Category Archives: Gold List Methodology
This is a place where I have collected materials about my system for learning languages called the Gold List method. I have started work on a book, which should be a useful addition to this, and in the near future, following on from my appearance speaking about this on “Dzien Dobry TVN” on 1st November 2009, I shall do a Polish film about the Gold List method, to help the large number of people who contacted me about it following the show.
One YT user asked today:
“Hello, Mr. James. I wanted to say, thank you for sharing this great information about the long term memory. It all makes perfect sense, and I have started a Gold-List for my language learning! I have a couple questions, if you are able to answer I would greatly appreciate it! Do you recommend the use of flashcards at all for learning a language? I understand for the Gold-List, you should avoid the words you wrote down on the list for not less than two weeks, but should you not think about the words at all? I suppose using flash cards would “jog” your short term memory again, but I am not certain. Maybe they are just different strategies, and don’t work together. Also, if I am trying to practice with sentences, should I not use the words I wrote in the list, or only after it “passed”.”
Please join the GoldList Method User Group on Facebook if you can. That way, good questions like these are flagged up for a bigger audience. Anyway, here goes:
1) flashcards are the standard system but they are a bit fiddly. You have to really manipulate a lot of small pieces of paper. if you actually want to do a nice big project with thousands of words and you want a proper card that will withstand all the mauling, it is a good deal more expensive and when the wind wafts in the window you’ll wish you had used a book.
The other thing about even on line flashcard systems is that in the classic system you are presented with them a lot of times until you can remember them, but not always are you asked to write anything. Without a re-write, it may be hard to know if you are doing a proper re-presentation of the material to the memory. Re-presenting material to the memory when you may have learned it only to the short-term memory is deceptive. People are sure they have learned things on systems like Memrise, Anki, Supermemo, etc when actually they haven’t. GLM calls for a bit more patience in the process but saves you a lot of time in the long run and makes sure that your long-term memory is optimised.
I am not sure how I could test this scientifically, but it would not surprised me to discover that the method even trains the L/T memory to be more effective. After all, if you show your body that you are relying and using a function, usually that function gets stronger, and if you are learning mainly to the short-term memory with methods of short-interval repetition, I would not be at all surprised if the long term memory even weakens as a result. Don’t take this paragraph as science, it is however reasoned speculation.
Cards might make the thing a bit more “gamey” but unless you have someone else committed to play it with you that might not be such great fun in reality as it appears before you do it.
2) About not using words on the list during the interim of 14 days – I notice that some people get a bit stressed about this and worry that they are going to be using the words in the intervening period and that then they will be still in the short-term memory when it comes to reviewing a list after 14 days. Let me say a couple of things on this point. Firstly, most people who are in the phase of trying the goldlist don’t use it exclusively as their only approach to a given language, while there are some others who, once they become convinced that GLM is the most effective approach, pretty much use only that, or, as in my own case, I use only the Goldlist once I have front loaded one or two audio-only courses to give me a good mental pronunciation of the new language, and then I get on and start the big project with GLM, but even then I migtht use more than one set of materials and alternate between different sets and even if I only have one set, some words are going to keep re-appearing. These are probably mainly words with a very high frequency in the language. I wouldn’t worry too much if they are not going through the GLM as efficiently as some other words – as these are the high frequency words of the language you can’t help coming across them a lot, you always will be coming across them a lot, and one way or another as long as you persevere you will certainly learn those higher frequency words. The trick is not to keep representing that list in that form to yourself in the fermentation period of at least 14 days. Don’t return to that same material, leave it be, but also don’t sweat it if the same words come up in different material.
I hope I understood and answered the questions OK. I’ll copy this also in a couple of other places so others can benefit from your good questions.
If someone wishes to learn from English with no previous success in language learning either French, Spanish, German or Italian then I recommend starting with Paul Noble’s audio only courses, published by Collins. For 8 further languages, namely Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Russian, Polish, Dutch and Portuguese I recommend the Michel Thomas series to absolute beginners. After these courses, or from the start for languages not covered by those courses, I recommend Pimsleur courses. All these are audio only courses and are done with no teacher following the instructions outlined by the presenter.
