Response to reader’s question “How long until I understand the language I am learning when spoken?”

''Note that in this diagram, sensory memory is...
Yet another diagram from the net about long-term memory that kind of misses the point and can even be dangerously misleading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m grateful for this question. It surely affects most learners at some stage – especially when learning a language for the first time, or doing it on your own for the first time/taking it seriously for the first time, as opposed to school learning.

It’s not really a question of time but of the presence of certain ingredients in your brain. If you have done at some stage a Pimsleur or some audio course so that you know what the words and phrases you are goldlisting are supposed to sound like in a pretty standard version of the language you are learning, and you have goldlisted about 10,000 words or more and taken them through to the end of silver if not gold levels, then you can do the following activity with a much higher assurance of success.

You need to get hold of an audio book for a book you can read in that language, and where there is a translation in English. The best place for this is Audible, where the app allows you also graded speeds of listening to the same material – and you can start off with a slower speed and build up. Listen to the same piece of 10 minutes long with short, ten minute breaks about three times over. This is not a long-term memory exercise it is an ear exercise and so you are perfectly OK using short-term memory techniques for this, they are quite appropriate. This is not the point at which you learn the words, you should have learned most of them before. This is where you push your ear and get it to go “aha”.

Once you have done this, you are likely to find that some parts of the spoken text have become a tad clearer and some still baffle you. You then open the book and read the text, which you should not have done before this point.

Having read the text, if there are any words that you do not know, please mark them and find them in the English text, please also make sure that anything you get from the English text which you didn’t get from the original – work out if that’s the fault of your lack of nuancing or too much freedom on the part of the translator. Add any missing knowledge back into your headlist and put it through the Goldlist system in due course.

You then should read the text while listening to it at normal speed. You can do this a couple of times if you feel it needed.

You should be able to speak along with the recording now, while reading the text. If this is hard at first, use the pause button and precede each recorded sentence with your own attempt.

Then finally you can go back to just listening but use higher speeds, like 1,25 or 1,5* normal.

You then move on to the next chunk of text, rinse and repeat.

But every so often you go back and listen to what you heard before.

Not only will this improve listening comprehension, but also accent.

Nevertheless, it is not a way of learning to the long term memory, it’s an aural fitness routine. You therefore, like I said at the beginning, should only start to do this once you are really nearing your goldlist target.

It is a way of getting to speaking fluency as well around the “listening” route described in my articles here on my Four Function Diagram.

This activity will increase the time to fluency but you need to vary the voices you hear. In due course listening to DVDs in the language which have subtitles will be useful, and then gradually listening to news reports. Start with TV ones, and then move out to radio ones where you do not have the crutch of the image.

Many thanks again for the question.

Final Thoughts (for now) on the Four Function Diagram


I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.

Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?

Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:

1. Reading
2. Writing
3. Listening
4. Speaking

Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.

Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.

We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.

Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak. Continue reading “Final Thoughts (for now) on the Four Function Diagram”

A question on the Goldlist Method

Français : A small list of common Louisiana Fr...
Français : A small list of common Louisiana French words different from normative French. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nice to see there are still all the time more and more people discovering the method online and finding out about it. One viewer asked me today:

Hello, in the last few days I’ve spent a few hours watching Your videos about the Goldlist Method. They have answered most of my questions, but one. Which is; as You’ve said, it is not a language course, or language learning method, but a way of learning vocabulary, so to learn a language the student also needs a book about the language. But how to use the course, if I’m using the Goldlist method? I mean, to make sure that the words I’ve learnt, I remember with the long term memory, I should not have contact with them for at least two weeks, but I would have if I were to use the course. Should I actually use the course (the way it’s meant to be used) after I learn all/most of the vocabulary contained in it? That would mean spending quite a few months learning the vocabulary, and not being able to really say anything in the target language. Or should I read enough about the target language’s grammar before? Though, that would mean spending some time learning the grammar, without knowing too much vocabulary to practice it with.

When I choose a language course, I try and find one that has vocabulary given in each lesson (as well as an index at the back, and graded grammatical explanations in each lesson. So I copy over the voicabulary items as single line items, and I copy over the grammatical paradigms as well as the explanations in summarised form as line items, just like noting things out of the book. I don’t need to write out all the dialogues and I don’t then usually need to do the exercises.

The fact that common words will inevitably be met again while I’m working further on the course is not an issue. These are the words which are so common of course you are going to learn them if you learn also the uncommon words, but in fact you shouldn’t panic unduly about seeing the words again, you just shouldn’t revise them again, but press on forward.

Even if you end up writing a word or grammar point more than once because you forgot you met it already, and only discover this on a later distillation, it’s really no big deal. Goldlist is quite a long project even though it’s probably the quickest way to learn in terms of total time spent, and these small inaccuracies will all come out in the wash.

Hope that helps.

An amusing thought about the Goldlist vs Flashcards

A set of flashcards demonstrating the Leitner ...
Image via Wikipedia

In various places I have heard people comparing the Goldlist to flash cards and saying that for them, flash cards are preferable.

