Answer to Question comparing Goldlist and Mnemosyne Methods.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Not hard to see where the two weeks of short-term memory fits in with Ebbinghaus' ideas!

I have been lucky enough this week to receive questions from two people on YouTube about aspects of the Goldlist Method, along with their permission to respond here so that I don’t have to fiddle about with the 500 character cut-off or however many it is over there.

Let’s kick off with this one from YouTube channel WellConditionedChimp

I’m wondering whether you are familiar with Mnemosyne, an open source computer program that is reminiscent of your method – it makes digital flashcards that come up for review after a variable interval of time. The interval is determined by how quickly you remembered the material the last time, if at all. In what ways is your method superior to this one?

I assume that you are referring to the Mnemosyne Project in which case I was not familiar with it, although it seems to be building on Piotr Wozniak, who in turn builds on other researchers going back to Ebbinghaus. In my case I only learned about Wozniak’s work on memory after my own system was complete, but as you will see if you read the Polyglot Project (available via syzygycc channel on YT as an e-book for free, or in paper printed and bound on for $16.95)  you will know that my inspiration came from reading second hand about Ebbinghaus, plus my own experience as a linguist, plus the fact that getting back into numbers in order to become an accountant started to make me think along the lines of a numerically controlled learning system for languages.

I am not sure that I would even bother to say that my system is “superior” to their system. A lot will depend on the learner and since both systems are using spaced repetition and seeking to gain access to the long-term memory and not using short term memory tricks, both systems will certainly give better results than conventional class-room methods.

I did not try the flash cards on Mnemosyne, I may do so, but if I waited to do it before answering you would not have had a very prompt reply. Nevertheless, I can see from the site that effectively you need to use the card sets that they’ve got there, so the ordinary person is limited to whether what they want to learn is in the collection. The Memosyne people are also likely to have to pay royalties to the sources of their word flash cards if they haven’t agreed that they don’t need to, even if they are giving their cards away free. With the goldlist there is no material – it is a way of working whatever material you can find. So even if you had a rare book you could Goldlist it immediately, whereas to use a Wozniak system or a Mnemosyne you need to either wait for someone to make the cards for you or maybe there is a way to scan the book with OCR, chop it up into pieces and put the pieces on the cards. That’s a load of work just setting up the materials.

So the first case where Goldlist will be the preferred method (I’m veering all the time away from saying superior as I am sure that Mnemosyne is a perfectly good method) would be where the learner has a book he or she wants to use and they can’t find the same materials already in cards for these systems and they don’t want to have to do the work of inputting them either, always assuming that a way is provided for the average mortal to do so. Of course if someone doesn’t have materials and is more than happy not to have to buy them separately, then that’s a tick for Mnemosyne and a cross for Goldlist. So it depends on what the learner wants. That’s why I can’t talk about “superiority” as much as what the key differences are.

The second case where Goldlist will be preferred is if you don’t want to be tied to a computer and a keyboard.  For Mnemosyne you can’t take your learning off line. The most you can do is transfer it to a telephone to make it more portable. You’ll always be watching and just clicking “show answer” and not really getting used to writing it out, which actually does help as the memory link between the hand doing handwriting and the mind is stronger than via a keyboard, as the hand-eye co-ordination is more subtle, and the act of writing as an enjoyable thing takes the focus away from “are you learning this?” All learning using the conscious mind switches off at the same time the unconscious mind. You can’t be consious and unconscious at once, although sometimes the transitions are barely noticeable.

In any event my thesis is this, and this goes beyond what anyone including  Wozniak or Ebbinghaus have explicitly said and I don’t have the wherewithal to subject it to experiment – anyone who can do so is more than welcome of course – is that long-term memory is really an unconscious function and the short-term memory in a conscious function. In the Polyglot Project I hazarded at some evolutionary reasons why such a thing should have emerged in early humans.

Piotr Wozniak developed an algorithm for the spaced repetition based on Ebbinghaus’ notes and he called this algorithm in the earlier versions of his SuperMemo program SM2. Mnemosyne acknowledges that its algorithm is very similar, and thus traces a line through Wozniak right back to Ebbinghaus, the father of memory research, himself. Wozniak in the meantime kept on playing with his algorithm, and it’s now in its 11th version, SM11, whereas Mnemosyne sticks with the earlier version as if it were like the KJV Bible and they are afraid of not saying “thou” when they pray in case Ebbinghaus is up there and doesn’t like it.

