Questions on Goldlist method and Japanese Kanji.

Book cover (5th ed.)
Image via Wikipedia

Mugiwara wrote some very good questions which deserve a reply as a new article. I have also today answered smaller but equally good questions on the Goldlist Methodology page, so people with outstanding queries about the method may also like to read them. Anyway, here goes for Mugiwara’s great questions:

Hi there Mr. Huliganov.

I’m Spanish and I’m trying to learn Japanese, this language seems complicated using Gold List Method because of the kanji but I have some basic questions because my English skills are not good enough and I don’t understand some points of the method.

Kanji, especially when done the Japanese way where you have usully at least two readings as opposed to Mandarin where there is usually one and sometimes two and greater phonetic clues are embedded in the primitives for Mandarin than for Japanese, is not possible to study in exactly the same way using goldlist. The ideas behind Goldlist still hold true, but they need to be applied in a different way and the task of mastering Kanji, and Japanese in total, has to be broken down into a jigsaw, each piece of which needs to be mastered as a piece and then put back together again.

The people who gave us sudoku, sushi, bonsai trees, origami, manifold management techniques and martial arts aplenty have actually set us the most subtle and challenging puzzle of all in the form of their own language. As with all things Japanese it takes a certain technique to get it right. With the technique it is possible, without the technique it seems impossibly difficult and unachievable – still beautiful, but remote and not fully understood. That seems to be par for the course with everything they have.

In going through the answers to your excellent questions today, I will try to make clear how I think the ideas of Goldlist can best be reapplied to the question of kanji learning, which in itself is only part of Japanese language learning in total. Even when we know the Kanji and their readings, it is necessary to know the combinations and just as the Kanji themselves run beyond 3000 (of which less than 2000 are in the obligatory lists of the Ministry of Education) so the combinations of them run into the tens of thousands, and very often a word we want will not be a single kanji. We think of words as words but if you take a series of words, lets say some different metals and alloys as one series, or some well-known birds or reptiles as another, some plant types as another, let’s say, we’ll find that sometimes a word in English will be a single kanji word in Japanese, the next in the series may be a two-kanji combination or even more than two, and then the next may be a word not written in kanjis at all but may need to be written in katakana because it counts as a loanword or a technical word or an onomatopoeia.  But we will not learn to run before we can walk.

1 – I read people is trying to do huge lists like 600, 1000, 2000.. and that sounds a little scary so, as a beginner in your method, how many words are recommended to familiarize yourself with the method?

I think it is good to do first off a batch of 500 words, but if we were talking about kanji I would be shaping the method rather differently. I suggest you might take the kanji which are usually listed for JPLT #5 and there are between 180 and 280 of these depending on whose book you read or whose website you visit. I do highly rate Heisig’s 3 tome oeuvre, which is also available in Spanish although you certainly don’t need it, and a first batch could be just the “part one” kanji from that book, which is not very many. The important thing is – and this is what Heisig says and many Heisig readers seem to ignore it – you need to study the kanji with a pencil or pen in your hand and draw the kanji while thinkning of the story, but you don’t need to write it over and over at the same time. This traditional approach to Chinese characters involves a lot of wastage of time.

So to apply the Goldlist method to kanjis using a source like Heisig, instead of having the usual line by line approach, I take a book and freely write out the following: The frame number per  Heisig part 1, and the meaning (and you have to be very precise and not paraphrase Heisig’s meanings). Then I write the component primitives and an outline of the story that links the primitives to the kanji meaning. I do the same for primitives that have no Kanji status too, but they have no frame number, just an asterix.

I only use one side of the page and leave the other side for revision, and I might get five or six, or maybe only three or two on a page, depending on how much there is to say about them. At any rate, I probably wouldn’t write the kanji itself in full out more than three times. I might write the stroke order if it isn’t obvious.

I just try to go through the thought process James Heisig is presenting for the given kanji, or making one of my own up if I can see a clearer one for me than the JH one, and I write it down so that all the info is in the “Headlist” in my book and I don’t have to refer back to the book very much when I’m reviewing.

