Brainscape iPhone app teaches you Spanish using “Smart Flashcards” and Brain Science

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Andrew Cohen, founder and CEO of the smart flashcard platform Brainscape.

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed on Kirsten Winkler’s blog as part of her series about web and mobile “flashcard” applications. As the founder of Brainscape – a new type of flashcard engine – I naturally spoke of flashcards’ tremendous usefulness as a complement to a more interactive curriculum, including vocabulary, supplementary facts, etc.

Today, however, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight how Brainscape has used the latest in cognitive science techniques to actually teach a language from scratch. Our new app Brainscape Spanish applies a revolutionary new type of language-acquisition approach that we call Intelligent Cumulative Exposure (ICE).

ICE leverages the convenience of the virtual flashcard to combine grammar, sentence construction, and audio pronunciation into an incremental and comprehensive language-learning experience. The secret to the methodology can be found in the precise pattern that ICE introduces new concepts. It essentially works in three simple, repetitive steps:

(1)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.

(2)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’.)

(3)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.

These educational software best practices seem very intuitive and simple, yet they have never before been implemented in a complete curriculum that is sliced & diced in this way. Brainscape Spanish includes over 2,000 “Sentence Builder” flashcards (as illustrated above) as well as over 4,000 cards – most with audio – for key vocabulary words and verb conjugations. It is the first complete Spanish curriculum that promises to teach you the language from the ground-up, using nothing but an iPhone.

Our team has actually written an entire white paper about why Intelligent Cumulative Exposure works so effectively. We feel like this collection of research was sorely needed. After all, the Input Hypothesis, the value of Active Recall, and the importance of Metacognition have been known for decades, 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 (for a limited time) – where you can also find other flashcard-based courses and even create your own smart flashcard decks. As of this writing, Brainscape has over 150,000 users, 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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About Andrew Cohen

Andrew is Brainscape's founder & CEO. He developed the first version of Brainscape as an Excel macro after nearly a decade developing learning solutions for large corporations, U.S. government offices, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank, across four continents. The program was so effective for Andrew's personal language-skills improvement that he decided to get his Masters in Instructional Technology from Columbia University, where he developed Brainscape prototype and refined its basis in cognitive science.

  • Alex Taylor – TJ Taylor

    Flashcards for building up passive vocabulary, ok; for increasing active vocabulary, yes I buy that. But it’s a very big leap from there to learning a language, and the description has left me very skeptical.
    It seems to be going in the opposite direction to the lexical approach, at least as I understand it – am I missing something?
    Alex Taylor

    • ChinaMike

      If you
      read the pdf you will see that they do not rely on this approach to teach a
      language. It looks like this is being positioned as a supplementary tool, not a
      primary tool.

      Can we perhaps go one step further? Is it possible to say that flash card study,
      for a certain sub-set of students (strong-willed) is far superior to any other
      kind of vocabulary learning method? It seems as if this is one of the
      propositions that undergirds this program.

      • Rickinalbi

        Interesting.  After reading Brainscape’s materials, I concluded that Brainscape intended its product as a primary curriculum.  In re-reading the article, I think I got that idea from Mr. Cohen”s statement that Brainscape’s product “is
        the first complete Spanish curriculum that promises to teach you the
        language from the ground-up.”  I will have to go back and see if I have this all backwards.  Then again, perhaps Mr. Cohen will be so kind as to address this (and other) issues in a follow-up comment.

      • Andrew Cohen

        ChinaMike, you are correct that we position Brainscape as a supplementary tool rather than as a catch-all solution for all your language-learning needs.

        Rickinalbi, my phrase about teaching a language “from the ground-up” was not meant to be construed as saying that we are the only solution one would need to learn a language, but rather as a way of explaining that Brainscape Spanish (particularly the Sentence Builder portion) is the only full mobile curriculum that has a very clear “beginning” and progression through levels of fluency.  We literally start with a single word and then start building other words & grammatical concepts around it as we build sentences.

        This is also what Rosetta Stone and many other computer-based programs do.  Brainscape’s difference is that it does so with real translations, and with L1 grammatical annotations for the curious adult who likes to see how sentences are being put together.

  • MC

    I am a linguist very interested in cognitive science, as well as an EFL course designer and project manager. I agree with the previous comment that the post makes some huge claims without ever actually claiming much. Will this work for just A1 and A2 levels? And teacher feedback? Pronunciation? Must test and try :)

    • ChinaMike

      They claimed a great deal. They haven’t as yet proven anything. In fact, if I am reading this correctly they are claiming that the grammar-translation approach to language learning can be quite effective (for a certain sub set of students). That is a quite an interesting claim.

      • Andrew Cohen

        ChinaMike, regarding our grammar-translation approach, I, too, would love to have more data on its effectiveness when combined together!  Yet for reasons stated above, it is extremely impractical to test this over a long period of time in a controlled environment, considering that actual usage of Brainscape takes place in such sporadic un-controlled mobile study sessions.  Our claims of effectiveness are admittedly more based on research into the effectiveness of (1) translation and (2) L1-based grammatical explanations – INDEPENDENTLY of each other, since nobody has yet combined the two methods into the same exercise in a single academic experiment.

        Brainscape’s main motivation for combining translation and grammatical explanation was to make it absurdly efficient for learners to drill them both at the same time.  A very large number of adult learners PREFER having translation and grammatical explanations, whether they can articulate that preference at first or not. Brainscape is catering to that “sub-set” of learners – which we believe is very large.