Once this audio material has been front loaded, it is time, if the learner is still enthusiastic, to work through a written course. Most of these also have audio which should be used earlier in the process rather than later. Good courses include such series as Colloquial by Routledge, the Teach Yourself series (older courses tend to be better than new in that series) Living Languages and the Essential grammar series.
To learn the material in the written courses I recommend my own method called the Goldlist method which is free on the internet if you google for it. It helps to memorise written material to the long-term memory with the least possible total time of engagement per word or phrase. It is more effective than having a teacher who will try to activate sparse knowledge too soon.
You should aim to develop fluency in reading because the difference between fluent reading and fluent speaking is three days of immersion. Not a hundred lessons at 20 dollars a shot. Teachers are only really necessary for languages where you cannot tell the pronunciation from the writing or which have highly complex writing systems – and for tonal languages for those encountering this for the first time. A teacher is more likely to impede the adult learner in most Inter-European language learning.
One small word of warning to the absolute beginner – be ready for words and phrases in the language you know to be used completely differently in the other language. Just to give you an example, take the English “What’s happening now?” In French this would be “qu’est ce qu’il se passe maintenant?” Now this means exactly the same in terms of what the French would understand as the English phrase “What’s happening now?” but if you literally translate each of the elements in the French phrase, you get “What is this that he passes handholding?” If a French person tried to learn English using a verbatim approach as you can see he would not make himself understood, but equally anyone trying to put “What is happening now?” word for word into French will find that they come up with something equally nonsensical to the French, moreover the words you would need to do it do not even exist.
I met an Australian one time who said he was “orry” when I asked him how he was. I said “Orry? What’s that?”
“That’s French, mate”,
“You mean ‘horrible’?”
“No, mate, it’s French for “good”, I’m good, mate”
“How is “orry” French for “good”?”
“What? You’re a linguist and you don’t know the French for “goodbye” which is “orry-vwar”?”
I smiled at the wit and then it gradually dawned on me that the guy wasn’t joking. This is the biggest hurdle people have at the beginning, an expectation that the target language is going to work just like their own, you just slot other sounds in instead of the English ones. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
If you can get your head around that, then you are ready to approach a foreign language.
Today since I finally have half an hour of free time in peace and quiet, I would like to come back to the very good question posed by Fintan (I won’t say his surname as that would identify him, I’ll leave you guessing which Fintan it is) several weeks ago already (sorry about that), and in particular the second part of his question where he raises the issue of activation and asks what I think about things like “full circle method” by Luca Lampariello.
The first thing I want to say, is far be it from me to detract from what any accomplished polyglot, be that Signor Lampariello (who is a capital fellow on top of being a great polyglot) or any other of the well-known polyglots who do follow some form of activation. I make the assumption that these people know what they’re doing, and that they do what they enjoy and what works for them.
If continually activating during the process of language learning is something that keeps you motivated in which you enjoy doing, then it’s valuable. Anything which keeps you going in the marathon of learning languages, is your friend. Anything which you find demotivating which detracts from the pleasure of doing it, is not your friend.
And in the above I said the most important thing that needed to be said. Having said that, I will now go on to explain the core of my own approach and philosophy with regard to the question of activating language knowledge in the whole course of study. Read the rest of this entry
One reader with the pleasant name of Marlon wrote in one comment recently the following great question, and thus coaxed me to impart some advanced goldlisting knowledge which I was keeping back for the book:
I am eager to start the Goldlist method. However, I need further clarification about scheduling. I read your post responding to Abdul some years back but I am still not sure how I can avoid distillations and new headlist overlapping. I do understand I could simply insert a batch of words and not use the step system, but it is not my desire to take that route.