I go to the point where I have been doing it for two weeks at least, probably three or four, as otherwise whe I revise I will run up against the minimum time rule of the Goldlist method, and by that time I’ve probably done 250 or so, just by doing an hour or so every other evening. I will probably have filled the right or left hand pages of an 80-96 page A5 format writing book with these 250 kanji, in other words I dedicated to them more book space than 2500 words that I could just write out phonetically. You cannot easily learn kanji in my opinion on a one-line-per-kanji basis. It is possible to do some things with kanji that way but I would leave it until I had the understanding of kanji as kanji and then maybe do combinations, the various yomi and maybe practice sentences that way. For getting used to writing and making long term associations for primitives and how they fit into kanji and what the base meanings are, I need a much freer format, but I still have certain truths from the Goldlist method which can be brought into to service this situation.

Therefore after the requisite time of at least two weeks and a buffer on top so that I don’t catch up with less than two weeks of  myself in the middle of a batch, I use the other side in the book to do a very similar thing to what I would do in the traditional Goldlist method, namely I’m going through the material on the one side, seeing if I now know it, leaving out the ones where I can write the kanji with proper stroke order and know the meaning of it both as kanji and primitive per Heisig’s method, and the way it will appear as a primitive when pressed to the henben or left side position or the crown position or the bottom position. I do not need to know the sound in order to drop them, as in the Heisig method readings come later. If I were learning Mandarin I would probably want to know the Pinyin and have learned that, and Hoenig’s book which I use in preference to Heisig for Mandarin does have them at the same time, but that is an awful lot to want your memory to do at once and maybe it isn’t the best idea to try to do that. I don’t want to talk about Mandarin here when you are asking about Japanese, but there may well be something to be said for taking a Heisig book one approach to the Chinese characters as far as characters are concerned, do the grammar and get used to the language itself using Michel Thomas primarily followed by Pimsleur (which are audio only) and then bring in the pinyin. That is certainly the best way forward when it comes to Japanese. Even the pinyin or roomaji writing, which can be helpful of course, don’t need to come in until after one has worked through a good 12 or 15 hours of structured audio learning of a high quality, like the MT Japanese course.

That was a bit of an aside, so back to your actual questions:

2 – If you are going to do a huge list, suposedly you have to write 25 and then take a short break like 15 minutes, ok, but then you need one week or more to write all the words, right?

Let’s imagine now that you had a list of words which were all katakana words which you wanted to put to your long-term memory – you could do it on the usual list of 25 way, as is usual for the Gold list. Or if you were learning Japanese in Romaji (which can be one way of breaking it down, but I don’t recommend making do with just Romaji, doing that would just be one part of the puzzle) then you could do a 25 word list in the usual way. You would choose a batch size like 500 as above, or whatever your word list was that you wanted to learn.

Let’s say someone gives you a list of katakana words, let’s say the top few hundred by frequency words properly written in Katakana in Japanese, you could really, as long as you were comfortable enough in katakana, go ahead and use katakana to learn them in the usual goldlist manner. You would take maybe 20 – 25 minutes (depending on how well prepared the source was, and how fast you work when working for maximum comfort and enjoyment) to write your head list per double page of 25 words, and then you would probably go away for 15 minutes and do something completely different just to rest that unconscious function. If you don’t then you could have it giving way to consious learning attempts and short-term memory functions without you even realising what was going on. After all, the thing about the unconscious is that it’s not conscious, so we don’t feel it.  We know it’s there because it’s also what keeps us breathing and our hearts beating, etc, but usually we ignore it and that’s when it does its job best.

3 – After you create your headlist and let’s say a month later, do you just try to write out the words your remember or you look your list in your language and translate it?

The list has both languages in it, usually (unless the meaning is obvious and I’m just remembering the spelling or some perculiarity about the word other than its meaning), my target language and the language used for learning, which will either be my own language or a language I know much better than the target and I’m learning via that language either to hone it or because the second language is in the same group and so I’m using materials made for speakers of the first language in the group that I know, as this will home in on the differences between those two languages and reduce my risk of confusion and linguistic interference.

