The Goldlist Method

I wrote about the “Goldlist method” quite some time ago (just shy of 8 years ago, wow!), but never really gave it a fair try. (If you’re totally lost about what the Goldlist method is, it’s probably best to start with the creator’s page here.) At the time I wrote the original post, I remarked that it sounded rather clunky to me, specifically in regards to the notebooks. I was concerned that keeping track of a bunch of notebooks with dated pages would be cumbersome; I was also quite enamored with Anki, the spaced repetition software that’s quite popular in the language learning community. I figured, why bother with a bunch of dated notebook pages when I have this software that will handle everything?

I’ve decided to revisit the method, though, for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas behind it intrigue me, and second, I’ve lost some of my love for digital vocabulary techniques; I’ve come to find that writing things out is, in and of itself, a good aid for remembering things, and, for whatever reason, Anki never really did work all that well for me. I did the repetitions, I added cards frequently, but didn’t really feel like I was retaining much of it. I’ve had success using Iversen’s word list method (and enjoyed using it), so I figured I would give the Goldlist method a try, too.

Perhaps the biggest idea with the Goldlist method that catches my interest is the idea that our long term memory isn’t really under our control. You can stuff things into your short term memory, but getting it into your long term memory is a bit of a tougher nut to crack. Furthermore, we tend to remember things we enjoy, and so a big part of the Goldlist method is simply taking it easy, enjoying writing out your words and definitions, and not trying to memorize them. By not cramming, you help move things along to your long term memory, rather than to your short term memory. Additionally, since you’ll be revisiting the words in a few weeks / months to distil them, the Goldlist method has a sort of built-in spaced repetition aspect to it, helping things stay in your memory once they’re there to begin with. Not quite the same as Anki’s, which is down to the very day, but it’s still repeated exposure.

I started trying out the Gold list method about 3 weeks ago; at this point, I’ve done about 8 or 9 headlists of 25 words, and 5 or 6 first distillations. (Yes, I need to use it more; life is busy, gimme’ a break). After doing the first few headlists, I found that some of the words I wrote out (and their meanings) kept popping up in my head unexpectedly, days later, so that seemed like a positive sign. The same thing has happened with the distillations. I also found that, as predicted, I felt I knew a solid 30% of the words when I went to distil the headlists. I also think that the creator of the program is onto something, in that the act of actively choosing to “discard” a word – to not repeat it in further lists – triggers your memory to try and hold onto it even tighter. Some of the words I opted to not repeat are still popping into my head on occasion, and I’ve not forgotten their meanings yet. While my experience with the system is minimal at this point, thus far, I’m tentatively impressed (and surprised), and am going to stick with it to see how things go.

In addition to seeming to work, the method has, for me, another major plus so far: it’s incredibly relaxing. Reviewing cards in Anki always stressed me out, and felt like work. Slowly writing out words and their meanings is enjoyable and calming, which, as the creator remarks, is probably part of the reason as to why I’m remembering the words so well. The idea of doing a couple writing sessions over the course of an hour sounds nice; the idea of reviewing 200 cards in Anki over the course of an hour sounds like drudgery (more power to Anki users, though!)

Putting the gold list method to the testThus far, the biggest problem I’ve had with the method was, comically, not really about the method – it was about paper. Due to the length of the lists, the method calls for the use of an A4 notebook. Finding such a thing where I’m at is nigh on impossible, and I didn’t really want to drop $20 on a nice A4 notebook for what, at the time, was simply a test run. I did have a nice notebook that I was able to make work (mostly), by basically using the top left part of the page for 2 columns instead of 1 (see in the picture). It limits how much I can put down by quite a bit, but thus far it hasn’t proven to break the system. Provided I decide to stick with it for the long term, once this book is full, I’ll probably hunt down some high quality A4 notebooks on amazon.

I’ll post more about my experiences with the method after I have some more lists and distillations behind me. If you’ve used the method, let me know how it worked for you in the comments!


7 myths about vocabulary acquisition

At the HTLAL forums, someone linked to an interesting PDF dealing with myths about vocabulary acquisition. The myths:

  1. Knowing a relatively small number of words takes you far.
  2. Word lists are of limited value.
  3. Words learned in semantic sets are retained better.
  4. Words should always be learned in context.
  5. Words whose meanings are inferred from context are retained better.
  6. Words learned productively are retained better.
  7. Vocabulary knowledge should not be tested separately.

