GoldList Method Explained Part 2 – Basic Concepts

2. The Basic Concepts

It is very important to get to grips with this theoretical part prior to looking at the practical steps which are in Parts 3 onwards, as everything that we do can be explained by one or more of these eight basic concepts.

I have managed to boil down the whole theory behind GLM into these few basic concepts, and once you understand and accept these, then the Method becomes less counter-intuitive, begins to make sense and you are more likely to apply it correctly, without misunderstanding and without muddling it up with conventional methods or falling into some of the other traps which have caused some learners to fall by the wayside and not get the benefit they could from the Method.

In a sense, the GoldList Method is a series of methods starting with Audio Frontloading as the first (optional) part, GoldList proper (the largest part by far, in terms of proportion of work to be done and this itself can cover many different levels of material) and then at the end “Advanced Drill” or “Triple Drill“, (the use of audiobook first with the readable text and then the use of your GoldList to learn for good anything still not known at the advanced stage – I have written on this “Advanced Drill” a bit more here and the reason it is also called “Triple Drill” is that you use three sources; the audiobook in the target language, the text in the target language and the translation of the text in your language from which you are learning the target language). The same set of Basic Concepts explains all the parts of this, including the audio frontloaded parts which don’t feature in your actual GoldList book.

Let me start off by saying, that I am not claiming that each of these Concepts are scientifically proven. I wish they were. I would gladly work with anyone who has a research grant and the academic apparatus to do some serious experimentation. As it is the experimentation is the combined experience of the users.  These Concepts might well be falsified by experimentation and another explanation found as to why the Method works (which we know it does and which is the main thing). Of late, I have had people who have eaten lots of academic texts by such wonderful minds as Norbert Schmitt, James Milton, Paul Nation and others telling me that what I am claiming doesn’t stack up with either their science, or their way of even talking about the cognitive and psycholinguistic processes involved, based on all of this research which taxpayers have paid for and no doubt they worked hard and put their own money into also.

Now all of this discussion is well and good, and for sure I ordered the books that were recommended and am working through them, but at most it will simply lead to a different way of explaining how certain things work. That they work is not at issue. So far I have made quite a lot of headway in consuming the reaidng which various “scientists” in the “field” have suggested to me and not really seen any reason to change much in the description of these Concepts and how they work.

Consider, if you will, the famous book  “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” by John Gray. Now this book is very highly regarded as a practical psychology primer for relationships, although it revolves around an allegorical backstory of men and women arriving on Earth from different planets which makes any stories of mine about paleolithic mammoth hunting being the origin of a dual-function human memory, which you may well be coming across below, seem virtually mainstream and plausible. Nevertheless, you don’t tend to find reviewers, from the academic through to Amazon reviewers, who bother to tell us that there is no scientific evidence for human life on Mars or Venus, nor that it could not have evolved there without both men and women being present, nor that the temperatures on both these planets are hot enough to melt lead and therefore they would not “lead” much of an existence out there. Such criticism would be on a par with those Russians who, knowing only hagiographies, dismissed early Russian novels such as Nikolay Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” as “a lot of lies”.  The John Grey title gives you a framework of ideas about men and women which work regardless of the fact that it is framed in a way which is not in accordance with science, and hopefully it will not tax my readers too much if I ask them to consider this Method in a broadly similar way.

If you have issues taking the framework at face value, by all means think of the following concepts the same way. They may be right, they may be wrong, but I’m perfectly willing to swear that they will help you understand the GoldList Method, and they do all hang together with that Method, and the Method works for the majority of those who try it with a proper understanding of that, and for those who do, it gives them a lot of help and saves them a lot of time, and increases their learning and studying pleasure. And I am not going to apologise for that.

These 8 Basic Concepts are:

  • The concept of the duality of human memory (short-term conscious in addition to long-term subconscious)
  • The concept of a two-week forgetting period as the means to distinguish between the two kinds of memory
  • Having numbers, keeping counts, statistics and scores, can be very motivating as well as having an overall learning plan to keep to
  • When it comes to language-learning, it all starts with listening and obtaining an “inner voice” for the language
  • Handwriting with a stylus is more conducive to long-term memory learning than using a keyboard (for most people – even the youth of today!)
  • Language learning requires coping with several different things, but the largest task is vocabulary (and collocation) acquisition
  • Language acquisition happens best using passive knowledge, it does not need continual activation, and when a large body of passively-learned material needs to be made more accessible, then three days of immersion is all it takes to activate it
  • What is pleasant and unstrained, what is creative and enjoyable, what is done without a sense of obligation or stress, these things unlock the route to the long-term memory

In these eight Basic Concepts, everything we do with this method is explained, and each one of them is applied, as you’ll see, somewhere in the method. When you put them all together, they work. Whether you agree with each of them in isolation or not. Taken together they produce this method which does work.  So let’s take time to talk a little about each one and see if we fully understand them and can start to apply them to our own learning process.