Now when I am reviewing it again all I want to do is objectively ask myself do I remember it or not. It is not a question of being able to go from your language to the foreign language – this is too high an expectation and anyone who expects that is chasing ends of linguistic rainbows. It is sufficient to ask yourself whether you remembered the meaning from the language you are learning into your own language or the transit language you are using to learn this new language. On top of the meaning you can ask yourself “would I have remembered the spelling” or “would I have remembered the grammatical irregularities” or “would I be able to pronounce it” whatever the reason was (when it comes to later distillations especially) that you didn’t take it out of the list earlier.

Beyond flatly taking out, you can also very validly combine some items into single line items.

Either way, if you know a word, you won’t write it again.

Now let’s go back to the idea of kanji. If we are following Heisig’s books and goldlisting them, we will consider a primitive or a kanji learned for the purposes of book one when we know the meaning of it as Kanji and Primitive, when we know the stroke order and variations of it as primitives in different positions. We need to be sure we can tell the difference between this primitive/kanji and similar ones. If we are sure that we have that image of the little story so that we really recognise the kanji or primitive and can give its meaning as in the book, would recognise it as part of another kanji with fresh elements and can write it out confident about stroke order then for the purpose of that goldlist it is learned and you can drop it.

It doesn’t matter that we haven’t got on to readings yet. Heisig students do book one to the end and then they do book two.

And it is by breaking it down this way that it becomes possble.

My Kanji goldlist bronze book has only two sides instead of the four sides I use for word goldlisting.  Less detail from the stories need to be repeated in the later distillations so when it comes to the second distillation and I have a new book the silver book, I’m able to put 5-6 per side on average and as these aren’t more than about half of the ones I set out with (I do put every single one into the headlist) I need to put in a consequent number in addition to the Heisig book one frame number.  I am not finished doing even the Headlist but it is going well so far, and I know that I will need 8 bronze books of 80-96 sides A5 each for H and D1, and 4 similarly sized books for D2-D3 and 2 of these books for D4-D5 and just the one for D6-D7.

I work using a sort of batch-step method where I take that first batch through to the end of H, then I go back and take it to D1 and afterwards add batch#2 at headlist at the end of batch 1 headlist.

After that I take batch #1 from D1 to D2, take batch #2 from H to D1, and add batch #3 after the end of it.

Let me show you that pictorially:

Here is a plan by batches and distillations of how to get through the Heising book one. A person could put on the planned time or date and also afterwards show the actual and the actual work revised if they wanted to, for each chunk.

Now let’s use the order of colours in the rainbow to show the order in which I’d take each part of the work, that is each cell in this plan.

I’ve used pixel heights for the rows of work here that exactly correspond to the % still included in the work, so that graphically this shows very clearly what the work is in total for a good approach to a big Goldlist project. To learn 2040 kanji you do 7350 pieces of work, that’s an average of three and a half per kanji – actually in line with the results of Ebbinghaus, Wozniak and most other long term memory exponents, which is no surprise – Goldlist works to your biology, it doesn’t change it. Planless repetition would give you actually a much higher workload, and many people who embark on such an exercise never come to the end of it.

You can see that each sweep of the grid using a plan like this gets progressively longer until the end of the material is reached or the end of the planned number of distillations is reached, which in this 8*8 arrangement happens at the same time. I’ll call each sweep or cycle a “pass”. In the first pass we only have the red cell so that is 240 items. Then we take the pass of the orange and yellow cells and that pass takes 448 items, so you need to make more time for it. The next pass where you have green, blue and violet is already 598 items and the one after that has a nice round 700 items, and so it goes on until the biggest one, the eighth pass, which has in this case 917 items, and then they quickly fall, so that the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th passes have 664, 471, 327 and 220 respectively as you can see from the table if you add them up, and after that point you start to have the problem that there isn’t enough to do in the two weeks you are supposed to leave between reviewing the same work, although in practice at that point it’s safe to be concurrently working on the Second Heisig Book with a separate project anyway, which you would run on similar lines.

If each item takes 2 minutes on average, which they should if you bear in mind that we write less per item in the later distillations, then this whole project is a question of 245 hours of study, while you’d break up into chunks with the breaks so that you would certainly need to take a while over it.