Whether you go with one or another of these Wozniak algorithms, it’s pretty clear that you’ll be following as closely as possible the optimal staged repetition as outlined by Ebbinghaus. I think Paul Pimsleur also seems to have attempted to incorporate it in his audio material and it’s not entirely dissimilar to Michael Thomas either.  None of this implies any plagiarism – the ideas here are all simple as good ideas usually are and so there are numerous people who can come up with a similar thought.

The Goldlist method on the other hand is nowhere near as faithful (to Ebbinghaus’ statistics) a staged repetition method as any of these are. It is a very simplified version. But it still is a staged repetition system and it still ends up presenting a word on average 3 times before the word is learned, so in fact the amount of time in total needed to learn is about the same.

But you could say it takes longer to write a word out than to think about whether you remembered it before and then click a grade between 1 and 5. Maybe it does, but I think that doing the Mnemosyne people are at greater risk of switching on the short-term memory by the fact that it resembles teying to learn something which might come back in a few moments. Personally I don’t believe in it that much. I gave my reasons why I feel that it takes two weeks to know whether something is in the long term or the short term memory.  Before two weeks have elapsed the short term memory can make me think I’ve learned it. That’s all bound up in the cycles of the moon with early man and his hunting cycles. As, by the way, is the female menstrual cycle. The two weeks of infertility in each lunar month when the men were away from the camp and they could leave the women behind knowing they could not be impregnated by men from a marauding tribe is the self same two-weeks that early man needed to force himself to remember landmarks over, so that he could get back to camp. So they travelled and hunted by night, and only did so in the lightest half of the lunar cycle. Getting to the hunting ground while the moon waxed, hunting most at full moon like any other mammalian predator, and returning to camp while the moon was on the wane.

 That’s what caused a lot of things we just can’t break out of even till today. Most people earn their money on a monthly basis, echoing the monthly receipt of food in old times. Some people even get a so-called “thirteenth salary” bonus and don’t even realise that this is because we have this only subconscious link to lunar months. And that’s how our memory functions, the ones that set us apart from non-hunting primates, came to be. Language was formed at the same time in the two competing species, us and our favorite prey the elephants. They continue to have what appears to be a more rudimentary language, but they are still the only animals whose language people have been able to write a dictionary of.

You ignore the two week limit at your peril, that’s the biggest really difference the Goldlist method has to this method. If you agree that you can ignore the two week limit, then the Mnemosyne method will enable you to learn faster than Goldlist. But if my observations are true then that means that Mnemosyne users could find that numerous words they are sure they learned turned out not that well learned – unless the algorithm takes account of that and feeds them the words back after two weeks at any rate. Which, if it does, I have no beef over.

If my view about the two weeks is proven one day to be erroneous, then you could say that this made the Goldlist in fact weaker than Mnemosyne in a material way. And vice versa.   You’re gonna feel more effect quicker if you ignore the two-week rule, because some words will be rejected the same evening you first see them. But that’s no time to do that. The short-term memory is deceptive, that’s why all the short-term methods come with a two-week money back guarantee. Everyone’s delighted for two weeks, and then they start to fail. Long-term memory learning doesn’t base on how you feel because you cannot feel your unconsious mind, you just have to trust it to work the way it was intended.

So that’s the fourth point. Summarising so far, the first point was unlimited choice of materials, the second was unlimited portability (hand in hand with that goes the idea that if you combine the methods, you can work in different ways) the third point was the hand-eye memory which helps LT memory more than the flashcard method – (but it does take maybe longer and may not appeal to everyone) and the fourth point was whether you want to follow Ebbinghaus’s stats to the letter or give primacy to the two-week rule, which has never been tested in lab conditions like Ebbinghaus but still makes evolutionary sense and feels ‘right’ in practice.

And I think I covered enough if the points to leave the answer there, and I’ll come back to it if I can think of any more.

In the end it’s up to people what they use. Mnemosyne is free and they are using it to make valid research. How can I knock that? Mine’s also free, and people are welcome to research it and see if it actually works in practice better than Mnemosyne or worse. If Mnemosyne turns out better, I’m sure there are some people who will still find advantages in the Goldlist system for themselves and their style of learning. You try working off a screen on a sunny day if you want to be out in the sun. You try taking a computer for a walk. You try working off a laptop in the bathroom.

But again Goldlist also has limitations. It’s not brilliant for Chinese characters whereas a lot of people learning Chinese characters praise flash cards. 

Shortly I will write a second article, today or tomorrow, with the answers to the second person who asked me great questions this week.

In the meantime, many thanks to WellConditionedChimp for a very well-conditioned question.

About David J. James

52 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 05/01/2011, in Answers to your questions, Autobiographical, Blog only, Gold List Methodology, Languages and Linguistics, Learning Japanese and Chinese, Postaday2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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