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 just 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 Triple drill, which feeds into the GoldList Book anyway, and activation activities. The same set of Basic Concepts explains all the parts of this.
These 8 Basic Concepts are:
- The concept of the duality of human memory (short-term conscious in addition to long-term unconscious)
- 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 (in the case of 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 is needed to be more accessible, 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 those 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 unconscious)
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 he discovered. For Ebbinghaus and these mentioned 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 had a ‘half-life’ of some sort.
However 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.
The GoldList Method bases 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 can be harnessed to plan memorising things such as tracking marks for hunting parties, or to agree in a society what the meanings are around words. (Dr Anthony Lauder and others contend that short-term memory is a necessary pre-cursor to any kind of human language development or learning).
The short-term memory 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, and the forgetting curve does kick in and by the close of two-weeks effectively all that the short-term memory has encoded is lost. What we are left with after two-weeks is only that which the long-term memory has “sampled”. If we don’t make any active memorisation attempt, but simply follow an algorithm, such as listening to a pop-song or liturgy or follow the route to work in a car, we discover after some time that in any event we have a detailed memory of the words of the song 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 and in many cases you’ve retained these memories from childhood and even not seen or heard the originals for many years.
So we see that the long-term memory is very powerful, but unconscious. 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 memorization which will seem to give us marvelous results, but results which disappear after two weeks and leave the learner demoralized.
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 turned back to white pieces of ordinary paper like the magic money in Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margerita”, 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, your own memory function. So that’s the way you need to behave with whatever you “pay in” to 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 (sorry, girls) 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 all very fair if you are not aware for 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 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) is the single most important thing which the GoldList Method is based on. You can experiment with it in various ways and still have something that works, but you can’t expect it to work if you don’t observe the two-week rule you will learn about when we come on to 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 and it is only illusory, and we should be following the Ebbinghaus view, then anyway the two-week cut off functions as a working approximation to the forgetting curve, and 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 spend less time on items we already do know and have retained, as these are distilled out. More on distillation in part three. It basically means that if you want to learn a language as fast as possible by for example the start of moving to a Spanish speaking country in six months, then Anki and Supermemo are better friends than GoldList. 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 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.
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 change from student, single status gradually 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 of all when you have a plan of 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 on-line system. They make a lot of the strength of statistics, do online learning systems, but you do not need a computer to get this effect, it is built-in to the GLM, a manual system.
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, channeling 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, 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 an “inner voice” in 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 intial “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 Methid 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, with publisher Hodder not seeming in any great hurry to add to the portfolio, 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 Collins but even better but in only French, Spanish, Italian and German with Mandarin Chinese on its way and already available for pre-order on Audible. On that note, Audible.com or Audible.co.uk, etc are by far the cheapest way (using a larger 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 price.
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 good 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 in writing in the GoldList. If you have 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 (in the case of most people – even the youth of today!)
Some people are going to find this one debatable, 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 Goldlist method is all about being in a relaxed frame of mind and in 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 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 hand, or even with a stream of your own urine in the snow (sorry, girls, again, you’re not having it so easy with me today but I do luv yer) 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 limbs amputated and learn 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.
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 and 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, going 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. The 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.
On top of that you have e) which is 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 cliched 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 natve, 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, how much 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 the order that it is done 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.
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, and 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.
One thing is for sure, if you 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 draft-free working conditions and very nimble figures. 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, although some polyglots do like them as they can shine there, but for sure they do the actual work outside the classes and on their own, without a lot of chatter. I asked one intelligent teacher of English to Russian schoolchildren who was fully aware of the time wasting aspect of this why teachers do it, and 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 couldn’t learn that way themselves, but more than anything else the parents also require it. The child will go home and the parents will ask “say something in English” and are more delighted if the child is able to parrot a few phrase-books phrases in English than if they 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.
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 s 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 process doesn’t last forever of course, and when you leave a place within a few weeks things will go back to normal. 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 and 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.
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 since 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, demotivating and many gave up. It was also hard for them to get started again when they felt they wanted to continue. In the GoldList Method, the subjective measure of how fluent I feel is 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, even people have met romantic partners in such classes, and of course they can be a chance to ask questions, but 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. 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.
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 qucily 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 highschool teacher may have told you.
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, various 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 paper is an attempt to redress that quite justifiable criticism.
This 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 Huliganov.tv and on the Facebook Group called “The GoldList Method Users 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 did acquire 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.