        • ChinaMike

          Andrew I tend to call a spade a spade and what I see in your
          approach is an all out embrace of grammar-translation. I would even go so far
          as to rename your technology “a spaced repetition, grammar-translation,
          automated language learning machine”. This name, while being extremely
          marketing unfriendly, at least has the advantage of greater clarity for someone
          in the language teaching business.

          Your use of the term ICE, while marketing smart, is almost worthless from a
          language professional’s point of view as there is nothing in this term that
          others can’t also claim in part or whole and in fact nothing about ICE is
          remarkable in my opinion. Grammar-translation however is a much maligned method
          and I suspect that it is getting an extreme make-over with your system.

          As such I find it extremely ironic that you invoke Krashen to explain your
          approach. As far as I can tell this approach (and indeed all spaced repetition
          approaches) requires someone with a steely will to master mistakes before
          moving ahead. Contrast this with Krashen’s call to reduce anxiety. In fact,
          your approach to instruction is a great example of “learning” which
          Krashen has always disparaged in favor of acquisition.

          You are in fact thumbing your noses at many of the closely held precepts of a large part of the EFL industry but so far (with your white paper) you are doing it quite furtively.

          The way I see it if you believe that people were mistaken and you can learn a
          language through incremental translation then proclaim it loudly. Don’t hide
          your light under a basket so to speak. Of course with all the attention you
          would receive you would need to devote a full time position just to deflecting
          the criticism.

          I am skeptical of your
          approach because I am skeptical of all approaches but if you are right then I
          might need to include more incremental grammar translation in my teaching

          • Andrew Cohen

            Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Mike.  That is a good point about considering a more method-reflective name in our white paper (perhaps “incremental grammar-translation with adaptive spaced repetition”).  We indeed arrived at “Intelligent Cumulative Exposure” as a term that would sound somewhat clearer, more concise, and more attractive to a non-linguist.

            You are correct that it could quickly become a full-time job for us to “defend” our claim that adults can learn (or effectively study) a language through the much-maligned incremental grammar-translation technique.  But the alternative would have been to proclaim nothing more than the method’s convenience & efficiency without researching its merits and writing our white paper.  This would have done a huge injustice to the real cognitive science behind what we are doing.

            There is indeed almost as much research supporting the effectiveness of grammar & translation (for adults) as there is research maligning it, but it has not gotten nearly as much attention as the translation-attacking research has in recent years.  Our white paper attempts to remind educators that grammar-translation may still be a viable strategy that is supported by sound research, and even more so when the curriculum is incrementally organized and combined with the right type of adaptive learning technology.

            Finally, you are correct that ICE represents somewhat of a departure from Krashen’s theory, as we state up-front in the white paper.  While we have painstakingly organized our curriculum so that there is only one new word or concept in every sentence (Krashen’s K + 1), we do focus more on Output as the core exercise, rather than purely Input, as suggested by Krashen.  The potential anxiety caused by leading each new concept with an “error” (the unknown word) is mitigated by the fact that the learner should already have been exposed to every other word/concept in the sentence beforehand.

            There is ample research about the value of including frequent error-correction in the learning process.  In retrospect I should have cited this research in our white paper.  Interestingly, one of my favorite quotes is by Nobel prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr: “An expert is just someone who has made every mistake possible in a given field.”  Brainscape Spanish ensures that you are given incremental opportunities to make every mistake you can, in the most controlled and anxiety-reducing manner possible.  We believe that this method should help advance any *deliberate* learner toward expert level faster than any other tool.

            I encourage you to ask anyone who is seriously teaching themselves Spanish right now to try the product free on our website.  I’d be happy to give you a free promo code(s) for the iPhone app as well.

    • Andrew Cohen

      MC, thanks for the reply.  Please see my other comments above. 

      Regarding our curriculum’s level, we actually targeted this initial Brainscape Spanish curriculum to assist learners in progressing all the way through B1-B2, as can be surmised by the vocabulary and grammatical concepts taught/drilled throughout the later parts of the curriculum.  That said, without very cumbersome and impractical experimentation over a long period of time, this is very hard to test/claim.  For this reason we don’t specifically mention the levels in our white paper.Regarding teacher feedback & pronunciation, we are not claiming that our mobile application is more effective than having a live human tutor critique your speech.  But it does come close to the experience.  You receive “feedback” in the form of seeing/hearing the correct translation of the sentence you were attempting to generate & pronounce yourself.  Although there is no formal computer input on the learner’s part, adult learners are actually quite good at assessing how “right” or “wrong” we are, and how close our pronunciation is to the native speaker.Current pronunciation assessment technologies (such as Rosetta Stone’s) are still quite clunky and inaccurate.  We believe our system is the next best thing to having a live tutor tell you whether you translated/pronounced the sentence correctly.  And it is even more precise in knowing exactly how frequently to review the difficult concepts because the learner herself is driving the repetition algorithm.

      • David Olson

        I know this is a really old post here and no one may ever again dig this deep to see this comment. But I thought for the one or two of you who do, this may be a helpful testimony. I am between a B and C-1 in that European language learning scale. I have used Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Transparent and BrainScape Spanish. I like them all and each does certain things that may help certain learners. But having used them all, I find BrainScape’s Spanish program to be the one that can take me from an A-2 to a C-1 (a beginner with enough handles to learn on his/her own to an advanced student). No app takes the place of reading, speaking, writing, listening. But BrainScape is a powerful tool and certainly worth the money. Only Duolingo is cheaper. If money is a primary concern, you would do well to use Duolingo to become an advanced-beginner to intermediate student and BrainScape Spanish to give a solid foundation for Spanish vocabulary. (An app like HelloTalk can put you in contact with native speakers for listening, writing, speaking, reading practice.) Again, kudos to the BrainScape team for developing a reasonably priced app that does what it says it will do if the student will use it. I highly recommend it as part of your toolbox for learning Spanish.