Allowing that there are 15 passes but that you can do concurrently the next phase after 12 of them, I’m saying that the minimum time that I’d recommend giving learning Heisig’s first book is 24 weeks, that gives you your “mandatory” two weeks per pass in order not to bump yourself. The middle parts of that need though for you to be doing according to this logic some 500 items a week which is 1000 minutes or 18 hours work a week, but the average workload of 245 hours over 24 weeks is clearly 10 hours, which is a good deal lower.  What’s more likely to happen is that you’ll have a bit slower progress in this big passes. And then you need to give a similar length of study to Book two in order to get all the kun and on yomies learned, as a separate issue.

Hence learning the joyo kanjies, their meaning and their readings before you even start to use them in sentences is a year’s work minimum. If you can do if faster your own way, then fine, but I can tell you that it means in most cases a good deal more than the 500 hours more or less I’ve suggested here to work through Heisig one and two with Goldlist principles.

4 – In your explanation of the steps to Taylor, you did a “new step” which is like creating a new list in the middle of the other one, with new words I guess but when did you started it?how long after the second destilation? and then you do two destilations at the same time? I’m a little confused.

This step is not obligatory, but can be useful if you are going slowly because you are busy with other things. I will talk more about it in the book. Don’t worry about that step for now.

I hope you can understand my questions because my English skills are just decent, and thanks.

Your English skills are more than just decent they are superior, at least from the writing I’ve seen, to the bulk of native speakers. If you achieve the same in Japanese that really will be impressive, and you might, if you work with patience, stamina and a good method! Many thanks for the great questions which I believe will have helped others also.

16 thoughts on “Questions on Goldlist method and Japanese Kanji.

  1. Mr. Huliganov,

    Thanks for your interesting post. It sounds like you advise learning the meanings of the all kanji first and then circling back and learning the readings. Why not just add a couple of vocabulary words with pronunciations as headwords after the entry for the kanji (and meaning) itself? Do you see any issues with this approach?

    Also, the twenty-minute period or so you dedicate to writing the headwords seems like it’s dedicated to writing. You’re not looking for what words to write or studying a text looking for words, or understanding grammar points, etc. So, before you write the headwords, there is a time, perhaps several days, in which you collect and note words that you would like to make into headwords. Is that right?

    1. I think, Rick, that the best way for me to answer this is that in the main the GLM method works best if you headlist the stuff you need from the material, and that what you are doing depends on the material that you have, it comes donw to the choice of material.

      Now in general language material is quite good and there is a huge choice, but I never yet found what I would consider to be the ideal approach to learning Japanese. I have something in Polish which is not far off that, but it doesn’t necessarily go all the way.

      For sure you can take an approach to Chinese and Japanese which is like building up the layers of an onion from the inside, namely Romaji, Kana, Kanji, kunyoni, on-yomi with combinations, usages of the words in practice sentences and idioms, ateji. Once you are, however, in possession of the “big picture” for Japanese and know how these things all fit together, then what you ache for if you are anything like me is one manual that actually takes you through all thins and gives you fairly comprehensive compond kanji vocabulary as it becomes relevant. Ideally with frequency information and usage notes.

      The problem for the Japanese learner is that this is a language of many challenges. It is like comparing Ingress to Pokemon Go just putting it sie by side with European languages or even Turkic or Finno Ugric family languages.

      The way to fill-in knowledge may be first to map out what the challenges are and do a bit on each and then decide for yoursellf the order in which you want to take them and then find materials which match that choice.

      Once you have materials then Goldlisting them is not really an issue, it works the same as anything else.

      1. I’m working through the Kanji Learner’s Course. It’s a lot like Heisig’s book in that it has a meaning-based keywords for each kanji. It also uses the kanji components and images in suggesting ways to remember each kanji. One difference from Heisig is that it orders the kanji by frequency (though not strictly), and it includes the readings and about six vocabulary words with each kanji. The words listed only use the kanji covered so far in the course, and in most cases they cover both the main on-yomi and kun-yomi.

        So, since the material is there, I’m learning the vocabulary along with the meaning of each kanji. I think they reinforce each other. It seems like the GL method would work well in this case, and that it wouldn’t be necessary to learn all of the meanings before starting on the vocabulary/readings. Thoughts?