I would prefer to use the step Goldlist method. I think I am most confused by time allotment. I decided to use the 20mins/25words/10min break format. When distilling to the first set (from 25 to 17), I believe you suggest use the same format, that is to use 20mins/25words/10mins. What about D2? Do I still need to use 20 mins to go from D1–>D2 (and D2—>D3)? In other words, do I perform as many distillations as possible after D1 is completed in the 20 min allotment? For example, Would it be prudent to distill maybe 2 sets from 17–>12 in one 20 min block?
I am looking forward to your response.
I will write the answer to this as a main article, partly because it’s a better way to get more readers to read it, and it is a good and useful topic for those who are using the Goldlist, and partly because I can use tables better in a new article than in a response.
I think it’s an excellent question, which shows that you’ve understood most of what I need you to understand in order to work successfully with the method.
I have in the past left people to fill in the blanks for this one themselves, as there are a number of ways in which you could fill in the blanks and they would all be good as long as the basic tenets are agreed to, and also I was leaving something back for the book, but just to give you an example of what works for me, imagine that you decide to do a project in which you have a good idea how many lines will be in the headlist in total, and lets say it’s going to be 3000 lines of headlist.
I would split that task into Batches, and each batch I give letters of the Alphabet, so Batch A, Batch B, etc.
Now because we want to avoid running into within two weeks of ourselves, as well as not have too long periods of not getting to review the same material (more than a quarter of a year is not necessarily harmful, but means you have little momentum, in practice, which can be demotivating) we need to plan it so that the first batch is the biggest batch, and then they get gradually smaller.
So the last batch will be 100 words, the second from last will be 200 words, etc.
Now follow me through this logic: Read the rest of this entry
Today’s article is a continuation of the topic we started yesterday, namely the use of listening at graded speeds in order to improve our listening fluency.
There are two times during a large linguistic project when I recommend the use of audio-only all audio-primary approaches. The first of these is right at the beginning, in order to make sure that when we do open the books and start reading words and writing them out in our Goldlists, we already have an idea hhow the language sounds and how these words and phrases are pronounced. If we take a course such as Michel Thomas series, Pimsleur, Paul Noble, Innovative Language Learning, or something else of that kind, we equip ourselves with all that we need to end into a Goldlist project of possibly 100, 200, 500 etc hours having done our first maybe 50 hours of language learning without setting pen to paper, and without really reading anything much in the given language. I’m convinced that this is a natural approach – after all, little kids get to listen before they ever get to read and write, we learned our native language that way. At least in that order. Of course, babies get to listen for thousands and thousands of hours of speech before they develop the skills that we can develop in a more structured way, we would want to return to the experience of a newborn in the course of our language learning. Such a “Nicodemus Method”, would have certain drawbacks in terms of cost and also patience on the part of the host family.
However it is entirely unnecessary, since in most cases 50 hours of audio time at the outset is really all you need in order to progress confidently with the reading-and-writing approach that the Goldlist Method is, as long as you have access to quality materials.
These materials need to be some kind of structured course, whereas when you get to the end of the language project on Goldlist and you’re looking at the second time in which I’m recommending using audio-primary materials, namely to induce listening fluency based on an existing passive vocabulary, then you don’t really need to have materials in a structured course. As I said yesterday, you need to have a book – which may be a novel, a business book, a history book, a Christian book – even the Bible.
In the best situation you will be choosing a book which exists in your target language as the original, especially If we are talking about something like a novel or some other cultural artefact. I don’t really recommend poetry in most cases this, not at the outset in any case. Poetry is something to graduate to only at the truly advanced level of command of a foreign language on pain of simply sabotaging your chance to appreciate the fullness of the verse by becoming familiar with it when you do not yet have the apparatus to appreciate it. don’t get me wrong there certainly is a place for using poetry but I think here it would be wise to look at the range of poems available very carefully and to grade you’re reading so that first reading poets who use a language which is more similar to everyday speech. And by that I mean standard everyday speech. I am not recommending for example learners of English to kick-off with James Joyce’s Ulysses, even though there are some excellent recordings of that and some excellent translations into other languages. This is a novel which requires careful study even from native speakers, although that having been said, I did have the pleasure of being acquainted with the person who translated Finnegan’s Wake into Brazilian Portuguese, and that was a Russian lady from Harbin, believe it or not.
