Goldlisting may or may not be from the very beginning of learning a language, but it’ll take you on as far as you like!

1st edition (publ. Hodder & Stoughton)
1st edition (publ. Hodder & Stoughton) (Photo credit: Wikipedia) –  But will Hodder and Stoughton manage to make Michel Thomas’ method everlasting?

Neworldgirl78 wrote on my Goldlist lecture in Moscow film the following question:

I am learning Russian and have been using a variety of means such as Pimsleur, various apps, and your you tube videos of course. Should I narrow my studying to this method or add it to my current methods? Thanks, and love your videos 🙂

Many thanks!

I started to answer this in the comments section but I thought that it needs more space than the comments section there allows.

Here’s the full answer:

I use Michel Thomas and Pimsleur myself, audio only as they are, at the beginning of learning a new language, but they eventually come to an end. You might for example work through MT first and even a very long course with all the available levels in still is only less than 20 hours of material, add on a full Pimsleur course with another 30 hours of material (much of it overlapping with the MT) that gives you 50 hours.

This 50 hours – the maximum currently available of quality audio-only beginners courses – when listened to a few times gives you 150 hours of audio time at the max, and if you use the pause button properly you could stretch that to 250. It’s great to do this at the beginning – use MT first as that method gives you the deep structures of the language and doesn’t shy away from grammatical explanations (which Pimsleur does to the point that it becomes misleading at times) and it gives you a good accent, but that 250 hours of work will only take you so far.

And let’s be clear that for many of the less popular languages there’s still no MT course – Hodder and Stoughton didn’t make much on the ones available so far as the activities of internauts were too impactful on the sales of the material, and so it may well be down to hobbyists rather than businesspeople to take Michel Thomas’ legacy to its full conclusion. So it the best case, something like Russian, you might be lucky and find 250 hours of useful work to do on audio only. If you were looking at Bulgarian you’d be hard pressed to find any – I found some in bookshops in Sofia, from an unknown method and author which I didn’t even start yet, but nothing on Amazon or the net.

So once you have finished with the audio only, or earlier if you are not an auditory learner and feel that you aren’t progressing so well with the audio only methods, you need to progress onto reading and writing. That is the point at which you take a course and start goldlisting. In the outset you will find that once again you’re duplicating words you learned in the audio courses but at least learning to spell them – you’ll already have a good pronunciation.

This of course is the order in which we learn our natural mother tongue anyway – first we hear it and imitate the sounds of it, and later they show us how to read and write it. Starting to goldlist after doing a good amount of audio-only work means that the rate of distillation in the earlier parts of your goldlist will usually be a lot higher than they otherwise would be.

After going through three levels of MT and Pimsleur, you’ll probably have a vocabulary of 1000 words, give or take 50%. In some audio course where there is a wealth of material, there still isn’t all that much word stock (Mandarin Chinese is a good example) in others – those with a big shared vocabulary with English once you learn certain rules as to how the patterns work – much larger word stock is offered within the time of the audio-only material. This is usually enough to get through a GCSE level exam. The old O level exam needed about 2000 words, and that was also the loading of one of the typical old style teach yourself books. Many teach yourself style books in languages get you to about 2000 words, so that’s already double the word stock of your audio only course, and the goldlist method is a very good method for processing all that information to your long term memory.

Then the next stage was getting to a level which people from the UK in my generation would have called A level. You needed about 4,000 words to be sure of getting a top grade at A level. So that’s what’s usually offered in advanced courses. They don’t tend to repeat easier vocabulary, they just add on another 2000 words on what you already have. All of this material can be assimilated with the least work if you approach the material using the Goldlist method.

Once you get to the 4000 word mark, those who don’t have a unified method like the goldlist method are in trouble, as there aren’t so many ways forward. The traditional way was to read literature, either using dictionaries or translations to cover the words you don’t know. Using Goldlist you’d do the same but you’d add the unknown words to the GL rather than trusting in the degree of repetition in literature to bring home to you the words you need more – although that also works and that’s what I used before I discovered the Goldlist method. Steve Kaufman, the inventor of LingQ, tells us he also has excellent results from it. But there’s something motivating about seeing the list grow, and it remains an effective way of ensuring that every word seen will make it to the long-term memory.