As someone who often tires of hearing “only learn words in context, never use lists” etc., this article made my heart sing a little bit.

You can read the full PDF here.

Another Attempt with Word Lists

I’ve written in the past about my attempt at using word lists, and if you’ve kept up with those posts, after reading this one, you’ll probably think I suffer from split personality syndrome. But, I can at least say I’m being honest here. 🙂

I’ve gone back to Using German Vocabulary and am adding words – lots of them – to Anki. No sentences; indeed, I’ve added no extra context unless it was needed with a particularly ambiguous word. The result? It’s working extremely well. I’ve added nearly the whole first chapter, which, while I can’t give an exact number, probably hovers around a total of 500-600 words. The vast majority of them are sticking in my memory quite well. Some words, particularly those that have a few siblings which are similar in form and nearly identical in meaning, have given me some headaches (Bettbezug, Bettzeug, I’m looking at you!). Overall, though, most of the words I’ve been able to memorize after a few appearances in Anki.

So, what’s different? I said before that I kept forgetting word pairs that I added to Anki, right?

Well, the difference is, I did something I should have been doing from the start: I enabled Recognition and Production cards in Anki. Previously, with all of the material I added to Anki, I was doing Recognition only – see the foreign word, think of the (often rough) equivalent in English. I’m not sure where I got the idea of leaving out production cards – I think it might have been All Japanese All The Time (but don’t quote me on that).

I’ve found this time around though, that the production stage is where you really get to prove your mettle. It’s far easier to look at a foreign word and say “yeah, I understand that perfectly!” than it is to be given a word in your native tongue and to produce a foreign equivalent.

But Why?

I used to think that learning vocabulary in context was the way to go – that is, the only way to go. I still view it in a good light, and it still makes up a large part of my language learning regimen. However, as I’ve used Using German Vocabulary, even just adding all of the words from the first chapter – out of 20! – I’ve realized just how many words in English I take for granted. You can see what I mean by skimming through the English-to-Whatever-Language-You’re-Learning section of your dictionary. I never realized how many English words I knew until I looked at how many German equivalents I needed to learn to have a decent command of the language. And by decent, I mean knowing simple words like broom and kitchen sink, words which I didn’t know until I started going through the vocabulary book.

It’s words like those that lead me to be hesitant to vouching solely for contextual vocabulary learning. I’ve read a lot of articles in German, but unless I’m reading about housecleaning or home renovation, how often am I going to see der Besen or das Spülbecken? Probably not that often at all. And yet these are words that we all pretty much take for granted – every native speaker of English knows broom and kitchen sink.

So, for me, the reason to go through the (at times boring, I’ll admit!) process of adding huge numbers of word pairs to Anki is simple efficiency. I can learn more words in an hour with this method than I’d learn in three or more hours with reading articles or books. Taking the “brute force” approach lets me cover a lot of different ground, covering all sorts of everyday words that I need to know. With most of them, with a few key words added, I can make sure I don’t get things confused due to a lack of context. For example, I recently added die Umgehungsstraßebypass to Anki. While the Recognition portion would be easy, simply seeing bypass could be troublesome – what kind of bypass? Are we talking about heart surgery here? By simply changing it to bypass (think cars!), I avoid any stupid word confusion.

Furthermore, by using large thematic lists from a book, I avoid the issue I mentioned above: if you rely solely on articles and other reading for vocabulary, if the word doesn’t show up in something you read, you don’t know it. Period.

While I’m not going to set anything in stone at this point, if my luck with this process using the above-mentioned book continues, I may make “word hoarding” one of the first steps in approaching a new language. Inadequate vocabulary has been my number one problem with German, and I think a systematic approach like this may be the solution to said problem.

Word Lists Don’t Work (For Me)

I wanted to add a little bit more to my previous post about words in context vs. word lists. I said in my last post that going through and adding word lists to your SRS application, like Anki, could be effective, if only you could bring yourself to do it. At this point, however, I’m thinking words without context are perhaps more trouble than they’re worth, even if you can bring yourself to adding them to your SRS program.

