Review: GoldList Method for Long-term Memory

Review: GoldList Method for Long-term Memory

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Review: GoldList Method for Long-term Memory…

Are you familiar with the GoldList Method? I wasn’t until Stuart emailed to ask if I’d heard about it. No. I hadn’t heard of the GoldList but I do enjoy trying out new methods! Thanks Stuart.

After poking around I discovered that the GoldList Method was created by quite a character, British born David J. James. James, an accountant residing in Poland, is known as Uncle Davey on Youtube (not sure why).

Once you understand the method (and now I sort of do), you just might enjoy its simplicity. Warning. The method is simple but many explanations are not.

The GoldList theory in a nutshell…

GoldList Theory: Physically writing out new words and phrases burns them in your long-term memory. Distilling words (throwing them away) tricks your mind into putting discarded words into long-term memory.

GoldList Method: Note that we tend to lose and spend time looking for things which we intended to keep and often put in a special hiding place, but we rarely forget the things that we have thrown away or given away. We don’t usually think we still have them and look around for them. So the very conscious act of discarding tricks the subconscious memory, namely the long-term memory, into being sure it jolly well has got those discarded bits. So if in doubt, discard rather than merge, when distilling.

By not revisiting words for two weeks to up to two months, the words go into your long-term memory instead of your short-term memory.

Before I get to the intricacies of the method, please remember this: The GoldList Method is all about going for the gold, but not all rules mentioned are set in gold.


Goldlist is a game of solitaire. You play against yourself so how you play is a matter of individual preference.

Before you start the GoldList Method…

You first need to acquire a feel for the sounds and rhymes of your target language. To do this, David suggests completing at least one audio course such as Michael Thomas or Pimsleur. Michael Thomas doesn’t have a Thai version (pity, because the MT method works) but Pimsleur does so there you go.

Assimil Thai is another course that’s chockfull of audio but beware of the odd phrases.

What you’ll need for the GoldList Method…

The required list of materials for using the GoldList Method is sweetly short.

Materials: A4 hardcover notebooks, pen or pencil, timer.
Vocabulary list: 2000-2500 words.

James Higbie’s Essential Thai would be my top Thai pick. Essential Thai is not only a great course but it has the needed 2000 word vocabulary list.

There are three other decent Thai courses to consider but they don’t have the vocabulary count. Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai for Beginners has 880 words, David Smyth’s Teach Yourself Thai Complete has 400, and Spoken World Thai has around 300.

Grammar: For additional grammar (if that’s your thing), it would have to be James Higbie’s Thai Reference Grammar and/or David Smyth’s Thai: An Essential Grammar. David also has a Kindle version: Thai: An Essential Grammar.

The GoldList Method (as I understand it)…

Over four sessions, the goal is to distill each lot of 20-35 headwords by around 30% each time, down to a semi-final shortlist of around seven to nine words. The shortlists are then thrown together and distilled until nothing is left (or you wander off).

And distilling (choosing which words get cut) just might be the hardest part of this method.

GoldList Method: When to distill a word:

1. When you see the word in the target language, you know its meaning(s).
2. When someone says that word to you, you can write it down, spelling it properly.
3. From seeing it written down, you know how to pronounce it.
4. You know all the unusual grammar exceptions applying just to that word (at least those covered in your study approach so far).

Obviously, if your initial aim isn’t to learn how to spell using Thai script, then pass on number two.

If you find that you can’t distill a sizeable chunk you can always cobble words together to create mini-phrases or a poem, match the words with their opposites, or put extra words all on one line.

Remember when I said that all of the GoldList rules are not set in gold? Well, I believe this one is (sort of):

It harms this method to go over the list several times. That switches on short-term memory functions. You should do it once, at a leisurely pace so that you enjoy doing it, and then go on to the next page and the next 25 of headlist if you are on the headlist, after a short 10 minute break.

In the comments on David’s site readers complained about not being able to find, compile, write and read aloud their 20-25 words all within that tight 20 minute timeframe. David replied that you can indeed separate the chores but you still need to keep the sessions to 25 minutes with 10 minute breaks between.

With that in mind, perhaps this is a possibility: In one 20 minute session read the materials and carefully write out your words (or phrases) and notes. Take a ten minute break. Then, for the next 20 minutes, carefully read the words and say them out loud. And since you’ve got more time to kill you could also listen to accompanying sound files as well. David, what say you?

Timing: Revisit headwords every two to eight weeks (but no longer). You can have up to 10 sessions of headwords on day one, and 10 more sessions of headwords on day two, and so on. But they will be different lots of 20-35 headwords because you won’t start distilling until day 14 (the soonest).

