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Initial thoughts on a long term vocab learning system

February 16, 2012

I’m sorry if I seem to be obsessing over vocabulary learning, but it always seems to be a large and looming topic in any discussion of language learning, and I’ve had leads to a couple of new resources/ideas in the last day or two, so have been mulling things over more.

The first was actually a WordPress link to another blog by the propounder of the Goldlist system for vocabulary retention. He and some of his ‘followers’ have several Youtube videos on the system, and while I haven’t watched them all, I don’t think I’ll be taking on this system in full, although it may encourage me in the parts that I do anyway. Basically, my very rough understanding (and I only spend about an hour reading/watching information on the system, if that, and a few more making some lists and thinking about some of the pros and cons, so it’s quite possible I have misunderstood) is that Mr James (not sure about the name – he seems to go by several online) is proposing his system for putting (and testing) words, phrases and concepts in the long term memory, rather than the short term memory he feels flashcards and the like focus on.

He suggests using handwriting as a method of engaging the body in one’s learning of vocabulary, and setting aside a nice notebook (not scrappy bits of paper – this is something you’re going to go back to and want to spend some time over) to make lists of the words etc you are interested in learning. Taking time and enjoying the process of making the link (and presumably thoroughly understanding it) between the phrase and its translation/short explanation is important, but after that process, one basically ignores that list for a period of between a fortnight and two months. I believe one is encouraged to make other lists in the meantime, even many in a given day (although leaving some time between making two lists, to let the first one sink in), so that this become a rolling process. After two weeks, or however long you give it, you go back and see how many of the idea/words you remember, and make a new list of the ones you don’t (a retention rate of about 30% is expected, so don’t be disappointed if/when the list doesn’t dwindle that fast) and then repeat the process.

Some of the Youtube videos I saw were by people who have been using the method for some years, and swear by it, so it has plenty of proponents. I can certainly relate to the benefits of writing down vocab and concepts by hand, in a nice notebook (I put them in my diary, mixed in with my thoughts and experiences, and often there’s interplay between the two), and even to rewriting the things one has forgotten, but I don’t think this system is for me, for a few reasons:

  • Time: I don’t necessarily have 25 uninterrupted minutes to give to writing something out nicely by hand – every time I try my baby wants my pen and notebook to write with herself!
  • More importantly, I know myself and I wouldn’t keep up the practice of going back to the lists regularly. I made a few yesterday, while I was intrigued by the method, and as above I had my older diaries to garner words from, but this isn’t the kind of thing I can see myself committing to.
  • Most importantly, however, I don’t really see the point. If I haven’t needed a word or phrase in that amount of time, do I now? How long am I supposed to go on learning words in lists, rather than as they come along, as I do in my native tongue?

That last point really is the clincher for me, and after a lot of thinking and discussing with my husband, I came to the conclusion that I just don’t feel the need to learn lists of words once I’m beyond the beginner stages with a language. This is why the flashcards, and some online systems I was going to discuss in this post but will at this point put off till tomorrow or later, are great for me at the moment with Russian, but are just boring in Hebrew, French, or even German. I don’t believe vocabulary makes for fluency, at all – fluency is what you do with the words you know, and how you get around the ones you don’t, in my opinion. Mr James suggests 10,000 words in long-term memory for fluency, and so devised this system, but I feel it encourages knowing words for the sake of knowing them, without any real focus on which words or phrases will ever be needed again. I agree that to an extent we are at the mercy of which words take our brain’s fancy, but I tend to prefer a relevance (to me) focus. I may be mistaking his system, and I will be inviting the gentleman himself to comment on this post. I’m not sure he’ll make me a devotee, but I can see enough good in the system not to want to misrepresent it.

Okay, I’ve found some reasonably clear videos on the system. The first is about making lists and initially distilling them, while the second is more of an overview of the system as a whole.


From → Resources, Russian

  1. Very interesting article…I am enjoying your blog!

    Regarding vocabulary retention, I have noticed that a key factor for me is emotions and contexts within the given situation or story. For example, I might go back and read a couple of paragraphs of Russian text which I have not read in a while. There is no way that I remember the individual words, but since I remember what the story is about, all the words and sentences that describe the situations and emotions come flooding back to me. And of course the sounds of the words and the verbal inflections of the phrases go right along with the memory of the meanings of the words. It makes for a colorful and enjoyable secondary language learning experience.

    Спасибо и удачи…

    • Thank you! I still haven’t tried reading anything beyond words on advertisements in Russian. What would you recommend as a first text?

      • Всегда пожалуйста! The text that I was referring to was in “Colloquial Russian: The Complete Course for Beginners”, by Svetlana le Fleming and Susan Kay. Each chapter has a number of paragraphs entirely in Russian which enable beginner students to practice their reading comprehension and pronunciation immediately.

        “Teach Yourself Russian” by Daphne West, published by McGraw-Hill (a book which I initially panned in the review section of my blog) also has blocks of paragraphs and dialogues entirely in Russian. After I began taking a real Russian language class taught by a Russian (as opposed to trying to teach myself!), the difficulties that I initially had with this book melted away.

        I don’t recommend this as a first text, but an enjoyable read is “Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book”, edited by Gleb Struve, published by Dover, featuring twelve short stories by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and others. The book is organized so that the left page is in the original Russian, and the right page is an English translation.