Before I became dreadfully bored with the process, I had added 40 or 50 German words from Using German Vocabulary to my Anki deck. They’ve been in my deck for a few weeks now, and I’ve noticed a rather blatant trend: I keep outright forgetting these words, or getting them completely wrong, whereas with words that are in context, I rarely forget them completely, and only very occasionally will I make a mistake in remembering them. Some of the words that I’ve added without context, I’ve forgotten completely 3 or 4 times.

Die Kommode is one example of one of the words I’ve “lost” repeatedly. It means “chest of drawers”, something rather simple, but everytime die Kommode would pop up in Anki, I’d blank on it, or think of something similar – a coatrack, a closet, etc.

A couple of days ago I added some context to the card, changing it to die Schubladen der Kommode aufziehen (essentially “to open the drawers of the chest [of drawers]”), and the word seems to be sticking well now. It hasn’t been long enough to see if the context makes a long-term change, but I expect it will.

So, I have to reiterate something that I’ve seen elsewhere many times: while it may take a bit more time to find example sentences / phrases for the words you’re trying to learn, they really do seem to make a difference.

Words In Context Vs. Word Lists, Part 2

I wrote previously about word lists vs. words in context, and said that I thought for a lot of words, context just wasn’t needed much. This is especially true of concrete nouns. A bakery is a bakery, whether you say “bakery” or “die Bäckerei,” a library is a library, whether you say “library” or “die Bibliothek.”


One aspect I didn’t really think about when I was writing that post was the issue of enjoyment during study. I checked out Using German Vocabulary, which consists almost entirely of thematic word lists, with some exercises / authentic German material after each unit, from the university library. I had the intent of systematically adding all of the words in it to my SRS application, Anki. The book has a huge number of everyday words, and so I figured learning all of them would be a good thing.

Except… I’m not doing it. The book has sat on the shelf for a while now, while I’ve continued yanking whole sentences from news articles and from my monolingual German dictionary. Why? Mostly because sitting and typing in word after word into Anki isn’t a great deal of fun, whereas reading articles and slowly increasing my understanding via learning new words, is.

Maybe a dual approach is needed – use the word lists in the book as a guide as to what to learn, but look up sentences for each word via Google or my dictionary. I’m hesitant to just toss out the book (or return it to the library, more specifically), because I’ve found that if I just read news articles and what not, I end up with large holes in my vocabulary, particularly words for everyday things. I’ve not read many articles which have dealt with bookshelves, shelves, sets of shelves, etc., which are all things I recently learned the German for, via the above-mentioned book.

Certainly, though, I don’t think just cramming word lists into Anki isn’t going to work for me, at least not as a long term learning practice. It’s effective – I could learn a lot of words in a short amount of time – but only if I can bring myself to do it, which I’ve failed at. Live and learn.

Anki now supports changing of text color

I forgot to write a quick post on this at the time of it happening, so here’s that post a bit late:

Damien, the maker of Anki, has put out a number of updates over the past weeks. I wrote back in November of ’07 that I had abandoned SuperMemo for Anki, due to its simplicity and cleanness of design (unlike the monumentally cluttered SuperMemo).

One of the updates that Damien released fairly recently added something that I was actually missing from SuperMemo: the ability to change the color of text in the cards. You could do this before for a whole side of a card, like making an entire sentence green or blue, but you couldn’t select individual words or other parts of the card and change their color. I prefer to emphasize what I’m learning in a sentence with a color rather than with bold or underlining; no real reason, just a preference I have.

Now I can do that. 🙂

If you’ve not checked out Anki yet, do so – it’s a great app. And, if you end up liking it, consider donating to the developer – he’s put a lot of time into the app, as well as helping users in the support forum. If you want to donate, there are PayPal buttons on the main Anki page as well as the download page.

A couple of charming German words

I sat down a few minutes ago and flipped through a few pages of Using German Vocabulary, not really looking for anything in particular – just enjoying seeing new words, really. I landed in a section on the animal word. Looking over some of the words for animals and their associated parts, a couple of the words made me genuinely smile: das Nashorn, and der Stoßzahn.


Das Nashorn is basically “nose horn”, if you take the elements apart, and means rhinoceros. Der Stoßzahn is a little trickier. Der Stoß can mean a push, shove, punch, as well as stab or thrust. I suppose the most menacing literal translation of Stoßzahn would be stabbing tooth. To me, that has so much more character than tusk. 🙂

Words in context vs. word lists

In poking around at the How to Learn Any Language forums, I’ve come across many good discussions on vocabulary acquisition. One of the things that the discussions usually revolve around is whether one should avoid using word lists, relying solely on items in context. For a long time, I had stuck strictly to context items, basing my usage of SuperMemo and Anki on the strategies given at However, based on one of the forum member’s (Iversen) posts, I’ve been giving word-to-word cards in Anki a try, and they’re working well, depending on the type of word.

