The Gold List vocabulary method

In the set of Russian language learning videos I linked to a few days ago, there were two that dealt with the “Gold List” method of learning vocabulary, created by “Uncle Davey“. After watching the videos, I checked out his page on the system. While I’m not sure if the system is for me, it’s still a very interesting one.

What he does is this:

  • Writes out 25 head words in the top left of a page, along with their translations and any other pertinent information (gender, special constructions, etc.)
  • Waits at least 2 weeks (but no more than 2 months). He then selects 70% of the words that he remembers the least, thus “distilling” the words. In his words: “You are looking to distil out the “hard to learn” expressions and obtain a concentrated, whisky-like list of distilled words that are an absolute bugger for you to learn (by which time you will, of course, actally have learned them, because they will have gone through this distilation process ten times with two weeks’ break in between each time).”
  • With that smaller list, he simply repeats the process: he waits at least 2 weeks, and then distils the list again, selecting 70% of the words that he remembered the least (or removing 30% of the words that he remembered best; same thing).
  • After you’ve done this process down to the third distillation, for a number of different head word lists, you combine the third distillation lists into a new head word list. This further “concentrates” the list of words that you’ve had trouble remembering.

That is, of course, a very short overview of the process. If you’re interested in it, check out his full explanation as well as the videos.

One thing that I thought was intriguing about his process is that he says that it works best if you don’t really worry about remembering the words. When you’re writing out the words, you shouldn’t be cramming them; instead, you should just write them out slowly and neatly, enjoying the process. His explanation for this is the following:

The long-term memory is not a conscious function. Its samples are taken automatically and subconsciously out of the material which is run through the conscious. What we decide to memorise or forget only relates to short term memory. You cannot decide to learn to the long term memory any more than you can decide to forget to the long-term memory. … We banish unpleasant experience from the long-term memory and garnish pleasant experince to the long term memory.

Following that train of thought, he believes it makes little sense to suffer during vocabulary learning, because suffering won’t help you remember it; in fact, it might make it less likely to be remembered. I’m not an expert on how memory works by any means, but it’s an interesting idea. Can anyone vouch for the validity of his claim?

I do have some aversion to the system, mostly because it sounds rather clunky. I’m particularly against the idea of having multiple books to continue lists in; I can’t really say why that turns me off, but it does. Perhaps I’m thinking too far into the future with the system, and envisioning stacks and stacks of A4 notebooks all over my desk. (Not that that would be much different than the state of my desk now, but I digress.) Perhaps that is the reason I’m hesitant about the system: I’m a terribly disorganized person, and the idea of dating all of my lists, and keeping track of when a list is due to be distilled, sounds like a nightmare for me. There’s a reason I like computer programs to keep track of when a word needs to be reviewed. :)

The other concern I have is that using this method, I don’t think a lot of contextual information can be given easily. If you were to put a sentence with each word you want to learn, you’d need far more space than he’s allowing. Furthermore, when you distilled your list, would you copy over the example sentence again? How does one deal with words that have multiple meanings? Do you put all of the meanings under one head word and hope you know when to use which word, or do you make a separate head word for each meaning?

How does one deal with various expressions that one can build with one word? There are some words in my German dictionaries that have dozens (literally) of different expressions. Do you make a new head word for each expression, or include all of the expressions you care about under the pertinent head word?

At any rate, as I said, it’s an interesting system. I especially like how he stresses that one shouldn’t “cram” while writing the words out. Just write them out and enjoy the process; it’ll probably help you remember them.

20 thoughts on “The Gold List vocabulary method”

  1. Dear Language Geek,

    Thank you for your mainly positive review of my system. Let me take this opportunity to react to the qualifications you expressed about the system.

    1. You mentioned that the idea of having multiple books is “clunky”. There is obviously a way round that, and that is to have a bigger book (50-60 lines deep), to start the headlist with 25 at the top left hand side, do three distillations instead of two going down the right hand side, and then do another two or three instead of the one going back up the left hand at the end. An alternative is to use a smaller book (40-45 lines deep) and take blocks of 20 to the head list instead of 25. That way you can get more from a single book.

    For the first couple of years I used a loose leaf system, and i found it was hard to keep that organised, and switching to hard-bound writing books made it a lot easier.

    I am not in favour of using computers rather than the hand and natural writing to learn vocabulary as I believe that there is a memeory that functions better with the human hand holding a stylus than on a keyboard. This is the reason why we always sign our name the same way. Writing across a page is a more natural motion than taping a keyboard. Also it is quicker to deal with diacritics, other alphabets, etc. You can more easily actually do the learning and writing comfortably without worrying about misstyping, etc. That having been said, if someone is sure that they know themselves and will be definitely more motivated by using a computer version than a paper one, then I don’t discount the possibility that they as individuals might be better served by doing it that way, but as a rule I advise doing it manually. You can take the goldlist on a walk, sit on a parkbench and do a page and then walk a bit more for the break, then stop at another bench. You cannot really do that with a computer.

    2. I would put a different head word with each meaning. Example sentences are the standard way of learning the basic, regular paradigms, as well as learning idioms and set expressions. With the irregular words you just need to learn the exceptional parts of speech. In the head list you might list out all the parts of a Spanish verb, in the second list you might omit the parts which are predictable from the third person and the first person singular, for instance. In later distillations put it all on the one line, and obviously gradually drop it out as you became sure that you remembered all the parts of the verb.