Personally if I am faced with a paucity of material at the advanced level, I will attack a dictionary – but only a small one. I did this for Czech and it’s a big project. A remarkable small dictionary can deliver a powerful vocabulary. The tiny yellow Langenscheidt ones give about 15,000 words and they have the advantage of allowing me to learn Czech while practising German and running a check-list on German words I missed by following the literature method when I was doing my degree in that language. A lot of very necessary words are used only very rarely in literature. At least they are in the literature one is supposed to read at university!

An alternative to the small general dictionary to push the vocab over 10,000 words and get past what for me is the magical figure of 15,000 words could be things like technical dictionaries addressing medical terms if you’re in the health sector (for me it’s accounting, financial and legal terms) or slang dictionaries of the “Dirty Czech” or “Dirty Japanese” or “Pardon my Spanish” type (to be handled with care!) or collections of proverbs, quotes and sayings in the other language – which is useful as it offers you whole sentences. It’s possible also to look at newspaper and magazine articles, but especially online as you can chuck things you don’t understand into Google translate and if you’re lucky that’ll save picking through a physical dictionary or asking a native.

Once the goldlist is past 15,000 words I don’t believe in progressing it any further. Distil it to the end and move on to another language. What you will have done is achieved 80% of a native speaker’s linguistic resource in 20% of the time. In the time it would take you to get one language to the perfection of a native, you could learn five to functional fluency – a much more practical option in my opinion.

6 thoughts on “Goldlisting may or may not be from the very beginning of learning a language, but it’ll take you on as far as you like!

  1. “Personally if I am faced with a paucity of material at the advanced level, I will attack a dictionary – but only a small one. I did this for Czech and it’s a big project. A remarkable small dictionary can deliver a powerful vocabulary. The tiny yellow Langenscheidt ones give about 15,000 words and they have the advantage of allowing me to learn Czech while practising German and running a check-list on German words I missed by following the literature method when I was doing my degree in that language. A lot of very necessary words are used only very rarely in literature. At least they are in the literature one is supposed to read at university!”

    What can also be of help in bridging the gap between beginner and advanced vocabulary are build-up vocabularies. German publishers offer quite a lot of them – publishers like Langenscheidt, Hueber, Klett, Buske, or Pons. Among the largest variety (usually 400 to 500 pages covering about 9,000 words — they like to claim it’s 10,000 or 15,000 but in my count the average real number is a four-digit one) I found offerings for English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Dutch and Russian at least, often several for each. There’s also something of this sort for Polish, but possibly not for Czech.

    These build-up vocabularies (‘Aufbauwortschatz’, ‘Lernwortschatz’, ‘Grundwortschatz’, ‘Lernwörterbuch’ are typical titles) have the strong advantages that they strictly limit themselves to the most frequent and most practical words, that nowadays they generally come with plenty of idiomatic example phrases or sentences, and recently some also come with a CD which contains all the vocabulary read out loud in good aural quality as mp3 which is a nice extra. I think those books are ideally suited for a learner once he or she has gone through the textbook stage and already knows about 4,000 or 5,000 words, and with the help of one or several of these books, ideally assisted by having recourse to a wordlist or goldlist or SRS system of one’s choice one can effectively increase one’s total vocabulary to a count of 10,000 at least.

    After this, to get another 5,000+ words there are many options. Literature/dictionaries, bilingual texts, or native content in newspapers, articles and books, or from the Internet would be some options, but another would be to cull the words directly from a dictionary itself. In this case maybe a mid-sized one (speaking of Langenscheidt this would be a ‘Taschenwörterbuch’) of 30,000 to 50,000 words, but one should choose the words selectively and ignore names of exotic flowers, obscure technical terms etc. – short: all the stuff that one doesn’t know in one’s mother tongue either.

