“How to remember vocabulary?” That’s a key question all language learners ask themselves in the early and intermediate stages. You can generally communicate and understand a lot without correct grammar, but if you don’t have enough words, even “Tarzan-style” speech is going to be a struggle. This article is all about how to remember vocabulary in a foreign language using the “Gold List Method”. This is a method I first heard about a couple of years ago at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. It involves writing lists of words or phrases and, after an interval, “distilling” them down and then repeating the process until you remember them. I’ve been intrigued ever since. Now I’ve decided to give it a go myself.
Most vocabulary learning methods involve an active attempt to remember using short-term memory: repeating a word over and over; connecting vivid mental images with a word; using physical flashcards or an app for spaced repetition.
With the Gold List method, you use the long-term memory but – and here’s the first of several counter-intuitive aspects of the method – there’s no emphasis on consciously trying to remember at all.
Long-term memory is held not to be in the control of our consciousness but more akin to an automatic function such as breathing. The short-term memory can be a door into the long-term memory in fields where there is a “light bulb” moment when you work something out. Most language learning does not involve such dramatic moments, though. Conscious attempts to remember are thus seen as counterproductive waste of time, likely to impair the process of remembering a language into the long-term memory, because they involve the short-term memory instead.
Goldlisting does however share one thing with many other vocab memorisation methods: it makes use of spaced repetition: the idea that in order to be remembered, an item may need to be recalled several times at intervals before it lodges in long-term memory.
As I’ll explain now, the method is low-tech (which immediately endears it to me).
It’s also very portable. All you need to get going is a notebook and a writing implement.
The potential of Goldlisting is on my mind at the moment because I’ve just launched Operation Write Russian Right – an attempt to make a radical improvement in my written Russian. The start of this project has coincided with a ten-week challenge in the Goldlist Method User Group on Facebook. I don’t need more Russian vocabulary but what I do need is to get better at producing correct chunks of the written language and Goldlisting is good for this too, as we’ll see.
The Gold List Method is the fruit of an astonishing intellectual partnership between two very different men.
Enter “stage left” the distinguished Moscow linguist, Professor Viktor Huliganov.
Enter “stage right” (and I do mean right): Mr David J James, a Warsaw-based English accountant who, at first glance – at least to an untrained eye – does appear to bear more than a passing resemblance to the great Russian.
Some believe that the two are twins, separated at birth.
Others – much better phoneticians than I am – acknowledge that yes, “James'” English accent is superficially good, but they are not fully convinced. They claim to discern cleverly disguised Slavic undertones.
Could it be that Huliganov, tired of his celebrity following the award of his third Nobel prize for linguistics, simply invented the persona of James to enable him to escape full glare of the Moscow media circus? What could be more appealing for a world-weary intellectual superstar than to adopt a relatively obscure role, involving only occasional appearances on Polish TV to discuss (in fluent Polish) prospects for the UK economy in the wake of Brexit? 😉
But I digress. Let’s look at how the system works. After you’ve read this, you’ll find a lot more on the method straight from the horse’s mouth over at Huliganov.tv and I’ve drawn on that a lot in preparing this piece. That whole site is well worth your attention for language advice which you will find valuable whether or not you agree with all of it.
Arm yourself with a good pen or pencil and a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book. The Gold List Method is all about getting physical, so choose a book which appeals both to your eye and your touch. It needs to be lined (and, for reasons which will soon be revealed, there must be at least thirty-four lines).
I have never understand why all the exercise books on sale in Germany or France, for example, are printed with a grid rather than lines. I don’t like the grid and these malign influences do sound like one of the strongest arguments I’ve heard so far for Brexit 😉 That said, a typical forty-line grid book does at least give you a few extra lines to play with, even if they’re quite close together (which could be challenging for scripts such as Chinese or Arabic). You can also separate your headlist and “third distillation” with a couple of spare lines (unlike in my first example notebook shot below).
The raw material
Take a list of vocabulary you want to remember, for example the glossary at the back of your textbook. It’s good, though not essential, to include the word (or words) in a short phrase. This sort of “chunking” provide context and showing you the word in action. I’m doing chunks for advanced Russian.
It doesn’t actually have to be vocab you’re learning at all. The system works for any information that you can boil down to a line. It could be physics, history, law….
David James advocates that beginners to language learning approach the task by using a variety of materials that present the language in different ways. You can begin with courses which stress good pronunciation and basic phrases (such as Pimsleur or Michel Thomas) and then move on to a more comprehensive central course book as a “pace setter” around which you can structure your other study.