  • ChinaMike

    I am really trying to wrap my head around what the author is saying. Page numbers on the pdf. would make talking about these ideas a lot easier (and explaining where I found the three typos).

  • Rickinalbi

    I see it, the general question is whether one can develop
    Brainscape’s concept into a language-learning curriculum. The
    specific question is whether Brainscape has succeeded in doing so
    with its new Spanish product.

    find the general question intriguing. I think Alex is right in saying that
    Brainscape’s methodology is pretty far from the lexical approach and a focus on inpu. This departure from current practices, however, does not seem to be a reason to
    summarily reject Brainscape’s methodology. After all, when students
    read and listen, they break the text down to look at individual
    words, collocations, idioms, grammatical structures, sentences, and
    the like. In theory, Brainscape’s approach could be used to
    formalize and structure this process, yet preserve a “holistic”
    sense of the text. The idea of student’s actually articulating their
    subjective view of how well they know a particular item, and the
    automated de-emphasis of well-known items in the review, strikes me
    as extremely efficient for the autodidact or the student studying at

    however, has tried to move far beyond the general question. It has
    tried to provide a scientific justification for answering this
    question in the affirmative, tried its hand at developing a specific
    application, and then put that product on the market. A comment is
    not the place to fully critique Brainscape’s white paper, but I would
    note that I did not find that paper particularly compelling. More
    importantly, the paper does not provide test data that addresses
    either Brainscape’s specific product or its new theory. Indeed,
    Brainscape never provides anything to show that its new product is

    would therefore ask Brainscape to come back to this forum to address
    of a few points. First, I would ask Brainscape to provide data as to
    why its new product is effective. Has the product been tested? What
    improvements have students shown, and after how many hours of study?
    As I look through Brainscape’s website, I don’t see anyone claiming
    experience developing curriculum. What makes Brainscape think it can
    develop a curriculum product? In other words, what makes Brainscape
    think it can design a specific implementation of its general theory?
    Indeed, why should anyone spend $40 for what might simply be a bunch
    of random flashcards?

    in all, this may be a case where the theory is sound (though we don’t
    yet know for sure), but the specific implementation is faulty. I
    also see no reason at this point why students should pay for
    Brainscape’s product.  

    • Andrew Cohen

      Thanks for your feedback, Ricki.  See my other comments above and below.

      Regarding our team’s experience, it should be noted that nearly all of our founders have developed extensive adult curriculum in some setting, including government, corporate, higher education, and test prep.  In retrospect this does not appear to be hinted in our 3-line bios on our website.In either case, over our collective decades of e-learning management experience, we developed a strong feel for the types of study tools that motivated learners actually seek, combined with a frustration about the lack of tools that fit actual adult learners’ sporadic study habits.  These frustrations led us to develop a web/mobile study platform whose goal was first-and-foremost *convenience* and easy integration into modern learners’ busy lives. We could very justifiably be accused of seeking learning sciences to support our proposed solution – rather than the other way around.  I have no legitimate defense against that.  But a solution that gives adult learners what they want and “need” may sometimes be preferable to a solution that comes out of a controlled, un-realistic experiment in a linguistic laboratory.

      • Rickinalbi

        I appreciate Mr. Cohen taking time to address  our comments.  Unfortunately, his replies are more unsettling than his article.

        1.     The argument that Brainscape faces unrealistic barriers to the testing of its product is false, as Mr. Cohen himself well knows.  Brainscape can easily assemble a group of interns, give them a pre-test, have them document their use of Brainscape’s product for several months, give them a post-test, and measure the difference.  This process happens all the time.  Moreover, Brainscape could structure the test to simultaneously test its remarkable hypothesis that one can learn a language in 2-minute study sessions.  Finally, Mr. Cohen is familiar with educational testing.   He has written about preliminary test results he obtained with a Brainscape prototype.  See  Section VI of Brainscape’s “white paper” suggests that Brainscape is planning research of this nature.  A statement that Brainscape cannot conduct this research is therefore disingenuous at best.  To the extent Brainscape puts an untested product on the market, moreover, the company is behaving irresponsibly.

        2.     Brainscape’s advertisement at says that people “may be WASTING [sic] up to 80% of their time, and that they “can learn 5x FASTER [sic].”  In his commentary, however, Mr. Cohen says that Brainscape has not tested its product.  As a result, Mr. Cohen and Brainscape have no idea whether the statement I quoted from Brainscape’s Itunes advertisement is true.  Last I checked, that’s a big no-no.

        3.     Mr. Cohen assures us that Brainscape’s team has developed extensive curriculum for unidentified entities, even though all of the biographies on its websites are silent on the issue.   He suggests that the omission is due to the short length of the biographical entries – a feature of those entries that is completely self-imposed.   Moreover, Brainscape’s team felt it was more important to tell the world they were Fulbright scholars and “WordPress ninjas” than mention their work in curricular development.   This suggests a sense that they didn’t think their curriculum development work was significant.  In his biography for the article leading to these comments, Mr. Cohen discusses his work developing unspecified “learning solutions,” a phrase so vague as to be meaningless.   If Brainscape wants people to take its curriculum development skills seriously, its management needs to  publish a description of its curriculum development accomplishments for everyone to see.   If not, readers and consumers can fairly conclude that there are no serious curriculum development skills within the Brainscape team, and that there certainly are no such skills specific to foreign languages.