Such genii are few and far between, but I like to think that in as much as they are out there, they do read my things, and therefore I would want to put you off ploughing straight into poetry if that’s your thing, however most of us I would go prose first, then drama, then poetry.
So at this stage you need to select your book, being one in clear language of the sort that you would like to understood when it is spoken and let’s say that you found an accurate translation into your own language. If that’s not possible and you have to take a book which is either in its original in your language or where the original is in a third language and you’re dealing with translations into both your own language and the language you’re learning, then even though that is not normally the best thing to do, there are circumstances where it’s actually preferable – for instance if you’re setting out to become familiar with the Bible in the language of your study, or if you are going to be working in a field which is simply more developed in your native language and therefore the originals are all in your language but there are good translations into the study of language. Because you have a utility from simply reading a better book, there are times when it becomes preferable to accept that the translation should be in the learned language. Then there is also Glossika Method, named for Mike Campbell, in which he simply uses his own favourite English-language novels which he knows so well he could almost recite them verbatim from memory, and he collect them in a language as he wishes to study and simply reads them. Personally I would be bored by such an approach as I like a larger variety of reading, and to get into the particular literature and culture of the country concerned. In this I have exactly the same view as Steve Kaufman who also has been doing videos about this topic recently. Nevertheless, I can see that a certain languages you simply could run up against a lack of the preferred materials, and then you really have to see what there is and try to adapt that.
My suggestion is, to look first at what’s available as an audio book in the language of your choice. That’s where the bottleneck is likely to be, if there is a bottleneck. You can look up audio books in different languages using Google. You can refer to the Wikipedia article about audio books written in the language you are studying. Even if you’re not sure how to say audio book in the language you are studying you can go to the English Wikipedia article about them and then choose one of the 36 other languages which at the time of writing this article is being translated into – hopefully this may include the language you’re looking for. Quite a few languages mirroring that article do contain very helpful Web links to repositories of audio books, including free ones.
My first port of call is always to check Audible, but in cases where audible doesn’t have audio for the language concerned, there is still Amazon. Amazon sells audio on physical media while its subsidiary Audible has its own format which as I said in the above article is a very helpful format for our purposes. Audible itself contains quite a lot of novels read in the original in such languages as Spanish, Italian and Russian, and there are also French and German entire sites of Audible. Still it is a problem when we come to a minority languages, but still I would always check there first.
If googling the net in search of novels or other books which are read out in an audio format in the language of your choice does draw a blank, your next option is to select the book of your choice where there is both language versions and where you are motivated to read it in the language you are studying. Once you have selected it and determined that there is no audio version available, you have various options as to how to obtain the audio. There are cases where the author himself might be willing to go to the studio with you and produce the audio version. In many cases that will be a question to settle with his publisher. This might sound as though you’re getting into quite sizeable cash investments in order to get your audio, but you might be surprised at what can be achieved simply by asking people and giving them ideas, showing that there is demand, and being willing to volunteer at least some corporation and work on the project even if you cannot put cash into it.
Failing the ability to obtain official audio in the way mentioned above, the means of last resort is simply to get friends to read it.
If you are not in the country where the language is spoken then there is one more idea and that is to go to the Embassy (if it’s a national language) and ask to talk to the cultural attache and see if the Embassy is able to help you put such a project together.
in the case of the audio that you need right at the beginning, just going back to that topic before we close, usually there is not such an issue with this given that there tends to be a lot of beginners courses, and if you can’t find one which is pure audio in the Pimsleur mould then there are always the likes of Teach Yourself and Colloquial. This means that you’d be doing the audio while already Goldlisting a course, which is of course not ideal, but in these cases – I’m talking about languages like Maltese or Bulgarian which don’t even have a Pimsleur (Pimsleur does about 50 languages – not all at the full 30 lessons it seems – but Maltese, Welsh, Bulgarian and some other surprising ones are not covered when two separate forms of Armenian and languages like Twi and Ojibwe or Swiss German are) – you can either look on their local market and their bookshops if you go there, or try internet bookstores if they have them, or it’s a question of abandoning the audio-only 30 hours at the start of a whole new language and then it’s Goldlisting from the word Go.