Tips for keeping track: To keep up with which lists need to be distilled when, create alerts via Google Calendar. You can also send word lists to yourself via email. [link]

Individual headword sessions…

Walking you through the method is more complicated than actually doing the method. But, here we go… explanations in both graphics and text.

TReview: GoldList Method for Long-term Memory

List One, Session One: Write down the first 20-25 words (headwords) on the left hand page of your notebook. Write, read, and say out loud the headwords one time only. Number the words and date the session.

Depending on your aim, include phrases and notes on grammar. For Thai, adding classifiers (where applicable), would be beneficial. And as previously mentioned, if you don’t have time to source words plus do everything else, after 20 minutes take a ten minute break before going back for a second session.

List One, Session Two: After two weeks or more (but no longer than two months) go back to List One, Session One to see how many words you remember.

You can test yourself by covering over the English, but that is not the best way. The best is to say “I know that I must now discard eight of these 25 words which are on the top of the left page and write 17 of them on the top of the right page. Which do I think I have remembered best?

To distill by 30%, put an X next to each word you do know. Carefully rewrite the words you don’t know on the opposite page, right hand side (around 15-17 words). Read those words out loud. Date the session.

List One, Session Three: Go through the last list, putting an X next to the five or so words you know best. Write the remaining list of 10-12 words underneath Session Two. Don’t forget to read the words out loud. Date the session.

List One, Session Four: Mark four words with an X. That will leave seven to nine words. Write them underneath Session One. Say them outloud. Include the date.

Combining: Distill Session Four. Write the remaining words in a second GoldList notebook, or on a different page in your main notebook. Up to you.

At five headword sessions a day, with 20-25 words per headword list, you’ll be adding 100-150 new words a day. If you take weekends off, after five days you’ll have 500-625 new words rolling around your head. In two weeks you’ll have introduced something like 1000-1250 new words in your target language. And here’s the thing… unless you add more hours of study, due to distilling the previous lists, at two weeks the introduction of new words slows down. By juggling lists you can add 25-60 new words a day until the 2000-2500 mark is reached.

Using the GoldList method with the Thai alphabet…

Learning the Thai alphabet using the GoldList method should be fairly straightforward. You can go the tough route (Thai grade school materials) or go an easier route by creating lists from 60 Minutes Thai Alphabet. And as you’ll want to get the sounds down I suggest making good use of audio files too.

The GoldList method elsewhere…

I realise your Google finger is not broken, but here are a few GoldList discussions I found interesting.

Huliganov TV: Grammar and the Goldlist
Huliganov TV: The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist
Huliganov TV: An amusing thought about the Goldlist vs Flashcards
Huliganov TV: Answering a person who is not attracted to the Goldlist system

YouTube: Uncle Davey lectures on Gold List System at Moscow BKC-IH
YouTube: Techniques for language learning – Goldlist Method and Captioning
YouTube: The gold list system of vocab learning

Language Geek: The Gold List vocabulary method

LingQ forum: The Goldlist Method forum: Has anybody tried the Gold List method?

Have you used the Goldlist Method? I’m quite interested hearing from those who have played around with the Method for awhile.

34 thoughts on “Review: GoldList Method for Long-term Memory”

  1. So would it be advisable to use this method using transliterations? Or would it be better to learn to read Thai first?

    I can see this potentially leading to many pronunciation errors if only using transliterations, though I’m really eager to give this method a try.

    I would like to do 4 x 25 head lists per day, so after 20 days I will have done 2000 words, then from day 21 I start the distillations.

    • I agree, there’d be issues with transliteration (unless you just happened to find one that works for you – I never did).

      Plus, if you use transliteration for the GoldsList Method, you’d lose out on getting Thai script into your head.

      If you went with Thai script for the method, even if you didn’t know script before you started, you’d eventually get the hang of it. Learning the letters isn’t that hard to do.

  2. Uncle Davey (the deviser of the Gold List method) makes a similar point in one of his videos.

    He speaks about a special connection between the hand and the brain which occurs when writing stuff down, and which is absent when you’re just tapping on a keyboard.

  3. I ran across this Scientific American article that explores why longhand is a much better method for note-taking and remembering than using a electronic device. Gets to the rationale of the Goldlist method.

  4. Hi Laura,

    “After you’ve written your 25 headwords and are now moving onto saying them aloud, do you say aloud their meanings as well?”

    It’s all up to you and how you learn. There are no set rules for this method, only guidelines and suggestions.

    “Also, does it make a difference if I find my words and their meanings first, compile them in a word document and then use these words 1-25 in my Gold Book?”

    Again, up to you. What I’d do is hunt down a 3000 word frequency list with meanings already there for you, and just grab from the top.

  5. Hi Catherine,

    After you’ve written your 25 headwords and are now moving onto saying them aloud, do you say aloud their meanings as well?