        For grammar and sample sentences, I’m going through the lessons. It takes me longer than 20 minutes to find and write 25 headwords, as I spend time time understanding the material, saying it out loud a couple of times, and deciding what I want to capture from it. So, I’m taking a break after 20 minutes and then resuming. I don’t see a problem with writing the list of headwords over the course of a few 20-minute sessions or even a couple of days. As long as there is a gap of two weeks between finishing the list and starting the first distillation, the GL method should still work, don’t you think?

  2. Mr. Huliganov,

    How do I used the goldlist method with other methods because you cannot look at the words for at least two weeks to two months. Can I practice saying phrases and study grammar? I know you cannot dodge common words, but if feels like you cannot really practice.

    1. You could keep on doing other methods with other materials and not worry too much about the common words, but I personally find that I can do very well just using Goldlist as other methods are less effective in terms of material placed in the long term memory per hour of time engaged. Of course you don’t get a sense of being continually activated with the Goldlist which is why some people prefer to use what you call “practice” in order to feel more fluent in at least the part way level they achieved so far. All this does is slow down the achieving of a larger vocabulary which will give a very pleasant and dramatic effect when you later move on to activating it by, say, a visit to the relevant geography of the language.

      1. Mr. Huliganov,

        When should I put in phrases into the list? It feels like it would be more effective to use only phrases, so I learn both words and phrases. Also, how should I incorporate reading passages and speaking phrases along with this method? I know you have to read them out loud when doing the list.

  3. HI, I’m confused on one point… maybe it’s because I don’t have the book in front of me…. When you are listing these kanji, do you put the pronunciation with it? I guess I’m used to building vocabulary by reading, but, well, I tried Mandarin a while back, and it seems to be easy to know what it says, but not how to say it.

  4. Do you think you could post some example pictures from finished kanji bronze and silver lists? I think would be very helpful to see it in addition to reading about it. I’m especially wondering how much space each story needs in each distillation.

    1. Good question!

      I’ll take a photo of the bronze book with my phone that will show you one page and its distillation. I’ll try and do that with my phone, which will put it up as a fresh article.

      I actually just sent it from my phone. It’ll be the top article at the moment, and I hope it helps.

  5. Mr. Huliganov,

    I find this article very helpful and makes things seem much more accomplish-able when they are broken down into figures that can easily be seen and monitored.

    I have one question though, When you are talk of “revisions” what exactly do you mean?

    1. It means the process of returning more than two weeks later to material that you have written out, and writing out again only the parts of it that you cannot remember. That is what the goldlist system is based on, instead of actively trying to remember you make no real effort to memorize, only to enjoy the words and phrases or other material and take an interest in it, and then see what you automatically sampled with your subconcious memory, which is you long-term memory. This is done by waiting two weeks before reviewing the same material, as otherwise the short-term memory can kid us into thinking we have really memorised something. It’s not pure Ebbinghaus, it’s a working approximation to Ebbinghaus. Supermemo and some other computer programmes are theoretically closer, but they leave you bound to a keyboard and screen, which with some languages is not so convenient as writing them freehand. With Goldlist you are using notebooks written out by hand in a certain order to facilitate this systematic approach.

      That’s what revisions are and how they fit in with the Goldlist idea in a nutshell, but I’ve written and spoken a whole lot more about it.

  6. Many thanks for your feedback and I’m glad you liked the article.

    With regard to the above questions, I think you can use the method for a number of languages or indeed languages and non-languages simultaneuosly. You could be using it once for one language, again for another language and then again to learn some poems or scriptures and again to learn names of drugs if you study medicine, names and key facts about legal cases if you study law or even the names of and key facts about people from your business networks from business cards you might have gathered from a conference or mixer. In short it is a method for long-term memory. I would not use it to retain information which is overly prone to change, like people’s work emails, the number of employees or turnover of a set of listed companies, or things like that, but any info which is likely to have a useful life of more than ten years could usefully be learned with the goldlist method, or another staged repetition method – for those who like to be tied in front of their computer for absolutely everything and also wrestle with diacritics and other characters on an ASCII keyboard, there is Supermemo, Anki and others. Mine has the advantage that you can take it out into the sunshine or into the toilet, theirs have the advantage of being theoretically closer to Ebbinghaus’ findings. Anki is free, Goldlist’s costs depends on what stationery you like, I only know I haven’t made anything off it so if my tax inspector happens to be reading, don’t get your hopes up, and Supermemo I believe is paid software.