- Calling an audible: An indie author’s audiobook adventure (headfirstintothedeepend.typepad.com)
- Audio Books (bookmajor.wordpress.com)
- Rediscovering Audio Books (camas.typepad.com)
- Audible.com (coolstuffmikeloves.wordpress.com)
I’m grateful for this question. It surely affects most learners at some stage – especially when learning a language for the first time, or doing it on your own for the first time/taking it seriously for the first time, as opposed to school learning.
It’s not really a question of time but of the presence of certain ingredients in your brain. If you have done at some stage a Pimsleur or some audio course so that you know what the words and phrases you are goldlisting are supposed to sound like in a pretty standard version of the language you are learning, and you have goldlisted about 10,000 words or more and taken them through to the end of silver if not gold levels, then you can do the following activity with a much higher assurance of success.
You need to get hold of an audio book for a book you can read in that language, and where there is a translation in English. The best place for this is Audible, where the app allows you also graded speeds of listening to the same material – and you can start off with a slower speed and build up. Listen to the same piece of 10 minutes long with short, ten minute breaks about three times over. This is not a long-term memory exercise it is an ear exercise and so you are perfectly OK using short-term memory techniques for this, they are quite appropriate. This is not the point at which you learn the words, you should have learned most of them before. This is where you push your ear and get it to go “aha”.
Once you have done this, you are likely to find that some parts of the spoken text have become a tad clearer and some still baffle you. You then open the book and read the text, which you should not have done before this point.
Having read the text, if there are any words that you do not know, please mark them and find them in the English text, please also make sure that anything you get from the English text which you didn’t get from the original – work out if that’s the fault of your lack of nuancing or too much freedom on the part of the translator. Add any missing knowledge back into your headlist and put it through the Goldlist system in due course.
You then should read the text while listening to it at normal speed. You can do this a couple of times if you feel it needed.
You should be able to speak along with the recording now, while reading the text. If this is hard at first, use the pause button and precede each recorded sentence with your own attempt.
Then finally you can go back to just listening but use higher speeds, like 1,25 or 1,5* normal.
You then move on to the next chunk of text, rinse and repeat.
But every so often you go back and listen to what you heard before.
Not only will this improve listening comprehension, but also accent.
Nevertheless, it is not a way of learning to the long term memory, it’s an aural fitness routine. You therefore, like I said at the beginning, should only start to do this once you are really nearing your goldlist target.
It is a way of getting to speaking fluency as well around the “listening” route described in my articles here on my Four Function Diagram.
This activity will increase the time to fluency but you need to vary the voices you hear. In due course listening to DVDs in the language which have subtitles will be useful, and then gradually listening to news reports. Start with TV ones, and then move out to radio ones where you do not have the crutch of the image.
Many thanks again for the question.
- Pimsleur Approach (mariarevilla.wordpress.com)
- Vocabulary (hardshipsunnumbered.wordpress.com)
- Keep Your Memory Problems Minimal With These Quick Health Tips (quickhealthtips.connectpdq.com)
I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.
Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?
Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:
Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.
Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.
We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.
Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak. Read the rest of this entry
Personally I think flashcards are a reasonable system but they’re not an ideal system. In fact you can get there with less time involved by using the Goldlist method. Flashcards still involve repetition of things you really already know, which is not efficient. Also you can only learn what is in the pack, whereas with Goldlist you learn any material you like the look of. In addition learning off the phone while travelling depletes your battery and you cannot do it in a sunny park as you cannot see the screen. Having a small writing book is a better way and turns out more ergonomic than trying to do every single part of life through computer screens and telephones.
Flashcard systems like Anki and Supermemo are built on the work of Ebbinghaus, the father of the area of psychology that looks at memory, in fact they reflect Ebbinghaus’findings even more closely than my system, which is only an approximation, but they still don’t eliminate waste.