        4.     In responding to ChinaMike, Mr. Cohen  states that Brainscape’s new product is a supplemental one.   Except, of course, that Mr. Cohen says elsewhere that “until the recent release of Brainscape Spanish, there was no complete, progressive, scientifically supported mobile curriculum available for adults to learn a language.”  Mr. Cohen did not say “to supplement an existing language-learning program.”  He said “to learn a language.”  If you need other proof as to Mr. Cohen ambivalence on this issue, I note that in his article, Mr. Cohen says that the goal of Brainscape’s product is to “teach a language from scratch.”   He also says it is a “comprehensive language learning experience,” with materials that have “never before been implemented in a complete curriculum.”  He also says that Brainscape’s product is the “first complete Spanish curriculum that promises to teach you from the ground up.”  In another comment, he refers to Brainscape’s product as a “full curriculum.”   ChinaMike may read Brainscape’s self-styled white paper as saying that Brainscape’s product is being positioned as a supplemental product, but I submit that it can also be read to suggest Brainscape intends its product as a primary curriculum.  Brainscape either needs to walk back Mr. Cohen’s comment in response to ChinaMike, or it needs to start revising its materials to clearly say its product is supposed to supplement other learning materials.

        5.    Mr  Cohen invites us to examine his product as someone who “WANTS to learn Spanish,” (capital letters in original) as opposed to a “dogmatic linguist” — whatever that is.  I have accepted that invitation and have concluded that Brainscape’s team has no idea how to construct a language curriculum.  In particular, Brainscape’s product is not only not ready for market – it isn’t even ready for beta testing.  Below is a quick summary of the initial set of problems I found.

        A. The product has no significant transparent structure.  There’s no index.  There’s no table of contents.   There’s no search feature within lessons.  There’s no way to jump to a topic of  particular interest (particular class of stem-changing verbs, the present progressive tense, etc.)  Some of the vocabulary decks of cards are labeled ‘Vocabulary Enrichment A’ through Vocabulary Enrichment O.”  The sentence builder decks are labeled Lesson 1 through Lesson 19.  There is very little signposting within lessons as to what topics are being presented for study.  This is particularly true in the later review of the deck, where cards within a lesson are presented out of their original order.

        B. Brainscape’s presentation is unacceptably rigid.  Students must proceed through a deck as the algorithm dictates.  They have no way to move backwards to see a prior card, in order to compare the new card to something already seen.  They cannot skip over a topic they already know, at least not in the first pass through a deck.   They have no way to review the cards in order a second time.  There is no way to stop a perceived  overload of new vocabulary words and review what has already been seen before being forced to attack new vocabulary.   This is a real problem in a vocabulary deck containing two hundred words, which is the average size of the Brainscape vocabulary decks.  If a jolting subway train accidentally caused students to mistakenly enter that they knew a card’s contents when in fact they did not know it all, the students have no way to correct that error until the card shows up again, pursuant to the algorithm controlling the cards’ presentation.  Students cannot reset a lesson deck and start over.  In other words, students have no control over the learning – they must endlessly go forward and forward and forward.  This is about as far away from student-centric learning as you could get.

        C.   Brainscape’s methodology for presenting material is strange and unsound.  The presentation is not deductive, since rules are not presented before practice.  It is definitely not inductive, since the methodology does not provide enough examples to establish the rule.  For instance, Lesson 19 presents the present perfect, the past perfect, and the conditional, all in about 20 cards.   To the extent one could argue that Brainscape’s organization of material is indeed inductive, its algorithm destroys the original order of the examples so that students can never see them again in that order after the first pass through the deck.  Indeed, the methodology seems at times to be the random presentation of material.

        D.   The skills taught are extremely limited.   Brainscape’s product does not teach students how to write in Spanish.  It does not give students practice in thinking in Spanish, since every exercise requires translation.  It does not present any reading in Spanish, except for the responses to the translations.  It does not give students practice listening to Spanish without first knowing what is being said.   There is no opportunity for conversation practice.  All it does is teach people to translate a series of relatively simple sentences.  As such, I simply see no way that the current Brainscape product could bring someone to the B1-B2 level of the CEFR, despite Mr. Cohen’s response to MC’s comment, and I challenge Mr. Cohen to demonstrate otherwise.  Now, Brainscape may well argue that its product is simply “supplemental” and  is not intended to let students reach that level without using some other product — but then it has to address the questions I raised above about its many statements and the student population it is trying to reach. 

        E.   So, can I learn something about Spanish from Brainscape’s product?  Of course.  Then again I can learn something about Spanish by typing sentences into a computerized translator and memorizing the results.   Brainscape’s product is at best only marginally better than this.  At least with a translator, I can control the presentation of material, and review things I did not get the first time through on a time frame that makes sense to me.   I also emphasize that the comments are simply the results of a preliminary review — the lack of structure mentioned in Paragraph A prevented much else.

        6.   I’m not the least bit threatened by Brainscape’s product, its proposed methodology, or anything else Mr. Cohen wrote, and I suspect the same is true for the other teachers reading his post.  We’ve been dealing with “learn a foreign language in just 10 days” and other such silliness for years.  To the extent Brainscape is marketing to a clientele who can’t schedule a 30-minute Skype lesson once or twice a week, much less arrange their life to come to class, we’re targeting different markets.  I personally lived through the computer revolution of math education, where all math teachers were supposedly going to be replaced by individualized, computer-monitored education.  Simply put, that prediction never came to pass.  In any event, teachers would love to have a viable curriculum product that was on-line and inexpensive — which would simply replace the books and worksheets we use. 