You could start Goldlisting the “pace setter” book, for example a Colloquials or a Teach Yourself textbook which has a bilingual word list of 2,000 or so of the most used words in the language. As well as Goldlisting the vocabulary, you can Goldlist illustrative patterns of usage, or concise explanations, from your language textbook, such as “days of the week are feminine except sábado and domingo” (Colloquial Portuguese) or “There are two words for you…saudara and anda which can be used interchangeably” (Teach Yourself Complete Indonesian).
A particularly good source for those wanting a systematic and comprehensive approach to language learning would be one of the Routledge Frequency Dictionaries, which arrange words according to how often they come up in a typical conversation and provide helpful illustrative chunks. What could be more ready-made for Goldlisting?
The key thing is that you should find the material you’re Goldlisting interesting. Know thyself! If you think you’re more likely to keep going by headlisting manga comics or the local equivalent of the Racing Post then for heaven’s sake, do that! (I’m assuming in that case you’re either learning Japanese or into the nags (Racing Post is a UK daily newspaper for racing fans)) 🙂
The items you choose will go into your “headlist”. Each time you will begin by tackling twenty-five items but there is no limit to the total number you could have in your headlist in the long run: 10,000 items would take you up to an advanced vocabulary in a foreign language. David James suggests you could start with 2,500 to take you through the elementary to the start of the intermediate phase in your language.
The aim is to pull out the essence of what you need to learn from your source material so that it is no longer needed.
The first part of the “headlist”.
Open your book to the fist double spread.
Now write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. Don’t rush the writing. Enjoy the physical process. Think about what you’re writing as you do it.
If you’re Goldlisting an alphabetical vocab list, maybe mix up the items so they’re no longer in a predictable order.
The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do, which avoids straining your long-term/unconscious memory (David James maintains that the long-term memory tires after about 20 minutes and that you should take at least a ten minute break after each twenty minutes at all stages in the Goldisting process).
You can then write a translation on the same line (on the same page) but you may not need a translation at all if you are listing chunks which provide enough context. I am not using translations for my advanced Russian (and I’m having to prepare my raw material more labour-intensively in advance because I’m pulling words and phrases out of native-level materials I’m reading and sometimes need to check them in a dictionary).
Number each line item as you go, one to twenty-five.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
Now, lay down your book and put the lid back on your fountain pen with a satisfying click. Pootle off and make a cup of tea, weed the garden, go clubbing or go back to other of the myriad other activities with which you fill your adrenaline-fuelled life, be they Parkour, tiddlywinks, collecting the kids from school, shopping, sleeping or reading the top tips in the Howtogetfluent.com emails after you signed up in the box on the left (hint, hint…).
Do these other activities (or a mixture of them) non-stop for at least two weeks, punctuated only by starting a new list of twenty-five on the next double page spread whenever you feel like it (but give yourself at least that ten minute break between lists).
When you start the next piece of the headlist, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and…well, you get the idea. You are now 75 down. Only 9,925 of those 10k words to go 😉 Bungee jump, game of bowls then: the next double spread!
The first distillation
Now the magic starts. After at least two weeks on the razzle, you lower yourself into your comfy old leather chair and pull it up to the antique desk in your study.
Sit, relax, open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five headlist items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article). David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Feel the warmth of your favourite labrador at your feet. Listen to the crackle of the fire. Focus on the list and read it.
As you read be aware that you’re now going to have to discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list in the top right- hand corner of your double spread (i.e. the top half of the right hand page). This will be your first “distillation”.
When you’re deciding what to discard you could test yourself by covering up the translations, but David James maintains – and this is counter-intuitive – that the best approach is simply to ask yourself which of the words you think you’ve remembered best. As you read down, put a mark by the best-remembered eight.
You may find you remember more than you expected, or less. James reports that up to thirty percent of the words will typically have been retained in your long-term memory. This is not despite but because of the fact that you have made no conscious effort to remember them.
If it’s less – and this is hurting me more than it’s going to hurt you – I’m afraid you’re still going to have to discard eight.
Ok, ok, if you really can’t whittle down to sixteen, it’s not the end of the world. The number of items you reduce by is really only a general target. Don’t stress if you’re really stuck and you only reduce from twenty-five by a few.
One way to bring down the number of lines is to combine two items into one of the new lines.