2.1 The concept of the duality of human memory (short-term conscious in addition to long-term subconscious)

Much of staged repetition methodology is based on Ebbinghaus and his forgetting curve, which was the first proper science done on Memory and which is now one hundred years old and accepted as orthodox science. Anki, Piotr Wozniak’s SuperMemo, and to a certain extent Paul Pimsleur’s courses with his graduated recall doctrine are all very good methods which are faithful to the forgetting curve, learning curve and spacing effects Ebbinghaus discovered or which are implict in his findings. For him and the aforementioned disciples there is an almost logarithmic curve that applies to memory, so that the forgetting you do starts very quickly for some items but the longer they stay in the memory the longer they are likely to remain there, almost as if items stored in human memory with intent have a ‘half-life’ of some sort.

The idea of there being two quite separate memory functions is not inherent in this idea, but the existence of long-term and short-term memory functions as quite discrete can be observed, and therefore the ideas of Ebbinghaus need to be reworked. In fact they have been reworked and these days people are talking about working memory and long-term memory.

I should state here that when we for the purposes of GLM are making a cut-off between short-term and long-term memory and positing a difference between intentionally learned and unintentionally learned things, we are not talking about the “working memory” which psycholinguists reckon to be the precursor of all memorisation. The scholars use this term working memory to talk about a few seconds of very present, conscious memory from which things get encoded onto this other continuum and get forgotten in more or less a logarithmic way. I am saying that probably the WM exists but the degree to which it is used consciously effects the degree to which something goes into the real long-term or animal memory, and which goes into what I am calling a short-term memory. Scholars sometimes use “short-term memory” as a substitute term for “working memory” which leads to confusion as they cannot understand why I am saying it is up to two weeks not just a few seconds. If you are a memory scholar, please bear in mind that I am not using long-term and short-term in the way you are, and you’ll also notice that I am using active and passive in a different way also, and that you might be using the words “available” or “unavailable” for these concepts, and talking about passive memorisation to mean something which I’m not endorsing here, namely not paying attention at all to the materials as you go through it, so that it is just like watching a film without trying to understand it or memorising in one’s sleep. NO, WE DO NOT ADVOCATE such nonsensical things, and it is hard for me to keep my blood pressure in check when people write articles about the Method as if we did. Because we are talking about a new wine and new wineskins, it might be more helpful if I rephrased some of these ideas in non-conflicting vocabulary, so that academics and other lovers of the old vintage won’t get sidetracked, but when I chose words to describe what I was experiencing, unwittingly I used words which some folk in the field already have other uses for, and I have been told off for treading on their toes. Sorting out this differing use of the same words may take time, as our community already got used to using the words we have.

The GoldList Method is based on a working hypothesis that the long-term memory is a natural function that we share with animals (which accounts for why they seem not to forget a trick they learn) which is not however a conscious or controllable function. In addition to it, humans developed a conscious memory function, which I will stubbornly refer to as the short-term memory, and which can be harnessed to plan memorising things such as tracking marks for hunting parties, or to agree in a society what the meanings of words are. (Dr Anthony Lauder and others contend that short-term memory – but by this he means working memory, as described above – is a necessary pre-cursor to any kind of human language development or learning).

The short-term memory, as we are discussing it, is for and about conscious learning and enables very large amounts of material to be retained almost on command, but it is also impossible for the brain to retain this information for ever, so the forgetting curve does kick in, and by the close of the two-week period effectively all of what the short-term memory had encoded is lost. What we are left with after two weeks is that which the long-term memory has “sampled”. If we don’t make any active memorisation attempt, but simply contnually perform an activity, such as listening to a pop song or liturgy, or following the route to work in a car, we discover after some time that in any event we have a detailed memory of the song lyrics or the route, even without attempting to obtain such memories.

Consider how many such memories you have, how many song lyrics you can remember without ever having attempted consciously to store them, or how many streets you can visualize and travel along in your mind, again never having sat down and set about the task of consciously learning them.  In many cases you’ve retained these memories from childhood and even not seen nor heard the real thing for many years.

So we see that the long-term memory is very powerful, but subconscious and involuntary. What we as language learners need to do is to harness, if we can, its use in our learning process, and reduce, if we can, the switching to conscious memorisation which will seem to give us marvellous results which nevertheless disappear after two weeks and leave the learner demoralised.