The downside of the Goldlist is that there are mandatory waiting periods of two weeks at least between each distillation, so if someone is in a hurry because they have a trip or an exam coming up, then there may not be enough span of time to use Goldlist, even though Goldlist would give them more long-term memorisation per unit of time spent.
- Anki vs. SuperMemo (thewayoftheronin.wordpress.com)
- Review Anki Flashcards (howtoedtech.wordpress.com)
- The Genius of SRS (gengoblog.wordpress.com)
I am now returning, having received a moment ago a timely reminder from Victor Berrjod, to the discussion on the above diagram, and what it can show us of use to the learners of language.
In the earlier article, I wrote about how in reading and in listening the language user is passive – not having to generate his own grammatically correct language or have the right word at hand. Therefore reading and listening are intrinsically less challenging than writing or speaking. For someone not in an active state with his command of a foreign language, reading and listening creates less of a problem than writing or speaking. If he, or she, knows the word in their passive memory then it should be that they can deal with reading it or listening to it. In order to be able to speak or writing a person must find that word for themselves.
So we have compared the two rows in the diagram. Let us now compare the two columns.
In the leftmost column, the one containing reading as the passive skill or function and writing as the active skill, we can say that the learner is able to exercise more control over timing when reading and writing than when speaking and listening. Read the rest of this entry
I would like to give you today some initial thoughts on the diagram, and to do that I’m going back to a simplified form of the diagram without the flows included as yet.
This is just to get a clearer image of the base ideas before we get onto the various conclusions that can be drawn from it, when we will go back to the diagram including the arrows and boxes showing the auditory and the visual routes of progressing from reading to speaking.
For today I would like to offer for your consideration that whatever we do, whatever applications we use language for, for instance counting, swearing, singing, praying, shopping, skyping, reciting poems, selecting food from menus, asking the waiter what he recommends or chatting up Paul Pimsleur‘s native speaker female on the bus (the way all his courses seem to start), all these various applications and whatever others you can think of, are all based on one or more of the above gerunds: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Therefore every linguistic activity can be reduced to these four functions or skills, and the mastering of each of these skills is essential for a full ability to apply the language in all possible situations.
When we talk about “language”, we refer of course to the tongue – the words language and tongue are connected, and people tend to consider that speaking is the gold standard. “How many languages do you speak?” is the question we hear. Only people who are a bit more thoughtful ask how many languages do you read, write, listen well in and speak, however there are CV formats which do ask precisely that format. If you want to submit a CV in World Bank format, for instance (this is one of the industrial standards when tendering for public sector work, in case any readers haven’t come across it) you are supposed to make mention of reading, writing and speaking, not necessarily listening. If you use the Europass format you’ll see from the CV templates available here, that you are expected to give yourself a grade from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which defines what you’re supposed to be able to do to be an A1, an A2, a B1 or a B2, or in the end a C1 or C2. But you have to grade yourself on “Understanding” which covers both reading and listening, on “Speaking” which is divided into spoken interaction and production, but whichever way you look at that it’s still speaking, and finally on writing, which isn’t broken down further, but of course could be when it comes to languages like Chinese and Japanese – whether a person can only write pinyin or kana or if they can go the whole way and know the characters and word combinations which would be known at a certain level of education in the school curricula of the countries involved.
With the above I hope to have introduced the idea that these basic four functions are common to whatever we do with language and underlie everything we do, even though people commonly talk about “speaking” a language.
What are the relations between these four? We already saw above that the EU’s great minds grouped reading and listening together as “Understanding”. Obviously that’s true, but I don’t prefer to regard it that way. One needs understanding in order to speak and write also, so more strictly the distinction should be drawn that when I listen or read I am the passive recipient of language and when I speak or write I am the active generator of the language, unless I am simply copying what I have just read or heard.