    Also, does it make a difference if I find my words and their meanings first, compile them in a word document and then use these words 1-25 in my Gold Book? It just makes it so much easier than scrambling around looking for the meanings of words and words from a vocabulary list in 25 minutes.

    Thanks for your help!

  6. Aahh, It’s all starting to make sense now!

    Thank you for your time and making a clearer explanation of this than everyone else.

    Have a great day!

    Kind regards


  7. Hi Leah, for session five, if you have more words to learn then start adding those to the method. As mentioned above, shortlists are thrown together and distilled until nothing is left or you get bored.

  8. Hello Catherine,

    Great explanation by the way!

    I’m just a bit confused as to what to do towards the end. After you’ve completed your lists 1-3: sessions: 1-4, and now moving on to lists 1-3: session 5. What words will you be using to put into session 5? Is it the remaining words from the list in list 3 session 4? If so, what happens if you have about 2 remaining words? How do you continue on from there to form a new headlist? If perhaps you use only 2 words, how do you build your new list back up to 25 to repeat the process?

    Your response will be greatly appreciated.

    Kind regards


  9. You are welcome! I decided to write about it in this manner because I couldn’t figure it out by just reading available explanations. It’s not a complicated method, but the instructions often are.

  10. Thank God!! Finally! I’ve been pulling my hair out for the past hour looking for an easy to follow explanation of this method. Everyone keeps rambling on and tying a web instead of being straight forward about it (even the original). I’ve watched the limited number of YT videos on it, I’ve read the original, I’ve Googled. Jeez I’m tired! Anyway, this is a great explanation and it’s easy enough to follow. Thank you, lady! xx

  11. Welcome to WLT Uncle Davey! You are not spamming at all (I was hoping you’d stop by). I’m sure many will take up your offer to chat on Google+. Now off to read your latest article on Huliganov.TV…

  12. KOOn Catherine, many thanks for this introduction of the Goldlist method to a wider public. I am happy sometime to arrange a Hangout on Google+ to answer your readers’ questions live about the method. I will be doing regular hangouts around the method once people have added me to their circles and let me know that they are waiting for them. I can’t really do one on one for people (unless only one person turns up to something that was publicly announced, and then I will) but I am happy to help especially when the results can be recorded and made available for even more learners to benefit, as it is with these Google Hangouts.

    In addition there have been some articles on Huliganov.TV that I’ve been writing – the latest today – in which I talk again about some of the matters which learners in this thread have brought up. I hope it’s OK to mention that here. I’m not in favour of spamming, but the issues in this thread are actually discussed in even the latest article a bit so it might be helpful.

  13. I’m often alone so imaginary conversations would work for me too. Beats talking to the cats. Or maybe they could learn Thai too. That’s a thought.

    Several years back I came up with a ‘mindful Thai’ method. The idea is to mindfully tell yourself what you are doing during the day, but in Thai. Such as…

    “I’m waking up, I’m now brushing my teeth, my cat is scratching my sofa…”

    And if you don’t know a word or how to work a phrase it’s up to you to find out for next time.

    Supposedly it works because our brains can’t tell the difference between a pretend conversation and a real one, or the same neurons are firing, something like that.

    So true. And a good point.

  14. I have a good solution which has worked before — which is to conduct imaginary conversations with oneself in the target language, out loud or silent as the occasion fits (to avoid being thought totally nuts).

    I used this very successfully to learn Greek, and it came naturally then, but, I dunno, my motivation seems different now, less social, perhaps, and I really have to force myself to do it in Thai.

    Supposedly it works because our brains can’t tell the difference between a pretend conversation and a real one, or the same neurons are firing, something like that.

    I recommend it — it may feel odd at first, but it’s less embarrassing than making a hash of a sentence in public.

  15. Rick,

    But they may have difficulty and be discouraged when placed in a situation where they have to “activate” their knowledge and start talking. They will feel tongue tied, and not be able to find words that, when someone tells them, they know they knew.

    I have that problem as well (I don’t talk as much as I should – in English or Thai) so I went in search of a possible fix that would fit with my quiet lifestyle. Have you read about shadowing? I’m hoping that getting into the habit of shadowing Thai phrases, even if I don’t use them in everyday (real) conversations, will put them in my audio memory (if there even is such a thing), giving me a better chance at recall.

    I’ve done the research and plan to put it to a test so a post on shadowing is on the way. And with coming cooler weather, walking and talking seems a sweet idea (as long as people in the park don’t think I’m totally nuts 😉

  16. Yes, you’re right — I didn’t express myself very well. ‘Uncle Davey’ addresses this very point in his blog

    Need to activate – language learners using the long term memory will obtain a large passive knowledge of the language. They will quickly move towards being able to read newspapers and novels in the language. But they may have difficulty and be discouraged when placed in a situation where they have to “activate” their knowledge and start talking. They will feel tongue tied, and not be able to find words that, when someone tells them, they know they knew.