2.2 The concept of a two-week forgetting period as the means to distinguish between these two kinds of memory.

Imagine there were a lot of forged banknotes around that were so good you couldn’t tell them from the real ones, but after two weeks they would just disappear into thin air or turn back into white pieces of ordinary paper like the magic money in Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”, along with anything bought with it. Now, if you lived in a world like that, you would want to have a clause in any business contract that allowed you to hold the money for more than two weeks and for them only to be considered valid payment if they were still there two weeks after receipt, wouldn’t you?

Well the surprise is, you do live in a world like that, because that’s the world of your own mind and memory function. So that’s the way you need to behave with whatever you “pay into” your memory.

Why two weeks? I have written some grand theories on how this is probably linked in to the Palaeolithic hunting cycle, at a time when humans knew no greater prize than pursuing and overcoming mammoths and other large prey. Language itself, tracking ability and even our unique menstrual cycle, is probably linked to the time over a long, long period when hunting parties carried out in accordance with lunar cycles started to make us what we are and no other ape is. This is how I would explain it from an evolutionary perspective. I don’t need to go into detail about that here but I’ve written plenty about it in other places. Only on full-moon nights could we exercise the necessary advantage over the largest prey, and so a whole series of the things which set us out as human started to come into play for Homo sapiens and understanding these things, especially the way this has defined memory in humans and its interplay with meaning and language, is essential in order to discover advantages we ourselves can use in our own lives.

Language course producers, incidentally, seem very aware of this two-week period, as you will find from time to time courses with a two-week “money back guarantee” which seems very fair if you are not aware of what happens in those two weeks. Of course if someone is using the short-term memory method these courses tend to advocate, they will be more than happy with their progress in the first two weeks, and only shortly after, they will feel like the victims of the aforementioned magician in the Bulgakov novel as they stare at blank spaces where their learned material used to be. This is a cynical way to sell people courses and leave them to blame themselves for their failures. I hope that nobody who learns this truth today will be interested in continuing to sell in this way.

Bear in mind, for now, that the two-week forgetting period (which we call the “fermentation period“, as you need to ferment before you can distil) is the single most important thing which the GoldList Method is based on. You can experiment with the GLM in various ways and still have something that works, you can have your own personalised GLM in many ways, but you can’t expect it to work if you don’t observe the two-week rule which you will learn more about when we show you how to go about starting a project.

In the worst case, that there isn’t really any scientific basis for the two-week cut-off point and it is only illusory, and really we should be following the Ebbinghaus view, then, in any event, the two-week cut off functions as a working approximation to the forgetting curve. So the fact that we are looking at lists the opposite way round to the Staged Repetition system like Anki and Supermemo means that we will simply spend less time on items we already do know and have retained, because these are distilled out. We are checking the graphed line bottom-up, and from fewer points of reference, rather than covering again and again the area above the graph, top down, so to speak, therefore we avoid wasting time checking again that which is likely to have been learned for good. It is a more efficient work process. More on distillation in Part 3.

It basically means that if you want to learn a language as fast as possible, for example, by a deadline set by a plan of moving to a Spanish-speaking country in six months, then Anki and Supermemo are better friends than the GoldList Method. I have no interest in giving you the wrong tool, so I will admit it here and now; get yourself on Duolingo. But if learning Spanish is something you would like to do, you don’t have a deadline, but you do have a lot of other time demands, then the GoldList Method will save you in total between 10 and 20% of the time those two methods take, even allowing for the fact that it involves handwriting, not just reading and nodding your head or clicking with your index finger on a piece of moulded plastic.

2.3 Having numbers, keeping counts, statistics and scores, can be very motivating as well as having an overall learning plan to keep to.

This concept is observable in business and in sport. By being able to measure in numerical terms how well you are doing, set personal records to break, even compete in a friendly way with other learners (although language projects are more like marathons than sprints, and in a marathon you are really competing again yourself rather than others), you can enhance the learning process and find additional motivation. Above all, even a short, twenty-minute session adds something to the overall count as you proceed inexorably to your goal, and therefore even the smaller amounts of leisure time you will have as you gradually change from student, single status over to professional, family-oriented status, as most people choose to do, can remain meaningful and you can be motivated to make use of them in a way you might otherwise not be.

It works best when you have a plan for the volume of lines you wish to do over which time-frame. You can know ahead of time what the time involvement will be and plot your progress through the plan just as well as in an online system. They make a lot out of the strength of statistics, these online learning systems, but you do not need a computer to get the same effect, it is built-in to the GLM, a manual system.

The very best of all is when you set up a book or, if you must, a spreadsheet with goals of learning and track these over quarters, years and over several years, all the time seeking to break new personal records.

