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Victor Berrjod’s excellent rebuttal of Bartosz Czekała’s hatchet piece against the GoldList Method


Background to this

Bartosz Czekala made a bad faith review on his universe of memory website for hits. Even when all his premises were rebutted by a properly trained field linguist, Victor Berrjod, who has used the method to learn some of the world’s most challenging languages, he failed to remove the damaging review from his site. He has left the rebuttal there because he doesn’t care about the fact it shows him wrong, he cares about the hits to his site. He even claims that nothing persuasive was in it. So please, judge for yourselves.

Victor’s words in plain text, Bartosz’s words in italics

Thank you for your interest in the Goldlist Method! I see that your article contains a lot of misconceptions about it, so that even though your understanding of memory is accurate, you reach the wrong conclusion in the end. I’ll try to clear things up for you, since I have been using the GLM for many years and to great effect.

“But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?”

This is a rhetorical question, but I will answer it anyway. You know it’s effective when it does what it is designed to do. And the GLM does do what it is designed to. And it is based on real science, namely on the forgetting curve. The two weeks are the core of the method; everything else is more or less optional.

“First of all, here is a great video which sums up what this method is all about.”

Christopher Huff’s video is indeed great, but it is intended as a tl;dr version of the full explanation, so it is good that you have included a link to a fuller explanation. However, it would have been even better if you had also included the link to David’s newly refined explanation so that readers could get it straight from the horse’s mouth. The new explanation seeks to clear up common misunderstandings that have become apparent and that he was not (and couldn’t have been) aware of when he first posted it.

“The author of the method maintains that:
1. The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.”

This is only partly true. It isn’t the method itself that gives you a 30% retention rate. Rather, the method is based on the observation that, on average, people remember around 30% of the words after two weeks. This is illustrated by Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve later in the article, so I will get back to this.

“2. It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.”

A better way to put it is that it is claimed that conscious memorization is discouraged because it is less effective for long-term retention (but indeed better for short-term retention). David does speak in terms of switching on and off memory functions, but he is not a memory scholar, so his hypotheses are not written in the standard academic terminology.

“1. It doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of this method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.”

Well, around 30% of it, and the method is based on the retention rate, not the other way around.

“In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.”

That’s right, but remember that what David calls ‘short-term memory’ is not the same as ‘working memory’. In GLM terms, the long-term memory is everything you still remember after two weeks, and anything you didn’t remember for two weeks is considered to have been stored in the short-term memory. In standard academic terminology, both of these would be considered ‘long-term memory’.

“Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of this method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.”

In practical terms, it doesn’t really make much of a difference whether a memory is gone or you are unable to access it. The result is the same: you have forgotten it.

“You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.”

Indeed. This is what is called ‘activation’ in GLM terms.

“What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
– means nothing to you
– has no relevance to your life
– has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge which is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.”

Exactly. So when the words (or whatever else you want to remember) aren’t random, but part of a language you want to learn, we would expect this number to be somewhat higher. And it does indeed seem to be around 30% on average.

“What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.

Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
– frequency of occurrence
– prior vocabulary knowledge
– cognateness.

So is there anything magical about the method and the number “30”?
Nope. It follows very precisely the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.”

That’s right. And this is what the GLM is based on.

“The Gold List Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals.”

That’s right, and for good reason. Normal spaced repetition systems try to catch words and bring them back as soon as you forget them, but by doing so, you end up reviewing a lot of words that you already know. In fact, based on the forgetting curve you probably know about 30% of the material essentially for life after having looked at it only once, and yet you will spend valuable study time reviewing it.

In the GLM system, you instead wait until you’ve forgotten all or almost all of what you won’t remember for life, and only then do your review. After two weeks, the forgetting curve is almost completely flat, so that is a good cut-off point.

“Even though the Gold List Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation.”

I’m sorry, what? Each distillation lessens it, if anything, because there are fewer lines for each distillation.

“Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.”

The vast majority of distillations require only one book, and it does not have to be A4. Only the initial headlist and each transfer into a new book require more than one book.

“However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in.”

No, it doesn’t mean that in the way you take it to mean. With any method you have to decide which words you are going to learn, e.g. all the words in your textbook, all the words of a certain frequency, etc. These words are the ones you want to learn, or in other words, the ones you are interested in learning.

“Good learning methods should work for any kind of vocabulary.s
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.”

Yeah, like the GLM. 🙂

“This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.”
That is one of the suggested ways of going about it, but it isn’t the only one. You can do 20 instead and it’s perfectly fine. You don’t even have to do the whole batch at once if you don’t want to.
“What If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.”

Like its creator says, the GLM is not a tool for learning quickly. There are other tools for that, and I’m sure you know many of them. The GLM is a tool that optimizes time spent learning. It makes every minute count, because you don’t waste time reviewing things you won’t forget anyway.

“Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.”

Oh? I thought engaging with the material would be good for memory.

“The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.”

You seem to assume that the GLM is only for random words, but this is not the case. You can use it to learn all the words in a dictionary if you really want to, but a textbook is preferable. You have as much context as your source material gives you.

“Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).”

Well, good thing the GLM isn’t mindless repetition, then.

“The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.”

Well, yes. So you should choose good source materials.

“In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.”

That is until you activate it. The GLM is only one part of the learning process.

“Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.”

It does deliver results. You increase your knowledge of the language (or other subject) you are learning.

“Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?”

This is a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it. It depends what you want to do with the target language, and it certainly helps you write it. Either way, this is built on a false premise. Spending your time activating your knowledge, i.e. practising the language, takes away time that could be spent learning more. The more you learn before you activate it, the more useful the activation/practice will be for you.

“Another elementary mistake which we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
Retention intention

This is not wrong, but the problem is that you will still be unable to access most of what you’ve learned in two weeks unless you spend more time reviewing it.

“In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Gold List method.”

Remember that the GLM term ‘short-term memory’ is not the same thing as memory science’s ‘working memory’. In fact, David advises paying attention to the words and enjoy the process, meaning you make sure the words are kept in your working memory while you write them. The advice is to not try to memorize the words, because that is less effective. Maybe that claim is wrong, maybe not.

“If you skip encoding, like the Gold List method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).”

Nobody stops you from goldlisting sentences. In fact, it is encouraged, and many members of the community do it.

“To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates.
However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.”

I hope I have cleared things up for you. Feel free to add more mistakes any time.

“There are two things I like about this method
– It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
– It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.”

Here are some more things that you might like about it:
– It optimizes time spent learning.
– It does not require an Internet connection.
– It does not run out of battery.

“The method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.

Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.”

David James himself also recommends this, and he has done so since the very first article about it.

“There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.”

Hopefully I have cleared things up for you now. You might want to reevaluate your position on this.

“If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.”

That is an interesting recommendation, since they are both spaced repetition-based, but Anki is more geared towards learning more in a short amount of time (e.g. in two months), while the GLM is geared towards optimizing time spent learning.

“My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.”

You might want to reevaluate this now.

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