        Notwithstanding all this, I still think there is some theoretical merit to Brainscape’s general idea regarding flashcards, and that the idea of flashcards as a means to deliver curriculum deserves investigation.  Brainscape’s prototype product and Mr. Cohen’s comments so far, however, creates serious doubts in my mind as to whether Brainscape has the ability to competently conduct that investigation. 

        • Andrew Cohen


          Thanks again for your thoughtful analyses of Brainscape’s methods (and your web searches about us), even if they were largely meant to discredit what we are doing.  I’ll refrain from attempting to defend our own curriculum-building credibility with resume bullet points since that is a bit off the topic of this thread.  What I do want to do is clarify a few things.  First, I think you have greatly over-simplified the ease of conducting a legitimate empirical test of effectiveness for a mobile Spanish curriculum.  Sure, we could give the app to some interns for a few months with a pre-test and a post-test.  But how do we control for regularity of use, motivation levels, or “interference” from other places where they may be practicing their Spanish?  And what is the control group to which we are comparing these learners?  The end result of attempting to conduct this long-term experiment with a large enough group of learners would end up being a massive expenditure of resources and data that is very flimsy, at best.  If I tried to reference the resulting data in another academic white paper, smart people like you would tear into the data’s legitimacy relentlessly :) 
          With that said, the fact that we have not run a formal, statistically significant empirical study with Brainscape Spanish is a far cry from saying that our product release was “irresponsible” as you claim.  Show me a single one of the hundreds of other language-learning iPhone apps took the time to research & write a white paper to support their methods.  Brainscape has gone very far out of our way to be as responsible as possible.  (I’ve even tempered the vague but ambitious language on our iTunes description as you’ve suggested!)Second, I am surprised at your concern about our use of the words “learn” and “complete curriculum” as if we were somehow saying that Brainscape Spanish is all you will ever need to learn.  The intent of ANY curriculum is for you to *learn* the subject after all.  Guitar books, textbooks, and Skype video tutors claim that they will *teach* you a subject, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to actually play the guitar or study/read in a language in order to fully internalize that learning.  This is a silly criticism.  OF COURSE Brainscape is a supplement to a more global language-learning experience.  We even provide our users with copious advice on other resources they should be using to improve their language skills, via the Languages section on our blog.Third, I apologize that the current technology on our website could not yet afford you the same study flexibility that you are offered via the iPhone app.  Our iPhone app does indeed allow you to (1) see the index of cards by word and grammar concept being taught in each, (2) skip back to previous cards in the order that you saw them, and (3) search for words both across the entire app and in a specific deck list.  These are indeed important features, and it frustrates me that web-based software development is so resource intensive.  The lack of these features is one of the main reasons that studying is still free on the web.  They should hopefully be coming soon.Fourth, that is simply incorrect that we introduce a barrage of new vocabulary words before the first ones are sufficiently learned.  The whole point of Brainscape’s algorithm is to prevent cognitive load by stopping the introduction of new concepts every time the learner has a few tough cards in confidence bucket 1.  If you did not see such repetition during your trial, it is presumably because you were giving 5’s to every card in order to flip through the decks, which is a legitimate excuse given that we do not currently support straight-through browse functionality on the web.  Give a few ones and the new cards will stop.Fifth, I disagree with your statement that our learning methodology is not inductive.  We both explain each concept after it is illustrated, AND we systematically review each concept within the non-tested text of many future cards’ sentences.  We took great care to ensure that there are extensive examples of each word and rule (sporadically dispersed after the rule’s formal introduction), in order to firmly establish each concept.  The only place this is not necessarily the case is toward the end of the curriculum (e.g. Lesson 19), when we attempt to introduce the perfect and conditional tenses in just 20 cards, without much example provided throughout subsequent lessons.  Lesson 19 was intended is more of a sneak preview of what could be learned in a future advanced curriculum, and we positioned it as such.

          To close, I would like to ask one small question of you:  Do you think that it is possible to use audio flashcards as a learning supplement in ANY way that is more rich than just vocab and verb practice?  I would be very welcome to ideas for how else to do this.

          As I stated before, I admit that we FIRST had the web/mobile confidence-based repetition platform, and we designed our language curriculum to fit that platform.  Although we spent a lot of time brainstorming & designing the most ideal pattern of content presentation to fit the flashcard format, that does not mean that our current solution is the apex of such curriculum advancement.   I welcome your ideas for improvement of curriculum within this existing technology platform.  If you think that there is no place for smart mobile flashcards outside of vocab and verb conjugation, then that is a fine answer too.

          Thank you again for your comments and your challenges, and I hope our future product improvements help address some of the very valid points you have raised.  We are working very hard at Brainscape to create a learning ecosystem that makes it as convenient as possible to manage flashcard-based study across every subject possible. 

          • ChinaMike

            Dear Andrew,

            We have a tradition of skewering new learning tools on this blog. I hope you
            don’t feel this is personal. What you are providing with your white paper is a
            step up over what we have received in the past. However, what I believe I am
            seeing is an approach that is more aligned to the needs of the marketing
            department than to the needs of teachers who might want to know the
            effectiveness of this new, reformulation of the grammar-translation method.