2.4 When it comes to language-learning, it all starts with listening and obtaining an “inner voice” for the language.

If you read this you might say “yes, I thought he was mad, and now here he is, channelling Joan of Arc” but that is not what I mean at all. I saw some funny looks when I explained this at the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, but I am pretty sure we really do all, or nearly all, have and use this brain function and it is merely a question of naming it.

The components of learning a new language can be broken down as follows: firstly, you need to be aware of how the language sounds and how the phonemes in it are enunciated.  I fully concur with the idea that before you even begin doing a GoldList project on a language you need to have some kind of consciousness of the sounds of the language, and I call this an “inner voice” for the language. Some learners have had some exposure to the language they wish to learn before and know at least how they sound and some basic words and phrases, even if ungrammatical, and know how to write the sounds in the alphabet of the language (for non-alphabetic languages there are other considerations and there are numerous separate articles written on how to go about Chinese or Japanese, for example, in the GoldList Method) These learners are ready to go ahead with a GoldList. In other cases, if it is your first contact with a language, the optimum approach is first to do an audio-only course, in order to get that initial “inner voice”.

An inner voice is what you have when you, for example, read in your head, so that you do something akin to sensing the sound of the word within your brain, even though the auditory organs do not come into play. Many people seeing a televised version or listening to a radio or audiobook version of a known book observe “that’s not how I imagined that character’s voice at all”, and yet they probably did not read the book aloud to themselves. This “inner voice” mechanism is an essential tool when learning a language and it develops all the time, but you have to have the first basis for an inner voice based on having heard the language prior to doing any written/reading work whatsoever, GoldList Method or any other. Pimsleur says “if you do not, if you simply read the words while hearing them, you will pronounce them with an American accent” (which is actually quite cool, as I didn’t think I could do an American accent) but for sure the Pimsleur courses published by Simon and Schuster are a good place to start for the fifty-ish languages offered by his Company.

Even better to start off with are the Michel Thomas Method audio-only courses, but they are more costly and only available at today’s date in twelve languages. Publisher Hodder doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to add to the portfolio, (edit – this may be about to change as Olly Richards recently “broke” the story of how he was invited to be a student for the forthcoming Korean course and that sounds like a great opportunity finally to broach this so-far, for me, untried language) and given the expense involved in writing the courses and people’s readiness to “share” the audio files without giving anything back, who can blame them? In turn Paul Noble, published by Collins, is something very similar to Michel Thomas (if anything even better) but is available in only French, Spanish, Italian and German with Mandarin Chinese now also available.  On that note, or, etc., are by far the cheapest way (using the larger 24 credits-per-annum scheme) to acquire a collection of any of these excellent series, plus also the series by Innovative Language Learning which are also of high quality and worth using in this respect, even though they are not purely audio-only and Audible puts pdfs of the written material in your library as part of the purchase.

More about the topic of material selection will come up in the next part, this is merely a look at what is available for the purpose of audio front-loading.

Now, you may have an inner voice already from previous attempts to learn the language or time spent in the country, or you may need to use materials to get one. In any event, having some idea of how it is pronounced, even without knowing how it is spelled, is an essential precursor to any written or read system, including the GoldList Method. Some courses can also make up for any lack you may have in the area of inner voice and the ability to source any Audio-only courses for Audio Frontloading, by having audio tracks and the correct order is to do these for a given chapter prior to committing anything to writing in the GoldList.  If you already do have a good inner voice for the language then you don’t really need to buy the audio with a language book, as that’s the purpose it serves.

2.5 Handwriting with a stylus is more conducive to long-term memory learning than using a keyboard (for most people – even the youth of today!)

Some people are going to disagree with me on this (and with reason) as there is now at least one generation of people who are far more comfortable writing on a keyboard than with a pen or pencil.  Certainly, the Goldlist method is all about being in a relaxed frame of mind and taking pride in a nice-looking piece of handiwork, and neuro-linguistic programming has plenty to say about how all that can help, so if someone really gets upset about using a pen and cannot get over it, then there are sheets available in Excel which may be used. I don’t really recommend it, though. The fact that the hand holding a stylus, the eye and long-term memory are connected is evident from the fact that we always sign our name in the same way even without thinking about it. Not only that but if you sign your name with a foot in the sand, or even with a stream of your own urine in the snow (for those reading in temperate climates) you will notice that the same basic signature is occurring; the same movements, only much less precisely because of lack of habit. Those who have had limbs amputated and learned to write holding a pen in their mouths end up with similar “facewriting” to the handwriting they used to have. So the whole body and brain are linked to memory when writing with these kinds of movements. I don’t think the long-term memory effect is nearly so strong with the keyboard, although I do acknowledge that there is some, as indicated by the fact that people tend to make the same “typoes” chronically.

2.6 Language learning requires coping with several different things, but the largest task is vocabulary (and collocation) acquisition.

