GoldList Method Explained Part 3 – Selecting Materials and making a Plan

3. How to go about starting a GoldList Project – correct selection of materials and creating a plan

The GoldList Method, as explained in earlier Parts, takes you from very near the beginning of a language, as soon as you have a good idea of how to pronounce it, to an intermediate or advanced stage.  (If you don’t yet know how to pronounce it, then review the remarks on “Audio Frontloading” and obtaining an “inner voice” in Part 2.4.

It is essential to select materials which correspond to whereabouts you are in the big picture of learning the language, or languages, you have in mind.

Audio Frontloading materials such as Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, Pimsleur, etc. were discussed previously in Part 2.4, so they won’t be repeated here.

3.1 Language learning series general course books

A beginner who is also a beginner to language learning generally might select a course from one of the following publishers, very typically:

– Teach Yourself series by Hodder
– Colloquial series by Routledge
– Living Language
– Assimil
– Glossika

And there are several others, plus one-off courses of varying quality for particular languages. (1)

Let us say that you want to select a course to complete using the GoldList Method. Typically they will have lessons with a conversation or a reading followed by a vocabulary for the reading, grammatical explanations, possibly cultural notes and then exercises. Then you rinse and repeat for the next lesson and maybe you go through twenty or thirty lessons and then at the end you get things like keys to the exercises, summaries of tables of grammar, and then you get the word lists or dictionaries of the words used in the book and hopefully these go both ways so you have one going into the language and one coming out of the language back into the source language the book is written in. Then maybe you have a thematic index also so that you can look up a grammar point.

The way to choose is to check that all of these elements are indeed there, that the vocabulary used in the book is as large as possible (I usually count the vocabulary list at the back, how many pages there are and how many on a typical page) and that the book itself has an appealing layout and doesn’t look off-putting to you in terms of graphics, font, paragraphing, and even the paper that is used. One publisher I won’t name, but whose initial is B, for example, has quite good materials but they are on paper too stiff for the binding in some cases and fall apart before you can finish the book. I suppose that’s one way to guard against the perils of book-sharing and the chance of picking up a second-hand copy in a charity store. (Please support your local charity bookstore, especially Sue Ryder, by the way). In fact if it were not for the poor binding, I would have much better things to say about that publisher with a B…

If all else is equal, I would choose the book with more pages and a bigger vocabulary, and it certainly does help if there are recordings, although it is preferable to use audio-only to gain the inner voice as explained in Part 2.4, and if you have done that properly then you may not need the recordings and in fact they can get in the way if you listen within the fermentation period. If there are recordings, I would listen to them just after or before doing the Distillations and the Headlist, and not in between times. If you find that you know how to pronounce things anyway, then just leave them out.

Once you have worked through the course via the lessons, you can use the mini-dictionary at the end of the Course to “mop-up” ie make sure that you got all the vocabulary.

In Part 4 we will be using, for the sake of illustration, some chapters of Assimil’s Indonesian course (in the German version) by kind permission of Phil Gagneur. Assimil is an example of a course with its own intrinsic method but which works ideally with the GoldList Method also.

3.2 Specialist Grammar books

A beginner to a language who is seasoned as a learner of other languages might wish to start from scratch with a more comprehensive grammar approach, and thus avoid the need to input the grammar more than once, as she progresses to the higher points of grammar. There are some excellent series on the market for this approach, especially the Essential Grammars by Routledge. They start from the beginning but take a deeper dive than the general learners’ course books, and they may well use terminology which is challenging for a person new to language learning generally, but which will help those who are familiar with it.

Since those books often assume a certain level of vocabulary while the course books themselves do not, and introduce vocabulary together with grammar in the lessons, a dictionary is useful. This brings us nicely onto the next point.

3.3 Dictionaries

Dictionaries are very helpful things but if you want to use them to make sure you know 15,000 words, for example, then you need to be aware that that is a very big undertaking which will last you a couple of years at a leisurely pace.  To be precise, (and with the GLM we actually can be fairly precise, if only in terms of normative work hours) the mathematics goes like this: 15,000 lines distilled off totally means 45,000 lines. At a run rate of 50 lines per hour, which is typical, that’s 900 hours. If you want to do a quite leisurely five hours per week, this means you are looking at between three and four years of work, whereas if you are doing it at 30 hours a week then that’s seven months of relatively intense work.

