Memrise Envy – My Journey to 5,000 Words

I’m worried about Enrique Carlos Saavredra de Moreno*.  He has been part of my daily life for months now, the carrot at the end of the stick.  Always ahead of me, keeping me going.  And now he’s gone. 

            Enrique Carlos Saavedra de Moreno is the top person on the leaderboard in Memrise’s 5,000 Most Spoken French Words program.  He is there every day – a handsome Latino man in a studio portrait.  He has a very formal look and I imagine he has extremely good manners.  But he has not done any practice yesterday or today.

            I started Memrise French courses well over a year ago.  I was planning for a month-long trip to Paris in April 2020.  It would be sort of a 60th birthday gift for myself.  My “boys” (ages 27 and 29) would visit me, I would get multiple museum passes, I would research a few Michelin-starred restaurants I wanted to eat at, I would stay in a building that had been built by Henri IV. 

            I’d studied some French before.  I’d taken a year of community college French when the boys were still in high school.  I had a great teacher and liked it quite a bit. 

            Then I got waylaid by Italian.  When our youngest son left for college my husband and I started taking Italian lessons.  It was something we both wanted to do – to bolster our travel, our love of cycling (actual riding for my husband, watching races on television for me), to step into a perhaps slower paced part of our life.  I went whole hog.  I took private lessons, I started reading La Gazzetta dello Sport’s cycling page in Italian every day, I went to language school in Montepulciano for week-long classes, I picked my way through two of the Elena Ferrante’s novels in Italian (I’m still not entirely sure what happened).  But once the Paris plan was hatched I pushed Italian to the side for a while and turned back to French.

            My son suggested I would like Memrise better than Duolingo.  I found the cartoon owl annoying and it was too time-consuming to get through material.  I looked into classes at the local Alliance Francaise but the commitment was pretty significant and I realized I didn’t really want to learn how to do rote conjugations or anything that might get you through a written exam.  I was never going to take an exam.  Well, not on paper.  I wanted to be able to read menus, including the adjectives, and read descriptions of paintings in museums and historic placques.

            So I devised my own program.  I went through the six different levels of Memrise French and thoroughly enjoyed the little video clips that demonstrated French spoken at the speed you would see in the street, I liked the graphics, I liked how easy it was to move along if you really paid attention.  When I got through all those levels, I turned my attention to the 5,000 Most Spoken Word section of Memrise.  It’s basically flashcards, but again the graphics are interesting and old words are repeated so you can feel like you are really making progress.  I also asked a friend who is a translator to give me a list of some books written by French writers that are simply written but beautiful.  I would read aloud from these books, as I did with Elena Ferrante, just to try to get my tongue somewhat used to the order of words.  I knew I was mispronouncing things.  I didn’t understand a lot.  But I stuck to my two or three pages a day and my ten new Memrise words a day. 

            As quarantine came down upon us, I was spending anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes a day on French.  When our trip cancelled, in those early days, I paused.  Would we get to go in the fall?  Next spring?  The following fall?

            What was the point of keeping up with this?  I was just at 2,500 words when the trip cancelled.  I’d been trying to time it so that I would be at word 2,500 when I left for my trip.  I’ve always liked measurements and deadlines and signs of progress.

            I kept on.  The little shelf of French books was looking at me everyday when I went down our staircase.  The Memrise app was still open on my computer at work, even though I hadn’t been there in weeks and it wasn’t clear when I would return.

            And that’s when I noticed Enrique.  I measured my daily progress by doing enough exercises so that I was in the top 100 for the week.  When you finish an exercise you are popped into a screen that makes it easy to see where you are.  I usually would be around number 80 – 85.  Fine. 

            But there he always was in the number 1 slot.  Enrique Carlos Saavredra de Moreno.  He was always number one.  And by an astoundingly large margin.  He was always the leader for the month too. 

            I started to fixate on him in July, when a little bit of boredom had really started to set in.  His somber, business-like photo intrigued me.  My photo showed a pair of black pointy high heels with a jaunty cherry-colored bow – the best pair of shoes I had ever owned.  And I didn’t list my full name in my profile.

            But Enrique did.  I looked him up on LinkedIn.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of detail provided there.  He is a management level engineer for a well-known international liquor company and he is based in South America.  He has an impressive educational background and his resume shows an enviable rising through the ranks of a number of brand name food and beverage companies.

  So – how does Enrique have the time to spend TEN TIMES as much time as I do learning French?  Last month, I scored around 120,000 points.  He scored 1.2 million.  If I spend twenty to thirty minutes a day on the program, to which I devote a pretty quick pace, that means he spends 200 to 300 minutes each day.  That’s three and a half to five hours.  And that’s in addition to Enrique’s obligations overseeing manufacturing for his company?  Remind me to never drink any Brand XX if I ever go to South America…..

  Then my imagination starts to take over.  Maybe he’s a bot.  That’s always the explanation now, right?  But why?  Why would any bot farm want to make sure they are at the top of the leaderboard on a language learning platform? 

  Maybe Enrique is up for a promotion and expects to be transferred to France?  Maybe he is looking for a job with another company that is French owned?  Those are perhaps both reasonable explanations.  But why is he being so public about it?  It’s like he’s bragging about how much time he is sinking into this.  And if that’s his objective, couldn’t he come up with a more productive way to go about this?  A private tutor?  Even in the time of COVID, it’s easy to find online instruction in language and that does seem like something that can be effectively taught by Zoom. 

  Even I am getting a little bored with Memrise, but I’m committed now.  Today’s vocabulary words include essuyer (to wipe) and autrui (others).  The word that consistently shows up in my list of difficult words that must be repeated is prélèvement – a withdrawal.  I consistently get that wrong.  Today I finished word 3,948 of 5,000.  I’m doing 20 new words a day so that means I should be finished before the end of September.  I am already daydreaming about the present I will allow myself when I finish.  Perhaps some Cire Trudon candles?  Some Herbin ink?  More French linens?

  And what will I do then?  I will have to go on with the refreshment lists of words to review.  I will need to figure how to best measure that pace.  And I will keep on with my reading.  I think I just read a very long, repetitive description of a young English pilot dying in a tree in Marguerite Duras’s town.  I think it was just one young English man even though I read that term at least fifty times so I can’t be sure.  I’m finding I’m enjoying being a beginner in a language.  Yes, I can read Emmanuel Macron’s tweets but I imagine he writes them so that someone with third or fourth grade level French can understand them.  I will never be fluent in French.  It will always be a goal on the horizon, something I can just play with and enjoy.  Not the passion, the method of making a living that English is for me. 

  But what about Enrique?  What does this all mean to him?  He has not done his French in two days.  I hope he’s not sick.  I hope he lives someplace where it’s safe for him to go on a little holiday with his family, maybe returning to a lake or mountain resort that he hadn’t gone to since he was a child, his head turned by other more distant places as he got older.  I hope he is on that family trip now, drinking some of the adult beverages his company produces.  It’s too much to hope that he is reading Marguerite Duras too.  But maybe?

  • *I changed his name and some details to protect his privacy.

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