When you’re merging, try to do so in a creative way to aid recall. David James likes to combine items into a title for a picture, poem, film or story. Given that you’ll sometimes want to combine lines, keep the headlist line items briefer than the phrases I’ve lifted from the Russian novel I’m reading (see picture above). I should have lifted shorter chunks to give me some space for combinations in the distillations.
To allow some space for combinations, it would be a good idea to keep each headlist line item a bit shorter than the ones I’ve used in the illustrations. If you’re including a translation, you’ll have shorter entries anyway.
Here’s another insight that David James stresses: discarding helps you remember. The grounds are that, allegedly, “for every conscious action there is a subconscious reaction”. He draws an analogy: when we specially hide something for safekeeping at home, we often forget where we put it. We rarely forget things we’ve thrown away. It’s as if the long-term memory makes more effort when it knows that something is being discarded. It really has to remember it. David James goes so far as to say that if you’re unsure whether retain/merge or discard a word when distilling, it’s better to discard it!
Again, this all really does seem counter-intuitive. I’m going to test it myself. At the very least, it does seem to make sense to me that when you next come across a discarded word in another context, you’ll at least remember that you’ve come across it before. You may have to check it, but then it may finally stick.
Next carry forward the seventeen items you’re least confident of. Renumber these one to seventeen.
You now have your first “distillation”. Read through the list mindfully, out loud and leave for at least twenty days. Don’t forget to date it (and all subsequent distillations) to make sure you don’t come back to it too soon. Now, go off and live. If languages are your life (surely not?) continue after ten minutes with the next 25 lines of the head list on a fresh double spread (numbered 26 to 50) or (if you’re later on in the process) do another distillation of another list in your book.
The second and third distillations
For the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread) you repeat the whittling down process.
For the second, go back to the a seventeen item first distillation again not earlier than two weeks since the first distillation and not later than, say, two months. Discard (or combine) 30% of your seventeen first distillation line items to leave twelve.
Copy these out in the bottom right-hand side of your spread (numbered one to twelve). Read through this second distillation.
Return to this double spread after that decent interval (at least two weeks) and repeat the process, discarding another 30% to leave nine line items. List this third distillation in the last blank space on your double page spread, under the original twenty-five line list.
You now see why you need a book with at least 34 lines (25 + 9): so that the twenty-five head list items and the nine of the third distillation will fit on one page.
The “silver” and “gold” books
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The new headlist of twenty-five in the top left-hand side of each double spread will be the fourth distillation.
As with the “bronze” book, you want the headlist in this book too to be in blocks of twenty-five items. This means that if you’re distilling down roughly 30 per cent, you’ll need to distil about thirty-three lines (which, reduced by 30% will give you twenty-five). You’ll need roughly the first three or four of your third distillations of about nine each (9 x 4 = 36). Remember, the numbers are a guideline only. You take more material from subsequent third distillations for the next double page spread fourth distillation of twenty-five and so on.
Date each fourth distillation and then, after at least two weeks, start distilling down from the fourth to roughly seventeen (fifth), twelve (sixth) and nine (seventh) clockwise round your double page spreads.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new headlist of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
It’s like panning for gold, hence the name.
You may well find yourself starting your silver book for the early double page spreads of your fist bronze notebook while you are still entering new 25-strong lists in the bronze notebook. It’s up to you whether you do the whole “headlist” before you start distillations (and it will depend in part on the size of the headlist and how much time you have available to spend Goldlisting). As David James points out, for “fluency” (10,000 words), you’d need three or four bronze books per language and only one silver notebook (and you could use the same “gold” book for several languages).
Resolutely low tech
The physicality of the process is central and David James advises against trying to Goldlist on your computer or phone. It’s not only about the solid notebook you can be proud of but also about the process of giving your best handwriting a workout (without getting stressed about it).
The idea is to help relax you and also that there is an element of “muscle memory” in the act of writing out the words. I’m a great fan of writing by hand but I’m a bit sceptical about how much this aids memory, not least because I still find English spelling difficult, despite having written huge amounts of English by hand over the all too many decades of my life.
When trying out the method with my Russian I have found myself muttering the words to myself as I write them. Maybe that helps.
Will the Gold List method develop active as well as passive language skills?
You may be thinking “so far so good for remembering but even if the Gold List method helps my passive recognition of words when reading, what about my listening comprehension and what about my speaking?”
Remember: Goldlisting is only intended as one of a number of tools in your kit.