Clearly it is easier to be the passive recipient of language that to generate it actively. If you do not have passive knowledge then even reading or listening with understanding will not be possible, but you don’t need to be in a particularly active state to do it. Also some degree of uncertainty as to which registers of words to use or the grammatical niceties may not necessarily block understanding, as context can be the guide and for listening intonation will guide – in the case of face-to-face listening body language also provides a lot of guidance and still as for reading you have context. Listening despite all that can be harder than just reading since you don’t control the speed of input. Not unless you have a recording with a pause button and privacy to listen (maybe with headphones or alone) so that you can repeat or slow down a listening piece all you need. In this case the degree of difficulty between listening and reading is more blurred. Listening presents issues if you have a speaker with an unusual accent or a speech impediment, just as reading presents difficulties when reading the work of someone partially illiterate, but for the purposes of our discussion here let us consider that all the material we would be dealing with is standard language of an adequate quality.
In a sense then we can look at reading as the passive partner of writing, writing being understood as either handwriting or on a keyboard, or on any of the input methods on a mobile device – maybe even voice recognition which blurs the distinction between speaking and writing, but I would class it for our purposes as writing rather than speaking.
Likewise speaking and listening are an active/passive pairing. They have in common that they don’t involve the written word, and that someone with no literacy who is a native speaker of the language could also take part. Normally conversations take place in which people take turns in speaking and listening, or in chatrooms in reading and writing. The very term “chatroom” shows how readily we can transfer the idea of speaking and listening to writing and reading respectively. We think of ourselves as “chatting” to people when not a decibel is heard in terms of auditory noise beyond the clicking of the keys on our keyboards. It’s also not uncommon given today’s technology to find one’sself in conversations with people who are sorting out their microphones where one side is talking and the other writing. This is not unusual in conventional settings either if someone is mute or has lost their voice, but can hear. People proficient in all four skills can naturally feel reading coming in as an automatic substitute for listening and writing for speaking, where the sound-based pair are not available. These days, when someone in an online exchange tells us some bad or good news, we might naturally say “I am sorry/glad to hear that”, even though we only read it, and if the other person were to even raise an eyebrow it would be either taken as an attempt at humour or as an excess of pedantry.
Allow me to bring in one spiritual dimension just for one paragraph – those not liking it can skip to the next one. The Bible (Romans 10:17) says “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” – this clearly shows that the hearing is something that is read. So the Bible itself puts hearing and reading on a parity. When we consider the phrase “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5 v 7) the fact that reading does involve sight rather than the sense of hearing is not conflicting, because the act of reading is like listening or hearing but by using our eyes. The “sight” which the Bible places in apposition to faith in many places is the “seeing” of experimenting. Instead of taking a promise from the Divine revelation on trust needing to probe it and see if it the case by means of experimentation. That’s not the same as testing one scripture against other scriptures, which is generally shown in the Bible itself to be the correct way to understand scriptures.
So we have two active/passive pairs, one involving an aural/oral convention and the other eyes and hands with symbols. However, these things are heavily interconnected, and can cross over. A person reading in a foreign language on their own will usually “hear” what they are saying with a kind of “inner ear” – when we are young we start out by reading aloud and are led gradually to “read in our heads” at which point we are invited to allow our voice to continue in the head, but unuttered by the organs of speech. In due course this may become a voice doing accents or having a quality that we cannot even imitate with our own voice, as we imagine the voice of the speaker. However in the main one is limited to the voices which one might be able to make a fair attempt at imitating oneself, those of us who are at all inclined to do imitations.
In this way, the act of reading and the development of that inner voice can directly influence speaking, although on my diagram I have not drawn or even allowed for a direct route between reading and speaking, as one will never develop this inner voice from reading alone without the opportunity to listen, and I have come more and more to the view that the more one “front loads”the listening aspects in a language learning programme, the better this effect works. That’s one of the reasons I now recommend doing audio-only, listening based courses prior to any of the reading and writing required by the Goldlist method. There may be only 10% of the material you need, but it makes perfect sense to do this part right at the start, and that’s also consistent with the way we learn the first language – we have heard it all before we ever try to write it or read it.
That’s all I’ve prepared for today’s article, but I have more to say and we’ll get onto that during the week. In the meantime your comments are as ever most welcome.