            I am beginning to get uneasy about some of the things that you are saying and
            that you might not have thought through fully. In your white paper you suggest
            that research on your product is forthcoming. I even got the feeling that it
            was just around the corner. In this blog you have repudiated the possibility of
            doing so. These two positions are in conflict. Please close this gap!

            Secondly, according to Ricki you state that people “may be WASTING [sic] up to
            80% of their time, and that they “can learn 5x FASTER [sic]. I assume this
            wasn’t said in reference to others. If you are making ANY claims about how much
            better your approach is than others than we have a right to ask what you can
            produce to back up these claims. When you make comparative claims of any kind
            we, on this blog, are in the habit of asking for evidence.

            I am super curious about the proper role for your product in the language
            learning process. As yet you haven’t defined this place well. If you are
            positioning yourself as a supplemental tool (and I concur that your position on
            this is much too vague) where do you see yourself in the language learning
            process? As an aid in learning
            grammar, to serve as a word learning device, to aid students who want to start
            speaking? All of the above? None of the above? I think you are doing a
            disservice to yourself by not researching this thing further. What if you did
            one thing not just well, but extraordinarily well, and a lack of research was
            hiding this from you?

            We are moving to a world where teachers will need to become tool using
            specialists. The flip side of this, IMHO, is that tool creators need to define
            EXACTLY what their tool is able to accomplish in the service of

            I suppose my question is
            then, at your core, (and I don’t expect an answer) are you a businessman or an

          • Andrew Cohen

            Thanks again for your thoughts, Mike.  It’s obviously a fine line to walk between being an educator, and being an entrepreneur who has pressure from investors to sell more product.  I have already tempered the iTunes marketing description based on Ricki’s concerns for academic integrity.  This is why we test our early marketing messaging on education blogs.

            As I mentioned in my follow-up to Ricky above, you guys are right that – when talking to educators – I should do a clearer job positioning how this tool can be incorporated into a more comprehensive language program.

            Our initial user prototype is the auto-didactic adult learner (*ideally immersed in the environment*) who has no real time or resources for ANY rigorous, formal instruction process – whether that means a class, a tutor, a desktop software application, or even a workbook that has to be lugged around.     In other words, this person only has time for tiny study sessions (30s – 2m) scattered sporadically throughout the day.  This is the perfect mobile phone use case.

            We obviously know that there are many other components of learning a language that include conversation practice and reading passages.  But if the user is truly immersed in the environment, s/he would ideally have organic exposure to these things without needing complex software to simulate it.  

            Instead, we asked ourselves:  If we were to even attempt to create a comprehensive curriculum that would be confined to ONLY our mobile smart flashcard platform and broken into exercises that could feasibly be consumed in 10 second study sessions, what would it look like?  Brainscape Spanish (aka “grammar-translation”) is what our language researchers came up with.  Our white paper was our attempt to justify this thought process.  In retrospect it could have been better received if we had better articulated the use case.

            That said, I don’t think Brainscape Spanish is just for auto-didacts without a teacher or class.  It could also be used by an educator as a replacement – or partial replacement – for a textbook.  This will become more feasible as our technology incorporates better indexing (as Ricki suggests) in the future.

            I would love to ask you the same advice as I asked Ricki, and as our team asked ourselves when we began this project two years ago:  If you were to even attempt to create a comprehensive curriculum that would be confined to a mobile smart flashcard platform and broken into exercises that could feasibly be consumed in 10 second study sessions, what would it look like?  Or do you think that the only legitimate use case for (audio) mobile flashcards is for things like stand-alone vocab and grammar drill?

            Thanks again for your input on this.  Even if there are many things you may not agree with (or may be unclear about), you have taken the time to give this serious consideration, and to that I am indebted.  Please kick my ass, because I will have to talk to many future educators and linguists after you!

          • ChinaMike


            Your comments lead me to believe that you will be successful. You have taken
            our comments to heart, which shows me you are willing to learn from free
            advice. You have to love Ricki’s comments. I figure alone they are worth $1,000,000.

            I wish I could be more helpful in using and critiquing the product. Truth be
            told, I’m not all that interested in Spanish. I live at the intersection of
            Japanese/Chinese and English. And I think that each language presents its own
            individual grammatical problems. Moreover I understand that it isn’t easy to
            move effortlessly between different languages creating successful instructional

            My best advice is something that has probably already occurred to you. If you
            want to turn this into a great supplemental product you need to work closely
            with teachers. Designing for end users and designing for teachers is a
            completely different exercise. Since you have already designed for the end user
            you probably need to take a completely different look at things because these two
            markets (self-user/teacher support) are very different in so many ways. My
            guess is that maybe except for Spanish in the States, the teacher-support
            market is potentially much bigger worldwide. It is also potentially much easier
            to market to if you can demonstrate clear benefits and no ill effects (big

            The biggest impact you could probably have worldwide would be if you could make
            ICE work for Chinese students learning English.  These people don’t need to be sold on grammar. In the
            gambling vernacular, they are already “all in”.


            Finally, I am
            wondering if you have thought about redesigning your grammar categories so as
            to address content and function words separately?  I fear our grammatical categories in English are as outdated
            as the old grammar-translation paradigm.

            P.S. – One of the
            potential problems with teachers (from what I imagine is your current
            perspective) is that we are supremely time-bound. We want to accomplish certain
            things in a given period of time. Many teachers willingly move forward before
            students achieve mastery in order to follow their schedule (and because many
            don’t know what mastery is). This conflict between mastery and scheduling is
            one of the hardest to balance in instruction. This is one area where machine
            based intelligence can be helpful.