More rewarding are the frequency dictionaries which are available based on corpuses of words, or more precisely lemmata (I won’t explain that as there are good explanations on line) and have example sentences showing usage. The Routledge frequency dictionary series contains some excellent titles, some are not so useful without a teacher such as the Japanese one as there is no Romaji guidance to pronunciation, but if you have a one-on-one teacher you can certainly use this book to good effect. Most of them, however, are good for self-study. The big advantage to this approach is that they take you through the 5,000 most frequently used words of a language in the order they are used, which gives you a very good Pareto effect(2), and is therefore very effective and motivating.

Words in isolation, as presented in some less sophisticated dictionaries, should come with a health warning. What sets the wheat apart from the chaff when it comes to language learning is knowing what word is naturally used with which other words. These “collocations” as they are called can range from proverbs or commonly used quotes from high culture or pop culture, and knowing these is what really gets you into the in-crowd. If you say to a German “Jetzt wird wieder…” then most of them with respond with the remainder of the two line chorus of a song by Geier Sturzflug. They will regard you as having a deep insight into their culture if you know this kind of thing, and it all available on YouTube, but at an initial level what you need is a phraseological dictionary. More ability with collocations follows inevitably on from exposure to life in the country and the correct use of collocations is obtained best by people who live in a country or do a lot of very varied reading in a language, and preferably both.

If you can get your hands on a collocation dictionary with frequency information, that would be a very valuable tool, but you will see if you search for such a thing that there are quite a few academic papers on how one might go about making this holy grail, and not many actual products we can buy and use for most languages. At the moment the Routledge Frequency Dictionaries are the best we have but for serious study you need to have a phraseological dictionary around as you work through the words. Another excellent series for phrases is the “Mot-à-mot” franchise by Hodder which is also in Spanish and German as well as French, and is ideal for transition to a more advanced level from a basic to intermediary level.

Some phraseologisms go very well between languages as they have often been borrowed from neighbouring ones. The term for a “grey eminence” is well-known in German, Polish and numerous other languages which translated it from French, while English speakers tend not to be familiar with the idea and will find it explained to them better if they look up the French term “éminence grise”, but on the other hand the English term “grey matter” (originally from Latin) is often used in the same way in German and other languages, and exists in Russian as “серое вещество” but referred to rather less frequently, and therefore apt to cause confusion. This awareness is what marks out advanced learning from beginning and intermediate learning, and all this can also be placed into a GoldList if you can get good material for it, and that’s the key.

In summary the best dictionary would be a frequency dictionary of collocations, but failing these appearing on the market, the best things to use are frequency dictionaries and phraseological ones, with taking a shorter learner’s dictionary of the correct number of words being a reasonable alternative. Under no circumstances would I recommend GoldListing dictionaries with over 20,000 words, although on the other hand I know people who have done even that to good effect, while living in the country.

3.4 Literature

In order to get this kind of awareness of actual colloquial usage without being in the country and in an effective as well as pleasant way, if you are already an advanced learner you can select using literature as a means of getting to the very top of the tree in your language. This does not have to be fictional literature, such as the classics of the language, although there is a good deal to be said for looking at them, that’s why they are the classics, but for those unwilling to acquire that taste you can take more pulpy, airport-style fictional works and also popular non-fictional works(3).

Some of the more respected business books have been translated into numerous languages and for example in the case of “Persuasion” by Professor Robert Cialdini of the University of Arizona, a leader or maybe the leader in this very practical and useful field, I found two completely independent translations into Russian to use with an English club I ran during my time as National Director of Audit in Russia with one international Audit Firm, one of which was a more literal read very good for learning English from Cialdini’s classic sales text as a Russian, the other was a team effort which was based on Cialdini and added more examples and illustrations and that was the recommendation for people who probably understood already over 90% of the English but who found the actual topic itself interesting. Using the language you’ve acquired to learn or teach other skills, (including other languages) is also a great way to get to a really advanced status.

