Why I love the Goldlist Method

I’m a huge believer in the power of vocabulary. That’s why even my blog is named ‘Twenty thousand words”. I kind of view my goals of language learning through the idea of knowing enough words to be able to express myself and understand.

I know, I know – on the one hand, every language learner needs to learn vocabulary, and on the other hand, it takes more than knowing the words. Of course I don’t try to learn languages by only cramming vocabulary in my memory.

But it’s a question of focus. I know people who like to pay as little attention to vocabulary as possible. I like to actively, constantly and consciously build my vocabulary all the time, in addition to other learning methods.

This stems from two things: Firstly, previous experience. When I learned Swedish, it was after my teacher started to give lists of words to learn and have vocabulary tests every week, that my ability to speak and write just rocketed. It resulted in me finding the words more easily in every situation and that gave me more confidence.

Secondly, I’m the kind of person that even in my own native language I select my words very carefully and take time to find the most exact expression possible. So it’s quite hard for me to start speaking a new language (sure it’s hard for everyone but I guess I struggle more than average). Of course, it’s something I just need to practice – trying to make myself understood with the words I do know. In any case, because I really can’t change the way I am, it makes things easier for me to keep broadening my selection of words every day.

Ok, I guess, there’s a third point: I just like learning vocabulary. I enjoy words. Just marveling how they sound and look like. Seeing the connections to other languages I know. Sometimes suddenly even realizing what could be their etymology.

I suppose that’s why I’m really in love with the Goldlist method.

The Goldlist method

There are many different methods out there for learning vocabulary. Flashcards and spaced repetition is popular, for example – and as I mentioned in my previous post, I like that techinque in Babbel review manager. I never felt like making my own flashcards, though.

My current method of learning vocabulary is the Goldlist, and it is the best thing ever. For me, that is.

It was developed by “Uncle Davey”, David. J. James, and it is described in full detail here. Very brief explanation: you write down words in sets of 25, go through the list after 2-8 weeks and leave out one third of the words, the ones you remember the best; you write the rest of them again, and after 2-8 weeks you go through them again and leave out one third, and so on.

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An opening of my French Goldlist

The theory behind it is, that you’re not cramming your short term memory with words, but putting them straight to your long-term memory. You end up repeating only the words that are tougher to memorize. And you simply learn by writing the words. I love that. “From the pen to the hand, and from the hand to the brain”, said my German teacher. At least for me, that actually works.

Goldlist is not a fast-forward button of vocabulary study, using it takes quite a lot of time (like any other method, I think). And it is certainly not for everyone, I can imagine.

Here are some reasons why I think it suits me so well:

1) I love empty notebooks

Ever bought a notebook just because you couldn’t resist the empty pages? I do that every know and then, buy new notebooks even when I have no idea what I could use them for. I pass by the shelf with notebooks every time I go to a bookstore. I take pleasure in writing on an empty page of a brand-new Moleskine. Most of the time, I carry around at least three different journals.

I don’t know if I’m just strange in that way – but I think at least the an behind the Goldlist method shares that strangeness. You get a reason to buy those notebooks and enjoy filling them up page by page!

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Me and my stash of spare notebooks

2) I’m busy but like to take a few breaks throughout the day

I don’t really have a fixed day or hour for my language learning, I just take a break here and there, whenever I have time. Goldlist is excellent for that kind of schedule. I can always find a moment even in a busy day to write one set of words. One Goldlist session takes about 20 minutes for me. In between working on two projects, for example, I may use the Goldlist session as a way to clear my head from the previous task, so it’s easier to take on the next one.

I actually find my Goldlist learning sessions a relaxing moment. The whole process of taking out the notebook, writing down the numbers, carefully writing each word and enjoying how they look like on the paper, and then reading through the whole list is somehow soothing to me.

3) I enjoy words

Yeah, like I said, I just like to pay attention to words. That’s what you do with Goldlist – take one word at a time, and just let it sink in.

Trial and error

I have had some trial and error experiences with the method. Three things I have noticed are important to remember:

1) Use it parallel to other learning methods, especially reading or listening

A year ago, I did try to use goldlisting for “defrosting” the little skills I had, meaning that I didn’t use any other methods. The problem is, I don’t know if it worked or not, because that way I had no point of reference, no way to prove I was learning (except for the fact that I did remember the 30 % of words of each set of words even after a month or two).

The best thing about Goldlist is when I listen to my audiobooks and recognize a word I have written a while ago. And that’s the thing those people who go “never only learn vocabulary” mean: you need to meet the words you have learnt in contexts they can be used in, so you actually learn to recognize and use them.

2) Don’t try to sprint

Sometimes I had weeks when I had a lot of time and got very excited about my Goldlist and wrote 5 to 10 sets of words a day. Usually that phase was followed by weeks of not using my Goldlist at all. That is not very good.

It doesn’t matter really, if I sometimes have even longer breaks from goldlisting – I actually dug my list up after a break of over half a year, and because the whole point is you learn words straight into your long-term memory, I could actually remember approximately one third of the words and was thus able to continue from where I had left it.

However, I still think a better way is just to constantly do one to three sets of words a day. That way, my vocabulary keeps growing slowly and steadily. When I have more time for language learning, I can just use more time on my other study methods, and experience the results of my widening vocabulary when it gets easier and easier to read, listen and speak.

3) Try to find everyday context

I think this is something I still need to work on: Actually using the words I learn for producing text or speech. The set of methods I now use mainly improve understanding speech or written texts.

