1. The problem
As far as language learning(1) is concerned, there are two kinds of problems which learners can encounter, and they are quite opposite problems but actually connected to a degree. They are connected around the need to understand how memory works.
First, there is a kind of language learner who never really gets off the ground with his or her(2) language learning and even though they strain themselves to remember the material, they cannot get beyond a certain point before they find themselves stuck, not understating why they forgot what they tried so hard to learn before, and assuming that they simply do not have the talents or the faculties, not simply that they have chosen short-term memory methods like cramming – or in many cases had such methods imposed on them by a less enlightened teacher.
Second, at the other extreme you have successful language learners, polyglots in fact, who get the fact that in order to successfully learn languages, you can’t cram. You can’t allow your teacher to own the process; you have to take ownership and manage your own process, be it time spent, choice of materials, proportion of time in speaking, listening, writing or reading activities, degree of formality of grammar coverage, etc. These learners may appear to those who have the first problem to have it made, but they have a different problem.
The problem the successful learners have is one of time. Most participants at polyglot conferences or on-line groups are relatively young, and do not reflect the overall demographic in society. Typically the demographic has an over-representation of people who have not yet begun their families and careers in earnest or at the other end those who have retired. There are some in-betweenies, but in this group there is a major over-representation of those working with languages as a career, which in fact only a minority of polyglots get to do.
The typical life-cycle of a polyglot is someone who discovers even while still at school that they can teach themselves or control the language learning process so as to harness their long-term memory enough to actually manage to achieve fluency in foreign languages and finds this activity exhilarating enough to pursue languages at university. Unfortunately they then discover that they must start with their eventual career in order to have their own families and independence and very often this entails a move away from languages. This career may well be something in which knowing languages will help at work, such as law, audit, computer programming, sales, etc., or they may marry a speaker of their favourite language and move to that country. For most, however, they find that the long and leisurely way in which they enjoyed learning in their youth is something they simply no longer have time for. Recently at a reunion at my college to mark the retirement of our beloved Master, Professor Robert Lethbridge (picture from Facebook(3)), who had been a professor of French and was a leading authority on French literature, Professor Lethbridge asked how many of those present still used their languages on a regular basis, only a minority raised their hand. The number was even lower in response to the question of who still continued to learn further foreign languages.
The answer to the increasing time challenge to those who wish to be lifelong learners is to find a method which maximizes the efficient learning to the long-term memory, which cuts out those parts of the learning process which are deadwood, such as attempting to be continually active in a language, and which keeps motivation high and makes each small scrap of time invested in continued learning a measureable and meaningful part of the total.
The GoldList Method has something to offer for the problems of both kinds of learners, and has proven to be a successful strategy for novices, serial “failures”, and successful polyglots alike. This is because it is a method which maximizes long-term memorizing and wastes little time on engaging the short-term memory. Also the fact that there is a ready algorithm to pursue, involving counting, enhances the power of numbers and statistics for personal motivation, as in the worlds of business or sports, where measurements are made and numbers looked at all the time for largely that reason.
It is quite a simple method, and can be learned in a single session. It will shave significant proportions off the time it takes to learn a language or other project needed long-term memorization, and it costs nothing (on the contrary, it saves learners money as it tends to make them better at self-study without so much need for lessons and teachers). It is therefore more than worth the time taken to learn it, despite the numerous complaints I hear from people who would like to know all the parts of this and how it fits together in the time it would take them to drink a cup of coffee.
It does, however, require careful attention as some aspects of it are counterintuitive and run contrary to people’s deeply-held beliefs about language learning. Also it doesn’t mix well with other methodologies, like new wine which cannot be placed into old wineskins. Even the way in which I am going to be talking about things like “active” and “passive”, and the way we think about long and short term memory, differ from what a lot of currently accepted academic texts and shibboleths, dictate. Therefore, at the outset, it’s necessary to pay close attention to the theoretical ideas on which the Method is based, which I am calling “the Basic Concepts”, and which are outlined in the second part. I am going to try to define clearly what we mean we we talk about certain concepts.