One thing I heartily recommend to advanced learners is something I call Advanced Drill, or TripleDrill, because it uses three sources – a foreign language audiobook, the text in that language, and a good translation into a language you already know well. Firstly you listen to the audiobook on Audible (which can be done at varying speeds as there’s a speed control in the program) then anything you didn’t understand or are not sure how to write can be looked up in the text afterwards. If you are still not sure while reading the original text, then you can look it up in a translation in your own language, and if you are still not sure how the translator got to the translation they did, then a dictionary or Google (sometimes Wikipedia beats Google Translate on the head, brutally, by the way, but mainly for nouns of things you could expect to find in an encyclopedia) is the next step, and a Facebook polyglots’ discussion group after that if there is still any uncertainty. You keep the annotations in the foreign language text and make sure that they are all then harvested into a GoldList headlist so that they end up in your long-term memory.

For TripleDrill, selection of material is quite challenging, but here is how I go about it. First, you want to be sure that the piece is not in archaic or unusually ornamental language which could make your ordinary use of the language sound strange. Secondly, ideally it should be a piece which has been influential on the culture and the language you are studying, if you can have that together with the first premise. Thirdly, you need to be able to find audio which is unabridged on Audible with a narrator whose voice you want to emulate. Often that will mean that men will do better with a male voice actor and females with a female voice actor, as this enables more internalisation of the voice into your own diction. Fourthly, you need to check that you can get the text of the foreign language original, which is usually the least of the problems, and fifthly you need to be sure you can obtain a reasonable close and accurate translation. If not, you could be spending too much time with a dictionary and that can be very tedious and break the process a lot. If you get to the end of the list of five with all ticks for a particular piece, you’re good to go on TripleDrill, but remember, that this one is for the advanced guys.

3.5 Material Planning

A plan should link back to your motivations for learning the language and deliver sufficient knowledge to enable you to get what you want from your learning of the language. An example of a detailed Plan for learning Mandarin Chinese over 1260 hours is given here.


A plan can be changed during its execution if new information appears, such as a change to the factors of motivation. It doesn’t need to be the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be changed, but it is a very good way to give yourself an overall roadmap. This is like your syllabus which would be given you in a formal course of study. There is much good will in our GoldList community, and you can have your plans looked at by fellow learners in the GoldList Method User Group on Facebook, as well as the other Groups that exist on Facebook for language learners. There is also the rather less active “Linguists and Polyglots” group on LinkedIn which you are welcome to use.

So, in summary, from beginners’ courses kicking off with “How are you?” through to a learned commentary on Finnegan’s Wake, or the equivalent in the language you desire, one single GoldList project can in theory take you through the entire process as you complete one type of material after another, going from near beginner to superstar counting every step of the way. This enables you to have a very ambitious plan, and maintain you motivation while carrying it out over (probably) multiple years.

Be very clear, learning a language is a marathon task, learning several is an Iron Man marathon for the mind and especially for the memory. It needs time and it needs motivation. You need to have probably multiple reasons and/or very pressing reasons to spend all this time, and even then motivation can soon flag if you have no map. Your GoldList is like a road map that shows you how far you have come, in terms of lines, and how many more you need to do.

(1) For Polish speaking learners, do not overlook ESKK which has good quality language courses. However, there you are paying for someone to mark your exercises and using GLM means you don’t really need the exercises.
(2) This refers to Wilf Pareto, who discovered the principle that in natural situations 80% of one constant can be found in 20% of the population, and this is accessed by ordering that population according to the constant. So if you line up the coins in your pocket for example so that the highest value are on the left and the lowest on the right, and then take back only 20% of the coins by number, you’ll generally find you have taken 80% of the monetary value. This works of course not every time, but comes out that way on frequent repetition with other samples. Here we organize words by their frequency of use and discover that with the 5,000 most commonly used words you can do 80% of what an educated native can with 25,000 words.
(3) Although the GLM is very suited to long-term memory learning, not every subject is suited to that kind of learning. Long term memory learning an internal office phone book will be less useful if it all changes round or you move to another place, for example. Even a lot of law or standards in accountancy are subject to change and I have actually had the problem of remembering the old ways too well to be as adaptive to the new as I might have been. For medical students anatomy is well-suited to long-term memory learning, but the latest recommended treatments and dosages less so. For these kinds of information, long-term memorisation is not such a great solution as keeping a current version of the directory at your fingertips. When trying to go into innovative topics with the Method, always ask yourself, “will it change?” This is important either when doing non-language topics in GLM or using languages to learn further topics, or further topics to improve languages.