    That’s me to a T.

  17. @ Rick Bradford: I wouldn’t say that long term memory is instantly accessible. What did you do last new years? I’m sure you need to stop and think for a moment, but that is indeed stored in your long term memory, if at all.

    The more you actually use the vocabulary in everyday life, not necessarily just studying it, then the quicker you can retrieve the words from your long term memory. Unfortunately, this has to be done constantly and forever to have it remain immediately at your disposal. Of course the longer you know a word in this way, the longer you can go without using it and still have it available at a moments notice. Even the most engrained vocabulary words will eventually degrade over time if you don’t use them.

    Have you ever stumbled upon some word in English only to finally remember it after a minute or so? If you were able to eventually remember it, that word was stored away in your long term memory, but it was obscure enough that it wasn’t immediately accessible to you.

  18. One of my greatest frustrations is that even though my flashcard learning shows me with a vocabulary of 5000+ Thai words, I can only produce them while I am actually running the program (and I notice that it takes me 2 or 3 minutes to ‘warm up’ as it were.)

    It’s like they are stored in a special ‘exam memory’ rather than being available for everyday use. Presumably, long-term memory should mean that the words are instantly accessible.

    I certainly agree with his notion that writing the words by hand helps with memory, as does saying them out loud.

    I’ll give this a try, and will report back in due course.

  19. I was hoping to try this method before the post went live, that way I’d have more answers to give. But right now all I have are theories and suggestions 🙂

  20. I suppose it would depend on what you wanted to do and how much time you wanted to spend. If one day you didn’t have much time, you could skip the new words and just play catchup with the distilling. I don’t think you’d want to stop adding words, that would really slow down your progress as you’d be distilling your words from the first two weeks for the next three or so months, to a greater or lesser extent.

  21. I was going on the assumption that around week 2 you’d have to stop adding new lists (until you made room by distilling).

    I found decent sized notebooks in Paragon (moleskins). But in one of the videos I noticed a guy using a small notebook (tall enough for his starting list).

  22. I just watched his videos on Youtube. Interesting concept, I suppose I should try it out. I suppose I could do two sessions of 25 words. You say that the addition of new words slows down after the first two weeks? I assumed that you would just distill the lists in addition to learning the new vocabulary, so it would just get progressively longer each day until you hit a plateau. Such as, weeks 1-2 do two sessions, weeks 3-4 do two sessions and two distillations, weeks 5-6 do two sessions and four distillations. This would of course plateau once you get to your seventh distillation phase, but it would never go down. Of course each distillation phase would take about 30% less time than the previous phase, so it’s not as if you would be studying for like 8 hours a day, more like 128 minutes not counting breaks. I suppose that is doable, considering it would be about 3 hours. Time I should be putting in anyway if I ever hope to learn the language.

  23. Depends on how many words in your list. I was going for two lists of 35 = 70 words. When those are combined into a smaller list, then add a second lot of 35… on and on. You could call it the lazy lasses method of learning new vocabulary.

    I also like mnemonics (can remember words for years after). Actually, I find that getting my head around the different learning methods is sometimes more interesting than actually learning languages.

  24. With two sessions, wouldn’t that be 40-50 words? Take into consideration the 30% retention rate and that’s only 12-15 words, but better than nothing I guess. For me I think it would work better to take a bit more time and try to think up a mnemonic real quick to go along with it. I’ve gotten pretty good at those.

  25. Martyn, I do like the theory behind the GoldList method. There are a few things fiddly things I’d like to finally get into my head so I’ll try it out. Free time has been main bugbear but I have a couple months breather from travel coming up (soon).

    Lawrence, after reading most everything out there, I went with what I understood about the system (and if I’m wrong, hopefully David will kindly set me straight). And remember, nothing is set in gold. The idea is to tweak the method to suit your available time and motivation.

    Even if you didn’t have much time to study, two 20 minute slots plus a 10 minute break in-between comes to under an hour a day. So that’s 70 words (++) you didn’t know before you started, right?

  26. That seems like an interesting method. I kind of doubt that I could retain a new vocabulary word that I have written, read and said only one time, even at a 70% failure rate. Is that five sessions a day something that you made up or is it part of the system? I know it would be beneficial to study two and a half hours a day, but who can find the time for it every day? Especially if it has to be in a solid block, or at the least five separate blocks.

  27. Catherine – I like the theory behind the Goldlist Method. We do tend not to forget things we have thrown away and lose track of things we have. It’s a credible method but one I’ll give a miss to. And I won’t forget I’ve discarded the Goldlist Method.


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