            P.S.S- The problem with your approach as I see it
            is that students might achieve mastery over trivial things. The biggest problem
            in speaking a language is not remembering what a word means in your own
            language (translation) but knowing approximately what the word means so it is
            available for immediate retrieval and use (Krashen’s contrast between learning
            and acquisition?). Also too, many words are not stored as individual items but in
            groups. IMHO your system, while teaching students the exact meaning of individual
            words, should not create mental habits that block the ability to use words or
            phrases in the absence of translation.

          • Rickinalbi

            I’m flattered by Mike’s comments about the value of what I wrote.  Fortunately for Andrew, I have no intention of invoicing Brainscape  for consulting services rendered.  

            I also strongly second Mike’s comments about involving some experienced teachers in Brainscape’s development process.  Brainscape has posed a couple of extremely interesting pedagogical questions  (Can people learn something more than discrete facts in sporadic 2-minute study bursts?  If so, how much?  What is the potential of the flashcard model in terms of teaching something more than discrete facts?).   The perspective and efforts of people who have spent time on the proverbial front lines should be worthwhile in the exploration of these questions. 

          • Rickinalbi

            You are welcome.  My comments have been critical, but I have tried to be fair.   My intention is only to test the veracity of what Brainscape says.  I have no intention of discrediting anyone.   

            Let me first address your specific question.  Yes, it may be possible to use audio flashcards in a way that is more than vocabulary and verb practice.   I’m not convinced that this is possible, but I see nothing to prevent it.  I also believe that an expanded use of audio flashcards is worth exploring.   In my comments, I have tried to separate the theory from Brainscape’s attempt to implement that theory.  While I have criticized the attempt, my comments should not be read as an attack on the general idea. 

            In terms of product testing, you and I disagree.  Brainscape has created a product and has published claims about that product.  As a result, it needs to have an evidentiary basis for those claims.  It is not exempt from this obligation because obtaining that evidence is too hard or expensive, or because others have been equally remiss.   The fact that any data obtained might be subject to criticism is no reason to refrain from collecting it, since any data is better than none.  If Brainscape cannot obtain the evidence to support its claims, those claims should be withdrawn.

            The practical barriers to testing that you mention just aren’t persuasive.   A control group, for example, is unnecessary if the study is limited to showing the gains that people make using your product.  If you’re lucky,  maybe your software engineers could find a way to monitor the usage of the Brainscape application usage time for these volunteers.  Those volunteers can certainly say that they are not studying Spanish using another product during the testing period.  Granted, that isn’t foolproof in terms of screening out all potential problems, but you do what you can. 

            The fact that Brainscape wrote a “white paper” is irrelevant.  If Brainscape’s product is good, then it does not need a “white paper.”  If its product is not good, then all the white papers in the world will not rescue it.   Your paper, moreover, focuses more on general theory – a point on which I have said I am intrigued.  It is silent on Brainscape’s attempt to specifically implement that theory, except for generalized descriptions more suitable for advertising copy.  Even if the white paper were conclusive on the general point, it leaves open the possibility that Brainscape’s attempt to implement that theory is flawed.
            The “supplemental/complete” disagreement may be one of semantics.  I understood “supplement,” as the term arose in the discussion, to mean something that serves a secondary role behind a curriculum product that serves as the lead, much like a workbook supplements a traditional text.   “Complete,” on the other hand, suggests that the product is intended to be used as a standalone.  I agree that even a “complete” product needs to be “supplemented” by practice outside the confines of formal study, and was not using the word “complete” quite so literally.  I nevertheless understand Brainscape to be marketing its product to play the lead role in the learning process, essentially replacing the textbook.  As such, it would not be “supplemental.”  I would appreciate your taking a few minutes to resolve this ambiguity. 

            In terms of my review of your product, I am happy to provide more information as to what I did.  I was indeed typing “4” for most words, which resulted in the algorithm generating too long a list of words before starting the review.  This morning I reviewed another vocabulary section and typed “1” in response to the words I saw.  Sure enough, the algorithm started its review after presenting only a few new words.  I will also accept your statement that Brainscape intended its presentation to be “inductive,” while standing by my observation that Brainscape has failed in this attempt at inductive curriculum.  The application just does not present enough examples from which the rules can be inferred.  Indeed, given the assumed study patterns of the targeted market, I don’t see why Brainscape would want to engage in the more time-consuming process of presenting material inductively.

            In terms of the features that are on the Itunes version but not the website version of Brainscape’s product, I guess I feel slightly misled.  Your article says that Brainscape Spanish is available as an Itunes app, “but is available to try free on Brainscape’s website.”  There was no mention of reduced functionality.  You also wrote “I encourage you to ask anyone who is seriously teaching themselves Spanish right now to try the product free on our website.  I’d be happy to give you a free promo code(s) for the iPhone app as well.”  Again, there is no mention of a difference in functionality, which led to my assuming the functionality was identical.   My time was not wasted in reviewing the on-line version of Brainscape’s product, but it was not as an effective as I would have liked.

            Brainscape may be on to something good here, and I remain intrigued.  I don’t have an iPhone, but could borrow one to test the iPhone application if you would like to send me the promotional code.  I also am willing to talk about testing, inductive learning, expansion of the flashcard idea, or whatever else.  The goal is not to rip things down just to rip things down.  The goal is to give students another effective way to learn.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Thanks again for your thoughtful replies, Ricki.   You are right that I jumped the gun in mentioning in our white paper & marketing literature that the iPhone app is available to try in its entirety via the web [in an implied identical format].  I had unfortunately overestimated the pace of our website development vs. the iPhone app development when I first wrote that pre-release text several weeks ago, and there are still a few website features that still need a few more weeks to catch up to the mobile app.  I should not have offered the “challenge” for anyone to test the app on the web for themselves without mentioning that disclaimer.