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

9 thoughts on “GoldList Method Explained Part 3 – Selecting Materials and making a Plan

  1. Hello! I really appreciate the wealth of information you provide here. I have been a student of Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan for approaching a year now, and I am now planning to start my first Gold List for Chinese. I will be taking quite a different approach with my plan than you did with yours, since I am already a year in and accustomed to writing characters, at this stage I am finding that pinyin is not so necessary anymore.

    But what I really want to ask you here is, as it seems you are often using multiple texts from different publishers over the course of learning a new language, in my experience there is always going to be some amount of overlap that occurs across systems in terms of vocabulary. Do you make any attempt to avoid distilling the same information from multiple sources, or do you just accept it and consider it to be further reinforcing your existing knowledge? My guess is that if a particular word has already been distilled into long-term memory, then we should be able to recognize at first glance that we’ve already studied it, and therefore it should be easy to move past it without adding it into our headlist. I don’t want to have a lot of redundancy in my list, but also want to use my time as efficiently as possible. Very curious about your take on this. Thanks!

    1. If you know a word or character, you wouldn’t enter it again, but clearly there will be many words that you see many times over. If you are writing a sentence in order to look at a particular construction or colloquation, you wouldn’t sorry that you know half the words in it, because this time you were about learning a different aspect to it. It won’t always be simply vocabb, necessarily.

      I would not worry about the fact that on distillation you will invariably find that you reheadlisted things which you forgot you had even ever seen and only on distillation a few times you realise that you did this. That’s simply proof that the system s working. There will always be a little redundancy, the trick is to have less redundancy here than you would in another system, and the levels of needless repetition of stuff which has clicked and we just don’t know it yet in most SRS’s is a very big share of the learning effort.

  2. Hi David
    Just a quick question: when Goldlisting a Teach Yourself course book, would doing the exercises therein constitute activation, and therefore be something to be avoided? I mean the typical exercises at the end of chapters, eg fill-in-the-blank, manipulate grammar, translate, situational questions …

    1. You might have a quick look and see if there are any good phrases or new words in there worth including. Otherwise I might save them to test myself after several distillations.

  3. Hi Dr Huliganov

    I’m getting on great with Goldlisting for Romanian – thank you so much for the method – I’m utterly convinced by it.

    My question is: what do you think of DLI (Defense Language Institute) courses? They’re very old, but have lots of repetition which is quite useful for me – although an experienced language learner it goes in a bit more slowly with me these days (I’m 66).

    Because DLI is boring I supplement it with more modern stuff from Romanian Pod 101 (Innovative Language Learning) and some great Youtube videos from Learn Romanian with Nico.

    DLI are based on the audio-lingual method – ‘old hat’ now, but do you think it has any merit?


    Sheffield, England

    1. I don’t want to knock these courses because I also am no spring chicken and well remember the days when languages labs existed in schools and universities and the one we had in Cambridge at the Sedgwick site was very well stocked with these courses and I listened through several of them. I still remember the subdued lighting and the crisp recordings as they seemed by the standards of the time coming through the headphones. Nowadays everyone carries a language lab around in their smartphone and the old style labs are museum pieces. And in a sense so are the DLI courses, Linguaphone courses and the other stars of that particular music hall.

      In particular I appreciated DLI for being available in rare languages. They did have the largest range and for some languages they were the only material available.

      When it comes to Romanian for an English speaker who already has some familiarity with Romance languages, if you really would like to achieve a high level in Romanian, I suggest the following course of action.

      1. Audio only from the Pimsleur course. It is a nice 30 lesson course and if you are on the 24 credit a year deal on you can get it for 6 credits which is less than thirty quid. If you don’t want to join Audible then theres this version which gives you the course in 6 parts for less than 18 quid a pop (that has my Assocoates code in, I say for the sake of transparency. You don’t pay any more but I think I’d get 3%, but like I say, Audible is a lot cheaper.