    Browsing Amazon and other sellers, my impression is that in Germany the range of solid language learning materials generally continues to be comparatively rich, and although it may seem strange it is probably not so easy to find equivalent material for many languages in English-speaking countries. But I have seen books like “10,000 most frequent words in language xyz” and the like. This might also do as material for goldlist.

    For Russian this (German) one is rather fresh and teaches about 7,000 words:–Aufbauwortschatz-Russisch-Schneider/dp/3125195195

    Unfortunately for Czech and a number of other small languages there don’t seem to be many tools like this. In addition to build-up vocabularies and dictionaries I would also recommend working through a good phrase book or Sprachführer at this point, which usually does not only have phrases, but plenty of useful words, often travel-related, and other information.

    I found that sometimes one can also make use of unsuspected material if one is a bit imaginative. For instance there is a comprehensive build-up German vocabulary, Polish edition (probably meant for Polish immigrants) by Hueber Verlag, but when I looked into this I suddenly realised that it is also suited for Germans who want to learn Polish. Not all of the translations may be 100% idiomatic, but probably most of them are, since almost all of the words are of immediate ‘practical’ use, no literary terms etc. here.

    For Czech one may attempt to czech, sorry CHECK out the offerings of major (maybe Czech) publishers, and in case there should be any vocabulary lists with Czech as base language for English, French or other languages that you know, you could use them – with a bit of caution and a dictionary at hand, just to be on the safe side – by inverting the intended language direction. This should yield a couple of thousand useful words, and also hundreds of expressions.

    Hope there is some use in those suggestions. Often, the bigger problem is to find the material itself, or any useful material at all!

    A Merry Christmas everyone! Good luck, health and prosperity to all readers and their kith and kin.

  2. Many thanks, Hendrik, for that excellent comment, which deserves to be an article here in it’s own right, rather than just a comment. I think your rule of thumb of not worrying about words in the target language which you wouldn’t know in your own is a very good one, although it can be fun to expand one’s own vocabulary this way – indeed the Goldlist Method can also be used for vocabulary enrichment in one’s own language. I might put an example of that for English in the book when it is done.

    Considering German, Heinrich Heine says the following:

    Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
    Ewig verlorenes Lieb, ich grolle nicht

    Now, I wouldn’t go around asking people in Germany, “grollen Sie?” when pushing past them on the escalator, nor would I answer a friendly “Wie geht’s” with “Ich grolle nicht”. Nevertheless, just for this:


    …it seems to be worth knowing the word.

  3. I forgot one thing. There was once a wonderful but always rare species called ‘sentence dictionary’, which unfortunately is all but extinct by now.

    Returning to the original topic of this post – learning Russian as an English speaker – a Russian survivor of this rare breed is still around, and it is even bidirectional:

    (Another, even larger, multi-volume dictionary of the same sort, but with a German base, is Deutsch-Russisches Satzlexikon by K.A. Paffen.)

    Those books hail from the 1940s to 60s period and are maybe getting dusty, but they are quite wonderful. You don’t only get 10,000+ words, but in addition plenty of idiomatic example sentences.

    Apart from just learning by reading, by this stage in the learning process it may also be beneficial to write things out. One could write down the whole sentences, or just skim through the pages and add any yet unknown words and phrases into a goldlist.

    I can’t take credit for knowing about those gems. I found them presented here:

    To round this off, here is another tool which is even older, but a lot of people swear by it:

    This one presents Russian words according to word root, and it has also plenty of example sentences.

    It is great to know about such quality materials, but you’d never find them in an average or even better-than-average bookshop. And for many smaller languages, Czech probably being a case in point, one may have a hard time finding anything of the sort at all.

    1. This was a really helpful contribution and it’s great that you embedded a video! I feel like we’re really using this WordPress technology to the max and having the kind of discussion you couldn’t really get on YT alone or even FB, etc. That gives me a big smile on my face!

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