I am not saying that flash cards are all wrong, certainly you can build yourself a manual SRS with paper flash cards. However, unike the Gold list they do give people the temptation to look at words they really memorised on the first day far too many times and this they create time wasting and drag on the learning process.

Even in the course of making the flash cards, if you make them yourselves, which is a job like setting up your headlist, you are making cards, and using cardboard on words, and 30% of them you memorised the first time you wrote them. So that’s a waste of paper for a start.

But the biggest negative for flash cards was brought home to me by Mike Lin on the comments on this blog on the Goldlist Method page – he says he prefers the compactness of the Goldlist to fumbling with a high pile of flash cards. That’s what got me thinking. I had exactly that problem in University trying to make enough cards to manipulate the vocab I was trying to learn.

Im Goldlist, one piece of paper has 25 words going through various stages of distillation. A single notebook just 2 cm thick can contain a headlist of 5,000 words going through the system. Let’s consider how thick a flashcard system would be that had 5000 words in it – each piece of card is about double the thickness of a page of writing paper in a book, so if a number of words written 25 per page half as thick is 2 cm deep, the pile of flash cards doing the same would be about a metre high! A 15,000 word challenge containing three bronze books and a silver book needs 8cm of shelf space, whereas flash cards would need 3 metres! You wouldn’t fit it in most rooms, you’d have to lay it on its side. Which is just as well, because of it fell over or got blown by the wind the time you’d need just putting it back together again would be another big waste. Along with the money spent on buying all that card.

I understand about the need to replenish the carbon sink, so maybe I shouldn’t be so discouraging to these flash card fans, but really – if you intend to do a big language learning project then just do the maths. Linguists who can count too will almost certainly agree that the goldlist is a far more efficient and manageable manual system than flash cards. If you just want to learn 500, then it’s not such a big deal, but still you’ll get there in less total time applied with the Goldlist method.



Goldlist Method Discussion on LingQ Forums – How to learn languages

Image representing LingQ as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

This is a link to a discussion on the Goldlist Method again by some pretty hardcore polyglots, most of whom seem to like the method, although unsurprisingly there are dissenting voices. After all, the people who have already learned a number of languages successfully will already in the main have their pet methods, and the fact that any people in that category are willing to add the method to their arsenal is a great boon. My main case for it rests however with the people who have written to me getting success for the first time in language learning by applying the method and understanding the underlying truths about language learning – which of course it doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on – which were the reasons they failed before with conventional classroom learning, and not from their own fault.

I don’t think I will join in the discussion on LingQ, one YT friend indicated that the discussion is there, but on previous occasions when this has been discussed and I’ve chimed in it has put the discussion to death a bit. And believe me it is a great pleasure for me to read intelligent, unfettered discussion about the method.

Please go and have a look. You don’t have to be a registered member of LingQ to review the site, although you might want to look around and see if a sub there is for you. I like Steve Kaufman and have no qualms about plugging his place. Most people spend a lot more on Language Learning than they’d need to spend to get a top-level membership on there, and be engaged in studying and teaching languages all day and every day.

Here are a handful of my favorite quotes from the discussion, by various people:

The method was first invented by an English guy living in Poland (I believe his name is David James.) He seems to be a little strange…

Heh heh.
Perhaps he is simply living proof that human genius and human madness are very close together!?

Very possibly. Who knows?

Some of this videos are funny, some aren’t.
I cannot possibly comment. None of them are particularly funny to me, I have to say.
I have been using the Goldlist method since last December, and it seems indeed that on average I remember 30% of the words in each list. I have only done the first distillation so far, but it seems to work indeed, and it is faster than an SRS protocol.
It is a kind of SRS protocol, but more drawn out, more trusting of the amazing human unconscience than either Anki or Supermemo, even though they reflect experimental findings about memory more closely than my method does. And of course it doesn’t need a computer. We spend enough time on them and finding diacritics can seriously waste your learning time. On the other hand just clicking between alternatives doesn’t engage you as much in the word as actually writing it.

I didn’t know about Mr James’ contribution to the polyglot book before Sebastian pointed it out in his post yesterday. I spent several hours last night reading most it, and I agree it makes pretty interesting (and unusual) reading.

I liked the way he describes learning Italian in classes at school, while teaching himself Russian at home using Linguaphone and the older version of “Teach Yourself”. The result: he got a top mark in the ‘O Level‘ Russian Exam, and a lower mark in the ‘O Level’ Italian exam – leaving his Italian teacher entirely perplexed! :-0

His recollections of having a little run-in with the KGB while on a student exchange in the old USSR during the 1980s is also quite funny in the telling (although the actual experience of a KGB-third-degree was doubtless anything other than ‘funny’ for a student 19 or 20 years of age!)

Very true.
Those CANNOT be his own eyebrows
It’s a fair cop, I borrowed them from the Eyebrow Library. They are in fact a pair of bookworms, and can often be found hovering over their prey.
I won’t do all of the ones I liked as I would prefer people to go and read the whole discussion in situ.