You can, if you like, break down the process of language learning into various phases, a) the developing of an awareness of the sounds and cadence, or developing the inner voice and the ability to make a fair stab at pronouncing them ourselves is an initial stage, and we already looked at that. Then b) there is the writing system – even those that use the same alphabet as we do will use it differently. There will be spelling rules that we need to master at an early stage, and often these will be encountered early in a well-constructed course book. If you like, then c) (thematically not necessarily chronologically) you have the grammar. Now, you can look at grammar in a traditional systematic way, going through morphology and syntax, working through the various parts of speech. Another way of thinking of grammar which is helpful, is to divide it into regular paradigms (which we learn separately for some typical words but not for all the words which easily follow the learned paradigms) and irregularities. Irregularities can and should be learned together with the word that they apply to, so for example in English it is good to know when you learn the word “goose” that it has an irregular plural “geese”. That piece of information can come with the word when you learn it or it can come with the section in a book you’re using which deals with irregular plurals and lists that one among others. In fact it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it is both, either. Then, we have the simple issue that apart from the regular grammar, whether we are talking about words without irregularities that fit nicely into the major paradigms, words which are only irregular because they are affected by a spelling rule and are really quite regular when you spot that, or totally irregular words, the fact is that you are going to need something like 15,000 of them if your plan is to achieve a fluent and near-native mastery of the language. If living at a more basic level with the language and reading easier literature only is your goal, then 5,000 might be sufficient. Let’s work with that lower number for now, although there is no reason not to plan for the higher number if you mean to really work and live in a place where your target language is used.

On top of that, you have e) collocations – which word sounds okay with which other word, which sets of words sound natural and idiomatic or have a special meaning such as proverbs, sayings, and frequently-used cultural references, for example in English things from as large a range as Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible right through to Monty Python and recent pop songs or TV series. This is really the part which sets the advanced learner apart from the intermediate, and so there are fewer decent materials on collocations, and people often have to resort to literature, which in any event is the final level of language learning, as when a ship has gone all the way down the navigable part of a river and is now in the open sea and can pretty much go anywhere, that’s the feeling of the language learner who has broken the back of the major novels and plays, and for the really advanced, poems of his target language.

Being too bound to collocations means a learner will be easily understood but could sounds very clichéd in his use of language. Being too oblivious of collocations means that you will try to reform the collocations of your own language in the target language from the building blocks of the individual words, and because they are usually not the same, you can be totally misunderstood in spoken form and in writing. The ideal thing is to know the collocations well enough to be able to lay them aside in favour of creativity, having a good idea how doing so will sound to the native, in order to have an original style. But to do this well takes many, many years, and in fact the majority of polyglots will never achieve it for most of their languages as we are talking about a level which demands a huge amount of work on just one or two foreign languages, and in many cases residence in the country or marriage to a native speaker.

So, returning from that digression, as an ordinary learner, the proportion of the total of the work you do is going to be grammar and vocabulary depends on how tricky the grammar is, in the sense of how inflected it is. However, even if someone is studying a highly inflected language like Czech or Polish and only wants a 5,000 word vocabulary, the amount of grammar will only be 30-40% of the total. For most projects it is less than 20% of the total lines in a GoldList project.

A false idea exists in some language blogs and the comments in them about the GoldList Method that it is only for learning vocabulary, but we use it to input the grammar also, including the regular parts and the irregular parts. And we use example sentences and whole sentences, especially ones with typical phrases, collocations, sayings or important literary quotations. The order that it is done in depends on how it appears in the book you select. The Method is not a course. Some courses like to suggest their own Method but most can be done perfectly well with the Goldlist Method, examples being Assimil, LingQ or Glossika. All these three very good courses and more can be GoldListed instead of (or sometimes in supplement to) the suggested study approaches in the respective methods. The advantage is that you have one study record and set of statistics that takes you from the very first basic written course through a number of courses given by different providers. We have a section coming up dedicated to the selection of materials in which this important topic will be explored further.

The way the page looks will be a bit different when inputting for example a rule which needs writing maybe a few sentences over several lines, and a simple vocabulary line with one word in the target language and one word in the language we using to learn (which doesn’t have to be our native language, incidentally, and there may be good reasons to choose a quite different already known language as the language of the materials. Indeed, one GL project could have various languages which we use to learn the one language in the project. It all depends on the materials you line up for your purpose.

We tend to think of GoldListing languages, or subjects, or topics. However, it can be more useful to think of GoldListing projects, where each project is based on one or more sets of materials chosen to achieve a certain learning purpose, which may coincide with a language, or a school subject, but in fact doesn’t have to. You can adapt it to what you want with the materials you carefully select to be worth studying in a way that engages memory this way.