    I do say don’t learn two related languages simultaneously, but learn one well and then use it to learn the next one in that language family, but that is nothing to do with the Goldlist system, the same applies in my opinion to any method. Japanese and English are not related, as even the loanwords they take from English are not always really used the English way or said in a way we would easily recognise. I expect the Ancient Romans if they came to see us today would have a similar reaction to the way we use Latin.

    For your second question, I don’t tie words together where I know one and don’t know the other. In this case I would not carry forward the one I knew. I use the cross in a circle and lines to show to bind two words NEITHER of which I’m delighted with, but which I believe might go to L/T memory next time better when combined, either because they are similar and my line is highlighting the subtle contrast between them, or because they are internally regular versions of the same not-known root, or else because I can combine the two into an idea. It may simply be a fictional title for a chapter of a book, or a film or poem or novel. They can be almost surrealistic as long as you get some kind of mental image. Then you can find that they fall into L/T memory more because of the use of imaginative memory – which is very much what Heisig is all about.

    I’ll give you an example from Czech: “oddelitelny” (separable) and “oddavky” (getting engaged to be married) I had on separate lines and they were on the same page, because my source was a dictionary.

    I wasn’t happy that I had adequately remembered either word by D1, so I tied them together in D2 as “Oddelitelne Oddavky” – “The Separable Engagement” and imagined this as the title to a novel or play, and thought for a second of what the plot for a play with such a name might be. After all, how many enigmatic and seemingly oxymoronic titles of works do we remember? More than you might think. And it worked because next time I had remembered both words after more than 2 weeks (therefore in L/T memory) just because of the imagination factor in tying them together into an “artistic” fictional book title. It’s a good technique and it doesn’t go to short-term memory because you are focusing on the fun of it and not trying to memorise or cram it. I think I use that technique at least once per hundred headlist words at some stage in the distillation.

    On the subject of Heisig, I can only suggest you have a look on various fora and see how many clever learners have been helped by him and swear by him. Sure, he has his detractors, and sure, it’s worth understanding what the book doesn’t do and doesn’t even set out to do. But even with those caveats, the guy came up with a stroke of rare genius in devising this method, and that’s why he’s up there with the big-name language teachers and has his fans all over the world.

  7. Hello again Mr. Huliganov, I’m really surprised of your response, it took a new whole post and it seems you read my mind because I was coming to add some questions about Japanese and Gold List but you did the job.

    I just have two more questions about the method:

    1 – I have a decent English vocabulary it’s enough to keep conversations but I need more, something like 1500-2000 words/expressions (phrasal verbs and regional expressions mainly, also synonims and words I didn’t know how to translate into English from Spanish). My Japanese vocabulary is very limited for now, and my questions is if someone can use the method for two languages at the same time. I usually try to learn Japanese in English, so I usually write the meanings of the Japanese words in English, I don’t know if that is a good idea.

    2 – This is something I figured it out watching your explanations for the method in youtube, I always wondered what happened with the words you remember in each distilation and looking at the video I realized that you write most of the again in each distilation but the ones you remember are sharing a line with one you don’t remember, why do you do that? Is it a way to practice again the words you remember because you’re not totally sure of their meanings? or to avoid forgeting them?

    Again thanks for the response, it was very detailed and focused on Japanese, which is a hard language to learn. I have been looking at tons of ways to learn the Kanji, I have the Heisig’s books and I was considering using them because I read about a method which consist in learning kanji by radicals and number of strokes using different mnemonics and stuff like that and I though it is a good idea because we are not kids who don’t understand basic concepts so we don’t need to follow the JLPT order unless you want to take the exams in the short term, and the Heisig’s book are a little bit similar to it.

Your thoughts welcome, by all mean reply also to other community members!