My vocabulary book has an example of each word used in a sentence, and I always read those, but even more motivating is when I can think of a situation or a sentence where I could use the word in my own life. Sometimes, especially when I do the distillations, meaning that I leave out the words I think I have best memorized, I scribble down small sentences below the list of words, using the word in a sentence I think I could actually use somewhere.

But in general, I do need to find ways to more actively use my French every day. Now I’ve found the Instagram Language Challenge quite helpful for that!

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13 thoughts on “Why I love the Goldlist Method

  1. I’d never heard of this technique before, I think I’ll give it a try – it may be just what I need for help with learning the day-to-day French vocabulary that I struggle with (like kitchen utensils, household words etc.) I find using social media in French, watching movies/series dubbed into French, writing to-do/shopping lists in French can help with integrating a foreign language into my everyday life 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your comment 🙂 Great to hear this inspired you to try the method! I hope you find it helpful. The original post I linked to has very detailed instructions that help you use it right.

      And thanks for sharing some tips on the everyday use! Do you know any good series that would be originally in French? I’ll have to try making French shopping lists too! 😀

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      1. I’m a big fan of lists so this method of learning vocabulary sounds right up my street! I can certainly recommend a few 🙂 “Les Revenants” was the first French series I saw (fantasy-supernatural but mixed with reality) – there are two series so far, I found it really addictive (just be sure to find the French one, as there has been an American remake entitled “The Returned” and it just isn’t the same!) “Marseille” is good if you want a gritty political series; set in Marseille it has a political election at the core, but plenty of other interesting side stories – it’s available on Netflix and there’s due to be a second series. This summer “Disparue” aired on the BBC (think it was originally a Canal+ production, but not sure) and that was also really good – a detective/crime series about a young girl who goes missing. I’ve also heard that “Un village français” is supposed to be good – it’s about life in France under the German occupation. If you try any of them I’d love to hear what you think!

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  2. I’ve always been an eager listmaker myself, so yes, that is probably another reason I love the method!
    Perfect, thanks! I was actually planning to take a break from my French Babbel course next month and take on some more “natural” ways of learning, like watching films or series, so some tips was exactly what I needed! I’ll let you know which one(s) I ended up trying 🙂

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  3. This is neat! I had seen this method around on the internet but never really understood what it was. Thank you for sharing how it’s working for you! My main vocab intake is through ANKI, but there’s definitely something magical about old-fashioned pen and paper.

    Speaking of which… I’m giving you a big gold star for teaching me what to do with all my extra notebooks, haha 😉 I’ve got so many of them around the house!

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  4. Thank you for summarizing the Goldlist method. I read the entire article from ‘Uncle Davey’ and got a bit confused trying to figure how it could be used. I have one question. What happens if you don’t remember those best 30% words very well (even though those words are your ‘best’ remembered words). I fear I would distill my original list of words to 19 words (from a 25 word list, let’s say,), focus on the 70% I don’t remember as well after 2 weeks, but forget the ‘best’ 30% words within 2 weeks (those 6 or 7 best words from the original list). I can easily seeing myself forgetting more and more words as time goes on with such spaces of time between reviewing the words that are distilled. Do you have this problem? Mark

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    1. Glad you found it useful. I agree that the original post is quite complicated and confusing and I also read some kind of a summary about the method from someone else’s blog first.

      I also sometimes feel like I don’t remember so well the words I distill out, and worry if I actually will remember them after a while. Sometimes I then take extra time to think of example sentences where I use the words, and write down those sentences somewhere. Uncle Davey also writes that you shouldn’t worry too much if you feel like you didn’t remember a word so well when starting the distillation – the act of choosing to leave a word behind also plays a part in memorizing the word better.

      I think the key answer to this worry, however, is in the “trial and error” section of my post. Especially important is to use other learning methods and use the words you learned as much as possible. I do think I’ve probably forgotten some of the words I’ve distilled out with Goldlist. Or I still know them, but they are out of my active memory, so I can’t find them when I need them. The words that actually stick the best are the ones I run into in reading or listening after having learnt them with Goldlist. One method I’ve found really useful in combination with Goldlist learning is to read a book (or listen to an audiobook) you’ve already read in your own language.

      So basically I’ve just trusted the method and tried to read and listen to the language a lot. Probably I don’t remember all the words from Goldlist, but all in all, I do feel like it’s helped me on the way to reading and listening and speaking easier, with a broader vocabulary 🙂

      I hope this was at least a little bit helpful!

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      1. Very helpful! Thank you for your thoughts. I use Anki for a flash card approach of word memory and also focus on the 1000 most common words in French based on a current frequency dictionary. I figure that leaning these words at the beginning of my French adventures will help a lot as I also learn to listen, speak and write. I will have to try the Goldlist method along with my other methods to see what works best for me.

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      2. I also find trying out different methods very useful! It even allows you to pick the best aspects of each method, to slowly create your own methods 🙂

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  5. Hey! Although I don’t think the Goldlist method is for me, I just wanted to let you know you’re not the only crazy person about empty notebooks (I technically bought only notebooks in the museum shops in Paris, so my already big collection of notebooks suddenly grew by 7 😀 ).

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    1. Just found this, I’d missed it for some reason! So sorry for not replying and saying thanks for the comment!
      Empty notebooks are just sooo addictive. I’ve been crazy about them as long as I remember. Back when I was a kid it was a typical birthday present you’d give a friend – a cute notebook. Too bad that nowadays one has to buy one’s own notebooks!

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