One thing is for sure: if you are doing a vocabulary-building project and decide to achieve a professional and near-native vocabulary of more than 5,000 words, or even anything approaching that number and you plan on using flash cards, then I wish you draught-free working conditions and very nimble fingers. And a lot of storage space. When you see how much work is involved in the simple manipulation of that number of flashcards in comparison with using GoldList notebooks, then you can see for yourself why efficiency here is to be striven for.

2.7 Language acquisition happens best using passive knowledge, it does not need continual activation, and when a large body of passively-learned material is needed to be more accessible, three days of immersion is all it takes to activate it.

This is something quite counter-intuitive to people who have been brought up on language classes where people are encouraged to speak as fluently as possible even when they only really have a small phrase book of things to say.  Invariably it involves learners engaging short-term memory functions to the detriment of the long-term memory, and so it is no surprise that classes like these don’t produce polyglots. In fact, some polyglots do like them as they can shine there, but for sure they do the actual work outside the classes, on their own, without a lot of chatter. I know a certain highly intelligent Russian lady with a doctorate in linguistics who teaches English to Russian schoolchildren. She is fully aware of the time-wasting aspect of this why teachers do it, and I asked her in that case why do teachers do it, why does she do it? She told me that the system requires it, teachers themselves are taught to do it and they do it unquestioningly because they know no alternative, even if they were knowingly unable to learn that way themselves, but more than anything else the parents also require it. The child will go home and the parents will ask him or her to “say something in English” and are more delighted if the child is able to parrot a few phrase-books phrases in English than they would be if he or she were not activated enough to speak but were already capable of reading Orwell or Huxley with understanding. We look for showmanship, and that involves speaking. Speaking is treated as the gold-standard of language learning whether anyone has something to say or not.

As mentioned already, what we are calling “active” and  “passive” knowledge is what some memory scholars refer to as “available” or “unavailable”. So as to make it clear what I mean, if there is a word which you would understand perfectly well if you read it, and you’d even know if it had been misspelt, but you would have had difficulty in accessing that word in normal speed speech and would need to stammer or hesitate, or look for a paraphrase, or insert the English word, then even though you know it I am saying you know it “passively”. When you are on the receiving end of the word or expression you are fine with it, but you might have a lot more difficulty in situations where the word or expression was supposed to have come from your own mouth without umming and ahing, then you know it “passively” according to the way we are using these terms here. If you can access it fluently in real-time speech without such hesitation, then you know it “actively” according to our glossary.

And we are saying that knowing things actively comes and goes depending on your geography and current activities, while that passive knowledge, if it is there in your long-term memory, will stay there.

We are also suggesting that the brain does a kind of bulk cache or bulk “upload” of a lot of similar information at once to the more active area, and that doing this takes about three days. How much time in hours, minutes and seconds it takes, which chemical pathways in the brain are involved or which organs in the brain are needed for it, this we can safely leave for amateur brain surgeons to worry about. These professionals are fine as long as they don’t do any practice lobotomies on me or mine.

It’s perfectly normal and natural for the brain to archive things not immediately needed after they have not been needed for a while. It is clearly also not a survival issue normally if they are not immediately fully available on the tips of our tongues all the time. There seems to be a limit to how much we can know in such an active or available way, ergo, those who insist on learning with that as their standard are in fact limiting themselves and certainly not doing themselves (or their students) any favours.

Activation takes time and usually is a more expensive way of learning in terms of money as well as time, and one thing the GoldList Method teaches us to do is to trust the process and to lean on a steadily growing passive knowledge. A passive knowledge means that we know a word when we see it, or hear it, and know about the word so we would know if it had been misspelt by the native writer, or the wrong grammar used on it. It does not require that this word springs to mind so fast as to be remembered in time for fluent speech.

If we know a large body of vocabulary and grammar so as to be able to read well, then all it takes is three days in the country using the language to get from this passive use of the language to being able to converse with greater ease. Sure, this means that you will be a bit frustrated for the first three days, but in the eyes of those around you, a miracle will appear to happen – it will look as if you learned the language in three days! This is why some people consider that immersion is a great learning strategy and send their kids on expensive language holidays. Sorry, but this is only going to do something if the kids have been paying attention and taking an interest in the language and enjoying it for some time prior to going. Once there, they’ll be activating previously learned things, and those who have nothing to activate will just be wasting their parents’ money (‘What are kids for?’, I hear you ask). Admittedly, the experience of travel is always going to be good and for some might be enough to set off the interest in the language that is necessary in order to start learning in a more meaningful way after the holiday. But they will not have that same huge apparent “advance” which the kids or adults have who are actually activating previously learned material.