            Regarding the testing, you are absolutely right that the difficulty of testing should not absolve us from at least *some* efficacy data, although I am still hesitant to even attempt this if I do not have a control group.  If someone uses Brainscape Spanish for 20 hours, they will of course learn *some* Spanish, but there would be no way of testing how similar users would have fared in 20 hours’ worth of study using a different method(s).

            In other words, if we spend the scarce business resources on doing a formal test, I would want it to yield results we could stand by.  Perhaps we will do this when we raise a Series A round and can hire a full-time educational psychology researcher.  For now, we have no choice but to resort to saying our method is *based* on cognitive science, without being able to empirically prove the efficacy of the application.  Our qualitative results and emphatic user feedback suggests that we are certainly onto something, and we are comfortable standing by our method.

            With respect to induction, I respect your concern for our limited number of examples for certain concepts (especially later in the curriculum), but this is mitigated by the fact that we do explain the concepts in plain English.  In other words, it is not PURELY  “inductive,” considering that we clearly articulate the grammatical lesson learned after its example is presented.  It’s sort of a new type of concept presentation pattern that is somewhere between deduction and induction.

            Finally, in the future, I’ll try to do a better job positioning Brainscape Spanish as a supplemental tool in the same way as a textbook.  I do think that – with better indexing features – something like Brainscape Spanish can indeed replace a textbook.  But it will never replace live conversation or reading practice (especially reading with an audio accompaniment – which is my preferred exercise for learners who are ready for it).

            Anyway keep me posted on if you come up with other suggestions for how we can create a real *curriculum* (beyond just vocab/verb practice) using our incremental flashcard introduction system + confidence-based repetition.  You can find my email address on my Twitter bio @a_s_cohen.  I am hoping this is just v1.0 of a new type of language study supplement for the coming decades.

  • Andrew Cohen

    Hi everybody.  Thank you all for your comments so far, and for those of you who have taken the time to read our white paper.

    I think there is a lot to be said for the fact that many traditional language educators & linguists are threatened by this new language-learning method, while adult LEARNERS are increasingly encouraged by it.  It is natural for linguists to be skeptical of a new learning method that is  drastically different than any laboratory-originating methods that they have ever seen.  But we made this app for learners after all.

    The harsh reality is that today’s busy adult learners often don’t have access to regular live human interaction with patient native speakers, nor do we have the time to sit in front of a several-hour “total immersion” environment on our computer.  While most linguistics literature is based on laboratory studies where people are learning in a controlled classroom environment, real  people have actually been craving a mobile learning solution where we could log 2-minute study sessions while waiting for the bus, waiting in line at the coffee shop, or sitting on the can.   That’s unfortunately how adults learn nowadays.  We all have ADD.  But until the recent release of Brainscape Spanish, there was no complete, progressive, scientifically supported mobile curriculum available for adults to learn a language .

    I encourage you to do a search on iTunes for “learn Spanish”.  You’ll see the following other types of mobile learning solutions:  (1) Vocab games in a vacuum; (2) Verb conjugation drills in a vacuum; (3) Sentence-based grammar drills when there is no guarantee that you have actually learned the vocab words in those sentences; or (4) Reading passages when there is no guarantee that you will actually know the words & grammar in those passages.  These disorganized mobile drills are far from the ideal scaffolded K+1 that Krashen’s Input Hypothesis suggests.  And they are far from a comprehensive curriculum.

    Intelligent Cumulative Exposure (ICE) is the first serious attempt at combining all of these drills into a single, extremely lean study experience, with a full curriculum, scaffolded progressively, and repeating concepts in precisely the pattern that the learner needs to review them.  Yes, it is based on a core drill of *translating* sentences.  But as an adult, that’s how we think.  We’re on the street and we think “How do I say ‘How much is this?'”  We seek a tool where we canDRILL ourselves as efficiently as possible, in order to make this mental translation so automatic that it is no longer a translation anymore.  And we seek not just to memorize phrases but to actually understand the grammar behind them.  Brainscape Spanish solves these problems for us by implementing ICE in an lean, convenient web/iPhone study tool.

    That said, I do sincerely appreciate the concerns of those who question whether these methods have been fully tested and measured.  It is admittedly impractical to conduct a controlled empirical experiment with Brainscape Spanish when our users’ real-world study medium is – by definition – spread out across months of un-controlled sporadic study sessions.

    But comparing ICE’s effectiveness in a laboratory study versus some control group (and spending thousands of dollars/hours to attempt to prove this) is missing the point.  Our real measure of effectiveness is when our mobile users have been emailing us in droves saying “OMG this is exactly what I have been looking for.”  If our customers actually USE Brainscape Spanish, rather than abandoning their language-learning initiatives due to inconvenience, then it is more effective – and takes them further – than other mobile solutions on the market.

    We’ll see how well our $40price experiment works (it’s only been a few days since public launch).  But in the meantime, I would encourage you to study Spanish Sentence Builder free on Brainscape’s website – not in the mindset of a dogmatic linguist, or in the mindset of someone hoping to have a fun/social experience – but as an adult who really WANTS to learn Spanish.  I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  • diaz7356

    I have more interest about to use the Brains cape iPhone app and i hope i found more facilities from this. To make our mind refresh such will be so more useful.