cumulative Exposure (ICE).

NEW YORK: When we think of using flashcards to study Spanish, we usually think of putting simple one-word questions and answers like “apple” and “manna” on 3×5 index cards. Not Brainscape. This small team of educational technologists out of Columbia University has leveraged the power of the iPhone to combine grammar, sentence construction, and audio pronunciation into an incremental and comprehensive language-learning experience.

Brainscape Spanish works in three simple, repetitive steps:

Brainscape asks you to translate a particular sentence (e.g. “I have two siblings”) into Spanish where the single underlined word is the only concept that has not yet been introduced in previous flashcards.

Brainscape reveals the correct translation (Tengo dos hermanos) on the back of the flashcard, and explains or annotates the new concept in smaller text. (e.g. Although the word hermano usually means “brother” when singular, the plural hermanos could mean either “two brothers” or “a brother and a sister”.)

Brainscape asks you, on a scale of 1-5, “How well did you know this?” which determines how soon that flashcard will be repeated. Cards rated a 1 would repeat often until you report a higher level of confidence, while 5’s are very rarely repeated.

The process continues to repeat one card at-a-time (with AUDIO accompaniment), at gradually increasingly levels of complexity, with previous cards being repeated on an as-needed basis, according to Brainscape’s machine learning algorithm. Interspersed with these sentence-building exercises are simple vocabulary enrichment and verb conjugation-practice flashcards which also employ a confidence-based repetition technique.

Brainscape’s founder Andrew Cohen has written an entire white paper about why the new method (which he calls Intelligent Cumulative Exposure) works so effectively. “The Input Hypothesis, the value of Active Recall, and the importance of Metacognition have been known for decades,” says Cohen, “but much of the advancements toward applying these principles have confined to laboratories. Brainscape is the first company to make these language learning advancements so absurdly convenient.”

Brainscape Spanish is currently a $40 iPhone/iPod Touch app but is available to try free on Brainscape’s website where you can also find other flashcard-based courses and even create your own smart flashcard decks. As of this writing, Brainscape has over 120,000 members, and it plans to create a web/mobile learning community that eventually encompasses the world’s entire body of knowledge as well as just languages.

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