This activation doesn’t last forever of course, and when you leave a place things will go back to normal within a few weeks. For language learners who don’t go with the flow on that and expect to be fluent on cue (well, they are not really, but just more fluent than they would be if they let nature take its course) put themselves on a hamster wheel of needless activation activities which must be repeated to keep current, which involve a very low hit rate of actual learning and more just going over old ground. Think of passive learning as bodybuilding and activation activity based learning as cardio. If your aim is to get big and strong, then you need to do the weights and observe proper breaks between training. If you just want to burn then do the cardio, but you won’t get big that way.

Just as it is with the muscles in the body, there is also some carry over to the way the brain works also. It’s all the same nerves controlling them, after all, although no doubt the armchair brain surgeons or even some genuine ones will be able to go into all the nuances of that.

And then there is the question of motivation. Some learners lose motivation because they don’t “feel” they are learning. In traditional learning, the feeling of progress was dependent on how “fluent” people felt, and of course because the sense of fluency could go up and down because of the perfectly normal and healthy processes of the brain “resting” some information, especially when other sets of information are needed for daily tasks, as well as because of tiredness, preoccupation, etc., many learners found such a measure frustrating and demotivating, and many have given up. It has also been hard for them to get started again when they felt they wanted to continue. In the GoldList Method, the subjective measure of how fluent we feel is supposed to be replaced by the objective measure of the growing counted inventory of words. This only ever goes forward, never backward (imagine a scale for a dieter that never went back up again, and how motivating it would be if it were true!) and to trust the process that once the project is finished you will have the planned corpus of material committed to your head, even if it is stored in a bottom shelf, so to speak, but that when you are finally in the situation of needing it, it is all just a question of a few days to activate.

Of course, conversation style classes can be very pleasant for other reasons, especially for people who like to meet others with a similar interest.  People have even met their romantic partners in such classes, and of course they offer a chance to ask questions. How good the answers are depends on the teacher of course, and you can come away just wishing you’d read the book properly or popped into the reference library or internet, where available. On the other hand, for many people it is a question of booking them, travelling to them, working in them at a pace dictated by the whole class, and then travelling back from them. Oh, and paying. There is a whole industry going on around language learning in an inefficient way.

Working at home through the book with a GoldList could have covered three or four times the work towards the final goal that the total time involved in going to the class gave them. The lucky ones will have had a teacher who doesn’t try to make them dependent on him or her, but coaches them to be self-sufficient in learning, and becomes almost a mentor in individual work, which is what’s essential to learn a language. I was fortunate enough to have such teachers, and at times unfortunate enough to have the other sort too, and learned at an early stage how to appreciate the difference.

There are those (I know several) teachers who are more coaches than teachers with the low-ethic or at least tied hands I describe above, and they do show the GoldList Method and other study techniques to the students. It it possible to be in a teacher and pupil situation around a Gold-List model and I will write more about that in the future, no doubt. If you do this you are very welcome to add your experiences to the comments.

Activation activities can be pleasant and I am not going to criticise anyone who uses them for a social reason, to make friends, etc. This is perfectly understandable, but it’s my duty to tell you the time spent on them is largely wasted as far as long-term learning is concerned. The fact is you will go through most of your life with most of your skills and knowledge safely stored in various archives of the wonderful filing system of your mind, and these things, be they languages or other skills and memories, are called up very quickly in terms of hours or days when the situation around you demands it, so do not be dismayed when these passive stores are not always available at the drop of a hat. That’s how your organism is designed to work, and fighting against it won’t help you, whatever your high school teacher may have told you. “Non fate guerra al maggio”, as E.M. Forster tells us in “A Room with a View“, quoting Lorenzo de Medici. That is; “war not with the May”, do not struggle against the springtime, don’t try to fight against what nature has provided, but rather make wise use of it. Which nicely segues to the last of the eight…

2.8 What is pleasant and unstrained, what is creative and enjoyable, what is done without a sense of obligation or stress, these things unlock the route to the long-term memory

Effectively this is all the same as what NLP says about the learning process, we are simply applying that to the idea in 2.1 about the duality of human memory. Scientists can tell us, and will no doubt discover more and more about endorphins, dopamine and various other chemical pathways in the brain which elicit a state of pleasure. Whatever the biological explanation might turn out to be, the feeling of achieving the coverage of material without needing to force learn in order to do it is critical to a learning programme, both in terms of keeping on with it and its return on time employed. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it. If you google the GoldList Method you will find that thousands of people use and really enjoy it, but the acclaim is not unanimous. Some critical voices exist. One of the reasons for criticism is that it is hard to understand my earlier explanations, and this document is an attempt to redress that quite justifiable complaint.