David James recommends listening a lot in the early stages and calls this “frontloading the audio” to develop an “inner voice” for the language to reduce the risk of learning the pronunciation wrong.
For good audio exposure you can use predominantly audio courses like Pimsleur or Michel Thomas or any suitable beginner’s audio available for your language. These aren’t suitable for Goldlisting themselves, but, if you’re starting a language from scratch and have no feel for the sound, a couple of months spent on such courses will be a very good long-term investment before you start with the Gold List method.
When you then move on to a more comprehensive textbook such as Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Assimil (all of which do lend themselves very well to the Gold List method), you’d also be doing the exercises there and using the audio extensively.
Whether or not you give the Gold List method a go, don’t succumb to the temptation to neglect the sections on pronunciation at the front of the book. Keep coming back to it through the course and don’t trust your own ear.
I’m currently taking my first steps in Icelandic and I’m using an italki teacher almost exclusively to help me get the sounds right. I remember when I started learning Welsh in pre-internet days and with no cassette tapes (google ’em, millennials!). It was quite confusing when I finally got to Wales and it turned out that “eisiau” (to want) is pronounced more or less like “ih-sha” and not “eye-she-eye” as I had imagined it) 🙁
By combining working with textbooks and Goldlisting a large vocabulary (and, optionally, the explanations in your course book), the system is supposed to enable learners to develop a good reading knowledge in the language.
Then – and here comes another remarkable claim for the Gold List Method – learners should only need three days or so immersion “in the field” to start speaking the language. Is it like starting up the engine of a vintage car. It may strain and splutter a first, but it’ll soon be powering ahead with a deep, satisfying purr. Or is it carefully tended seeds, sprouting into a flower when the first rains arrive?
I won’t be able to test this aspect this time, given that my Russian listening comprehension and speaking are already advanced. It seems to me that this could work for speaking but listening comprehension must always require a long period of exposure and practice. If you’re Goldlisting at a beginner’s level, I’d suggest listening to as much audio as you can as part of your regular, long-term language learning habit.
Doesn’t the Gold List method sound like quite a lot of work?
Applying the Gold List method does take time and requires focus but, then, so does rote learning or using spaced repetition apps. The claim is simply that Goldisting is a more effective way of using some of that substantial amount of time that you’re going to have to put in to learning your language in any case. David James stresses thelong-term efficiency of working this way. One you’ve Goldlisted content into your long-term memory, it stays there, unlike with short-term cramming, where you think you’ve remembered a lot, only to forget it. Or, as he puts it, if you’re remembering with the long-term memory “you’re only ever going forwards”.
You do really need to look after yourself too, as you need to if you want to be at the top of your game in any endeavour. Get enough sleep, make sure you’re eating a healthy diet and exercising. Don’t impair your performance with drink or other substances and when you’re at the notebooks don’t distract yourself with background music or anything else.
It’s a method that’s potentially quite disruptive to language education, especially to classroom teaching. Yet the best teachers are open to ideas that may offer something new and valuable. There will always be more than enough to keep skilled pedagogues, trainers and mentors busy.
David James has put something out there for free that – if it works as claimed – could really empower us as language learners. If, that is, we can rediscover the pleasures of playing a long game, lay off the electronics a while and pick up a pen.
Goldlisting aficionados find the method more enjoyable that rote learning and less faff than apps. Even physical flashcards – traditionally one of my mainstays in the elementary and intermediate stages of a language – can be fiddly, take ages to make, can blow away in the wind or end up dropped around your feet like so much confetti.
Without the emphasis on straining to remember, the method it has relaxing, almost meditative qualities. Writing by hand is part of the rhythm here too.
Your notebook doesn’t need wifi and its battery won’t go flat, so it really is portable. You’ll need your source material with you when doing the headlist, so the method is at it’s most portable in the distillation stages. You can whip out your notebook on the train, in your favourite café or outside in summer when screens can be washed out by the sun.
So, I’m starting my ten weeks trail of the Gold List method; my attempt to clamber into the Goldlist glitterati. I’ve come across quite a few language learners who have tried the method out and now swear by it. If you’ve tried Goldlisting or have thoughts on this approach – or other ideas about the best way to enrich your word power – let me know in the comments section below.
In ten weeks time, I’ll know myself whether I’m left with pile of Fool’s Gold or crock of the gleaming 22 carat stuff. Watch this space.
(Many thanks to David James for his kind comments and corrections on this article shortly after it was first published which enabled me to make many improvements later on publication day. Any faults remain my very own)