There aren’t many things more intimidating than living in a foreign country without knowing the native language. Even the most basic human functions can be nearly impossible to complete without being able to communicate with the people surrounding us.
Andrew Cohen, the founder of Brainscape, faced that very problem when he was living in the French Caribbean island of Martinique a few years ago. In order to learn, Cohen set up an excel macro with different French words and verb conjugations, and he made corresponding flashcards. Each day, he added more and more words to the flashcards, and he marked off how well he understood the definitions on the macro. He also rated his understanding by word and verb, and he would study the lower rated items more often.
As he continued to learn the language, he realized that re-ranking how well he was understanding the words was becoming as tedious as learning the language itself. In turn, he realized that an automated, web- and mobile-based system capable of performing such a function could be very useful to a lot of people. With that, he created Brainscape, a flashcard system that is changing how people study.
Here’s how Brainscape works: users choose one of the many subjects offered - not all language-based - either online or in the App Store. Virtual flashcards are presented, where users can click or tap on a button to have the answer revealed. Once they see the answer, users are prompted to rate how well they understand and remember the answer on a scale of one to five. The lower the answer, the more often that flashcard will be shown as the user progresses. A one ranking will result in that flashcard returning often; a 5 means that flashcard won’t be seen again for quite some time. As the flashcards continue, many different questions and answers are shown, until all of the flashcards are rated as five. Users can also make their own flashcards for studying subjects that aren’t offered yet once they register.
According to Amanda Moritz, social marketing manager for Brainscape, learning other languages has been a big draw for customers. “Our most popular app, by far, is our Spanish app, called "Learn Spanish*" available in the App Store . The app includes our vocabulary, verb conjugations, and Spanish Sentence Builder subjects, all adding up to over 6,000 audio flashcards. We like to think of Spanish Sentence Builder as a ‘lean Rossetta Stone,’ since it is a complete Spanish Language learning curriculum developed by us to optimize learning, but without the hassle of sitting at a computer with a box of CDs.” Moritz also noted that the most popular age range for Brainscape has been a little older than the group that goes to school every day. “For the past year, our largest user group has been the 22- to 34-year-old users. These are the young, life-long learners who have iPhones and love learning new languages, want to apply to grad school, or just want to learn what ingredients go into a cocktail (via our Bartending app),” which is free in the App Store, while most of the other apps cost between two and ten dollars each.
While Brainscape has mostly focused on offering flashcards for learning other languages and picking up skills like bartending and music theory, Moritz believes that Brainscape can grow by adding more subjects and by integrating the app into school systems. “We have to keep expanding our content areas - sports trivia and MCAT test prep are in the works - improving our website, and engaging more users. We are constantly working with teachers to improve our tools for school use and to figure out what features to put together next.”