This document, which is also the basis for the coming book, overrides all previous explanations of the method made by me, and incorporates the findings of many users who have corresponded with me, asking questions and suggesting amendments both on and on the Facebook Group called The GoldList Method User Group, which have helped improve the way the method is explained. However the biggest reason for non-satisfaction with the method among people who did in fact manage to give the time necessary to understanding it is that they don’t enjoy it. They don’t like doing lists. They don’t like doing handwriting. It just irritates them. Now it may be that it is an acquired taste to make lists like this, or maybe something in the past of a person means that they acquired a dislike for this kind of process, and they just cannot get past it. Up to you to be sure about which it is, but it is for sure worth going through the process of acquiring a taste for handwriting and lists if it is going to shave 20%, 30%, maybe 40% off the time it takes you, on a results-per-minute-spent basis, to learn languages and all sorts of other things in the future.

If you really can’t acquire a taste for this, but have a taste for some other method which works for you, then no need to beat yourself up about it, but please don’t make negative statements on-line about a method which is helping many, many hundreds of other people and hopefully will help thousands more, and which, almost uniquely these days, is entirely non-commercial. Some people have done a lot of damage with their thoughtless comments, and it is not me they are hurting, but the people I am trying to help. Thanks.

Anyone wishing to share in the funding of the coming GoldList Method Book and other coming resources can now do so here.

5 thoughts on “GoldList Method Explained Part 2 – Basic Concepts

  1. I’m very interested in the 3 day activation period you mention. This certainly fits with my own experience – for example, I went to Spain earlier this year for ten days and whilst it took a little more than three days, suddenly Spanish ‘woke up’ in my head. I’ve had similar experiences in French and Italian also several times. It feels like the French ‘me’ or the Italian ‘me’ wakes up gradually…

    I’d be interested to know if you know of any more evidence or research published on this phenomenon?

    1. Not really. people keep telling me about these thousands of studies that get done on memory, but when I try and get into the literaturę I always end up finding irrelevancies. Even some academic guys tried to give me these Reading lists and most of them where unhelpful.

      In the end we know these things work because we do them and they work. People tell me to go to science but in fact the father of the science of memory was Ebbinghaus and who did he experiment on? Also just on himself, or at least that was how he arrived at his forgetting curve theory in the first place. I am told that I or we are all too subjective, so evidently an auditor in 2019 who is trained to be objective and who doesn’t get paid for this whatever happens doesn’t have the same ability to be objective as a German working 90 years ago getting his livelihood that way, but otherwise doing quite similar things.

      People like Bartosz Czekała can’t get over how much some of what we are doing contradicts “established memory principles” and therefore dismisses it as a waste of time in this big article of his which is doing the rounds and which he still hasn’t taken down despite having has his ass handed to him by Victor Berrjod on the science and his initial misunderstanding of the method (which doesn’t bode well for his overall grasp of the literaturę he claims to has read so many thousands of studies in) he still as of today’s date hasn’t taken down.

      Given the incestuous state of academia and the way its denizens seem more concerned with arriving at a concensus on anything which is politically supportable, which gives them safety in numbers and helps them look relevant regardless of whether it is helpful or works or not, I strongly advise people to see what works for them and if it works do it and don’t get worked up about whether so-called scientists are going to approve of it or not. If you look at what is going on in an area much more working in than memory and learning, namely the field of nutrition, we still see that there is not a single solution, they contradict each other, and fads in their thinking come and go despite or maybe because of the huge research budgets they can command.

      You, dear sir, note that the three day “activation” period (using the GoldList Method’s own definition of that word, which in mainstream memory science is given a different and less practical definition) is true because you remember experiencing it. Bartek and other sceptics would probably like to tell you that you persuaded yourself that it is true because you read something you liked in one of the things people have written about the Method and then reinterpreted your past experiences subjectively to give more credence to it. But I think most of us are actually self-aware enough not to do that, and this is an insult of our general knowledge and self-awareness.

      I round off by saying like I always do that I am happy to co-operate with any academic’s proper testing of this method vs Anki, or a non SRS system. I don’t have the research grants, thee guys do, but in all the time, over ten years already, that I have been calling out for this, nobody has taken me up on it.

      Skeptics don’t have a monomopoly on skepticism, you see. I am perfectly happy to be skeptical about them as well.

      1. Well I’m absolutely convinced from my own experience and not only in languages. I’m minded to write up some case studies …

        Memory is a curious thing as you know but we all know (from our own lives and that of our children) that language is acquired not learnt – my favourite analogy is with one’s local supermarket – no one ever made any attempt to ‘learn’ where things are in their supermarket, but everyone can find what they need after just a couple of trips – our infinite power of retention simply operates automatically and without effort.

        So, as you advocate … let’s harness that power for learning vocabulary!

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