      Finally you can buy the traditional Pimsleur with the CDs also on Amazon


      As you see that’s 320 quid, which only makes sense as a way to make people hurriedly buy the cheaper priced options. I hope nobody is actually paying this needlessly high price. By the way, all these links have my Associate code in, just so’s you know.

      After the audio-only stage, which will give you a very good idea how Romanian sounds so that you have an inner voice, I would do the Dennis Deletant course in Colloquial or his TY series book. He made a jolly good job of both. You’d just GL the whole course, it goes to about 2500-3000 lines.

      You can then get into the more advanced phase of study with these two books:


      and the Routledge Frequency Dictionary of Romanian. The problem with this is, it doesn’t exist yet. Long overdue. I have written to Taylor and Francis to try to get word of a publication date or some kind of status report on this but it’s not there now.

      The products purporting to be frequency dictionaries for Romaina using English as a base available right noe are inferior. Best of them is the Kindle 10,000 word one and that is hopeless and misleading. Just really a list of words with one translation and no usage hints, and on top of that tends to crash the Kindle. Depending on when the Routledge series on comes out, it might be better to finish the other courses and wait for that one.

      Oddly the situation in French is little better. Maybe the best of the smaller dictionaries is Langenscheidt over German. But like I say, I would wait for now for a proper frequency dictionary with usage examples, and from a credible corpus.

      And you can always start on some Romanian Advanced Drill as well, at that stage.

      1. Thank you very much for your prompt reply and detailed recommendations for learning Romanian.

        I’d Goldlisted 21 chapters of DLI Romanian, 980 lines, nearly died of boredom, but I have to say that the DLI approach dins the grammar into your head.

        I too remember language labs coming in, and feeling slightly scared of them, but maybe that was to do with the fact that we had to go to the neighbouring boy’s grammar school to use the lab(!)

        I have obtained the TYS Romanian book. It looks fearsome.

    2. At the time they were very good courses. That was the era of the language lab, and these days as you know language labs are superseded by mobile phone apps and mp3s and courses available in Audible.

      I don’t think there are many bad courses. I think also that a course is one thing and a method is another. Some people seem to get the two ideas confused and even get very doctrinaire in their wrong understanding, because they have bought courses which call themselves methods when what they clearly are are courses.

      If you can apply a learning approach and a learning philosophy to a variety of materials and even not necessarily only language leanring, as is the case with GoldListing, then it’s definitely a method. It is a modus operandi. If you publish a graded set of lessons with points of grammar and vocab for people to learn, then that’s a course. You can suggest a method to go with the course, for example Assimil, LingQ, Glossika, but you can take exactly the same materials and use them perfectly well with GLM, so they are a course with or without the suggested method. Once you have a teacher involved, then you get a course and a certain method imposed by the rigours of keeping a classroom going and giving people work to do outside class. But two teachers with different views can get different outcomes from a class out of the same materials depending on the buy-in they can get for the methods they are using.

      Given all the above, I can say nothing bad about those old courses other than the fact that they are by now rather out-of-date when it comes to the prices and even the currencies you’ll find in them, they may not teach you how to talki about uploading this and clicking that, because people didn’t do that in the 1970s, but for those nostalgic for the old days, this might be a considerable advantage.

      FSI are best for courses which don’t have much modern popular stuff by TY or Routledge, Paul Noble, Michel Thomas’s acolytes, or Innovative.

      You talk about Romanian, well, Romanian has a nice Pimsleur which goes far enough to really give you all the audio frontloading you will need to go ahead GoldListing the Dennis Deletante book, but there’s no harm in listening to the recordings specific to that book either. I am not sure mine is the most recent edition but I think the book is very good.

      Unfortunately, once you get to the end of it, there doesn’t seem to be much to take you further on. Ramona Goenczoel’s Essential Grammar is good, but there isn’t a Frequency Dictionary by Routledge for Romanian and they tell me there is nothing in the pipeline.

      You can of course try to subscribe to a Romanian online newspaper, and use context and Google translate to help with the understanding.

      But first do the course and you’ll be able to cross that bridge when you come to it.

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