    I think that most vocab books do have enough space to give practice sentences, at least short ones. “Wenn der Wecker laeutet, steht man auf” will easily fit in any one I’ve ever made. In the head list you might place the new words on separate lines to the sentence, whereas later on in the second and third distillations you would not need to do that, you would just keep the practice sentence and maybe put the English word you were not sure you remembered in brackets.

    Thanks again for your review, and I hope that this response will have gone a little way to addressing the remaining reservations.

    Best regards,


  2. I don’t understand the schedule that your method uses. It sounds like you’re writing
    down 25 words,remembering 8,every two weeks? What is the day to day schedule that is

    1. Not sure why this never got answered, so I’ll try now. There is no daily schedule, at least no prescribed one. You basically learn new vocabulary in sets of 25 words. You write out each set, with definition and any relevant grammatical information, and don’t come back to it for at least two weeks. What you do each day depends on how many sets you decide to learn, and how you decide to space them. You can do ten sets a day (250 words!) or one set a week, depending on how much you want to bulk up your vocabulary. I’m going to try this with Russian, and I’ll probably do one new set a day, and up to five new sets on days when I have extra time. So if I do 15 sets in week 1 and another 15 in week two, I’ll have seen (only seen and written) 750 words in two weeks.

      Uncle Davey says that when I go back to look at my lists after 2+ weeks (and not longer than 2 months), II should find (without any review or further work) that I know 30% of those words.If it’s true, I will be amazed and delighted. After that I will need to distill all those lists into lists that are about 30% shorter. I ‘ll take another two or three weeks to do this. During this time I can add more new sets if I want, or I can only distill.

      Once two weeks have passed from the first distillation, I can revisit that list and distill it further, since my long term memory will have naturally absorbed a further 30 percent of the lists.

      The lists keep getting shorter and shorter, and your passive long-term memory can handle more and of the new words. He reckons a a total of about 1 hour spent per page of 25 words. That’s 1000 words for about 40 hours. It’s astonishing if true, and should be emperically testable.

      1. Common Man: Thanks for responding to this long forgotten comment. It slipped through my fingers, and I guess Uncle Davey is no longer keeping track of the conversation here. Cheers!

  3. I have experimented with the goldlist and heres how i adapted it. i first write the 25 words then after two weeks, i recopy the third most difficult to remember. but then i complete my first distillation with new words until i reach 25 words again. two weeks later i distill again and repeat the process. in other words, i am always distilling a list of 25 words. i call that “the infinite goldlist” and since i have one list everyday, i have 13 lists of 25 words in total

    1. jodde,

      How long have you been doing that? Is it working well for you? I’ve not really tried the goldlist for a long time, as it just felt very convoluted to me.

  4. I realize this post is rather old now, but I’ll share my experiences with the method anyway. It’s the single best piece of language learning advice I’ve ever gotten. It was the most timely too, because I stumbled upon it in a period where I was considering finding another hobby because I kept forgetting words, which in turn made me less and less motivated to learn more vocabulary items – the most time-consuming part part of the whole process.

    Since I was in Japan at the time (late 2010), I tried using it for Japanese, which I had been studying for 1-1.5 year at the time. I started out writing three pages where I put the word, the reading in hiragana (if necessary), and the meaning. When I came back to it two weeks later, I found I could just about distill the two first pages, but only half lines from the third. I figured that the method worked, but I had too much information on each line. So I split it up, so that any reading I didn’t know went on a separate line. And then I was good to go! I’ve never regretted the decision to keep going after that.

    I spent an entire year working on a Chinese character goldlist, but found that single characters are really difficult to remember like that. In fact, the less concrete the items are, the harder they seem to be to remember: example sentences are usually really easy, set phrases are quite OK, words are just like advertized (30% or more as I go along), single characters are hard to remember, so I ended up combining lines a lot, and (perhaps strangely) single letters are by far the hardest to remember this way (I tried it with 注音符號 letters).

    So although I no longer use it for single letters, I do occasionally include single characters if I need to, but mostly words and set phrases (idioms, for example). I don’t include sample sentences so often, because they take longer to write, and I’m lazy. In fact, this is a method that benefits the lazy as well as the hard-working, because you’re only ever moving forward. I’m now using it for my biggest project ever, a Cantonese headlist of 20 000 lines, and because I have control over how many lines I write each day, I also know approximately I’ll finish if I keep a consistent rate.

    1. Hey Victor,

      My apologies for taking so long to get back to you!

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Since writing this post, I have sort of given up on electronic vocabulary learning (namely, Anki). I’ve found that writing things out by hand in and of itself is an excellent way to help you remember things. Having said that, I may have to revisit the Gold List method and give it a fair shot; when I tried it out before, I didn’t stick with it long enough.

      A head-list of 20,000 lines – wow! Where did you pull this head-list from?

  5. I’m using the character pages of CantoDict (, which provides lists of all entries containing each character, and I go by this list: – I skip obvious compound nouns and proper nouns, as well as stuff I can’t understand the translation of. Since there is a lot of overlap, I skip more and more entries as I go. It’s very interesting, which is why I chose to do it this way, even though it’s probably not the smartest!

  6. I haven’t found it to be clunky so far; on the contrary, I love it for its elegance and its low-stress nature.

    I made a short video about how to use the Goldlist Method that might be useful to your readers~!

    You can find it here:

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