Iversen views wordlists (or simply learning L1-to-L2 and vice versa translations without context) as a stepping stone, not the end of the road. He figures (rightly, I think) that by exposing himself to the translations of words, when he encounters the words in context, he’ll either A) understand it correctly or B) have something to work with in regards to figuring out what the word does mean, if the translation he learned doesn’t work.

Furthermore, while I see the value in learning words in context, particularly verbs, with many words, the context just isn’t needed, because the usage in L2 corresponds so closely to the usage of its translation in L1. For example, do I really need context to understand der Hund (dog), die Stadt (city), der Korb (basket)? Certainly, by simply learning that der Korb means basket, I won’t be learning any idioms, but I wouldn’t be doing that anyway, even if I had a sentence with Korb in context. To learn the idiom I’d have to see it in context or look it up in a dictionary, and then add that to my SRS program.

I’m coming to see that it’s not really a matter of “words in context vs. wordlists.” Instead, I see them both as things which have their purposes along the way toward proficiency in a language. For many words, context is vital, and trying to learn the words without it is a waste of one’s time. An easy way to see this is to pull up the English-German translation of “to go.” Here’s the page for the translation at Reverso. For the vast majority of those words, you really need some context to figure out what exactly is going on.

On the other hand, for many words, context isn’t really needed. I think by obsessing over “words in context only!“, people have made it sound as if languages have no correspondences whatsoever, that if you learn the word der Hund, you better learn how it’s used. To that, I say: unless I’m missing something, dogs in German-speaking areas behave essentially like dogs everywhere else in the world. And, again, learning anything about a word in your target language, even if its a simplified idea about it which will be refined through reading and use, is better than learning nothing at all. (As can probably be gleaned from that last remark, I don’t go for the idea that making mistakes in your target language is devastating; if that were the case, no one would ever learn any foreign language decently – let alone their native tongue.)

Farewell, SuperMemo; Hello, Anki.

I’ve finally given up on SuperMemo, the beefed up flashcard program I’ve been using for vocabulary acquisition. After having used it for a few months, I had become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies, if not having fallen in love with them. However, I was poking around in the forums at How To Learn Any Language, and came across a thread about SuperMemo alternatives. In it, there was a link to Anki – and there, I found true love (at least in regards to a piece of spaced repetition software).

Anki does everything that I used in SuperMemo. What it doesn’t do is cause me to pull out what little hair I have. Whereas SuperMemo was bloated beyond belief, with menus, sub-menus, and sub-sub-menus (I’m serious), Anki is pure simplicity. You add cards; you repeat them, grading how you did on remembering the answers; and Anki does the rest. There’s some basic customization available in the cards, such as bold, italics, and underlining, but there aren’t complex template registries; there are no branches; there are no leeches; in short, most of the “extra” stuff that’s in SuperMemo isn’t in Anki, and the program is better because of it.

Anki also has a quite useful feature that SuperMemo doesn’t have: you can sync up your data with an online version of the program. This will solve a problem I’ve had for a while now: how do I handle vocabulary that I want to put into SuperMemo when I can’t access SuperMemo? Between classes at the university, I often read foreign language articles. When I see vocabulary that I don’t know, I typically want to record it and learn it. However, not being able to access SuperMemo from home, I’ve been, up until now, saving the sentences and vocabulary into a Google Docs file, and then transferring them into SuperMemo at home. In essence, I’ve been doubling my work. Being able to add stuff into the online version and have it all sync up at home solves this problem wonderfully. By the way, even the online aspect of the program is free; it isn’t subscription based or anything like that.

My experiences with SuperMemo (and now Anki) highlight an important aspect of language learning: the tools you use. If you don’t like the tools you’re using, your language learning will suffer from it, guaranteed. I know that I’ve slacked on entering vocabulary lately, specifically because I’ve grown to dislike the clunky SuperMemo so much.

A new age has arrived. The age of Anki. Bye, SuperMemo. I won’t miss you.