        On a different note (but still related to the “vocabulary through context” vein), in the Russian class which I am taking, there is discussion of the origins of Russian words and concepts. These insights into linguistic origins help those of us who are non-Russians to more quickly and accurately suss out meanings when confronted with new Russian vocabulary – similar to building English vocabulary more quickly by knowing many of the Greek and Latin prefixes, suffixes, and root words which are at the base of our language.

      • Thank you for these. The book I’m using appears to have increasingly lengthy dialogues to read as one progresses through the book, but little in the way of straight prose. I’ll keep an eye out for some of your suggestions.

  2. OK, first off, I don’t think that flash cards focus on the short term memory. It all depends on how they are used. If you cram them, then you’ll switch on the short term memory. If you take them at a measured pace and make a sort of SRS for yourself from them, you’ll be OK. I have one major problem with flashcards, namely where am I going to keep 16,000 cards? And why bother to waste card for each word when some words will be learned the very first time we see them?

    Having cleared up that I am not anti flash card (and I use as well as goldlisting Japanese, and that’s a flash card approach, only on line) let me take your objections in order.

    1. It was twenty minutes, but it doesn’t have to be twenty uninterrupted minutes. It is not necessary to do 25 words at once. I am saying don’t do too much in one go because the long-term memory is an unconscious function so you can’t tell when it’s got tired. You have to anticipate that instead, by having breaks. If you were to do 5 or 10 minutes a go that would also be fine. Only not to be stressed about it.

    2. Once you get the system going then you develop a batching system and when you get to the end of the new batch of the headlist, then you simply automatically go back to the beginning again. You remember about it because the book is with you. It’s not necessarily a big book. Oonce you get into it it is relaxing and even addictive, and you don’t have to be in front of a screen or playing with scissors, cards and envelopes. The tools are very simple.

    3. I found this argument the most surprising, and I would politely take issue with what fluency means and if it’s really the most important thing. If speaking is the most important skill, moreso than listening, reading or even writing, then I understand why people focus on keeping their smaller vocabularies actuve. It gives them the impression that they have really gone somewhere in a language, even if all they have is 1000 or 2000 words on the tip of their tongue. You cannot watch a film and understand it properly with that, you cannot really read a newspaper, you cannot delve into the literature of the culture you are looking at. You can get by like a glorified tourist, and that’s that. If all the vocab you need in a language is the vocab you’ll use all the time, then you’ll be on a par with the thickoes of that language, able to talk nineteen to the dozen but not being able to formulate very precise thoughts and limiting themselves always to a small pool of words. Your written work will not be interesting to read, anything beyond ordering food or buying shopping will be tough as you will struggle with nuances on only the words you have when you stop being a beginner. If you want to have a decent vocabulary, then it’s a question of building it up to 10,000 or maybe 15,000 words or more. Certainly that is the level that professionals using English in their work as a non-native language are attaining to and if you want to speak their language to them rather than have them simply override your attempts and slip into English with you, that’s what you’ll have to achieve. And that task takes time. Much much longer than the time spent learning just the basic grammar and the main irregular points of grammar,

    Let me give you an example from real life of how I once countered the argument against the amassing of vocabulary: I was in a car with someone who said his university lecturer in English said to concentrate on grammar and not vocabulary as if you didn’t know the odd word you’d be able to guess from context what the meaning is. So I said “I see your teacher is an imbecile”, to which he said “is that good or bad?” I rested my case.

    Nobody is saying that you have to achieve 15,000 words if you don’t want to. I would say it is very well worthwhile to achieve that “degree level” knowledge and it does mean a completely different kind of fluency than that pseudofluency of always having the 2000 words on the tip of one’s tongue, which actually isn’t possible for more than a few languages at once at 1000-2000 vocab levels anyway. The the passive acquisition of larger vocabularies is a better way to spend time than to spend it continually activating and reactivating a small and stagnant vocabulary.

    There is nothing wrong with knowing words for the sake of knowing them. Words are the tools of thought and of ideas, and you never know where they will take you. Words are deeply exciting. So are phrases, for that matter. Knowing words for the sake of knowing them is infinitely preferable to not knowing words for the sake of not knowing them.

    Learning 15,000 words in an ineffective way can take so long a person may well never do it. Using Goldlist it should take 600 hours in total, but in small bursts. You can see at every moment and calculate exactly how far along the road you are, and this aids motivation. You know when you pass the half way mark and every other numeric milestone.

    • First, thank you for taking the time to answer in such detail. You’ve certainly made me think more about your system.

      1. I misunderstood. Thank you for clarifying. I certainly see the point in taking whatever short amounts of time one can to focus where possible.

      2. I’m still not convinced this is something that I personally could commit to long term, as a regular part of daily life, but I can see that it will attract many people, and even be something I could occasionally dip into, so long as I didn’t feel pressured by it. In some ways I think this was the most personal argument.

      3. And this is where you’re making me think again about where I want to be with my languages, and how I want to get there. On the one hand, I’m the last person in the world to want to be satisfied with a sparse vocabulary; erudition is important to me, and always has been. On the other, I see language learners getting caught up in whether or not they know enough words to speak at all, and that’s what I was pushing against in saying one does not need a huge vocabulary.

      My trusted method for unconscious vocabulary enrichment has always been to read, constantly and continuously, and then to trust to my understanding of the words I come across from context (and a parent/dictionary/friend where necessary) being retained through coming across the word again or wanting to use it. I can certainly see that taking the time to write down such new words and phrases would assist me, however. I will admit that what may have put me off most was some of the videos which seemed to show people still, after a lot of time learning the given language, taking their wordlists from textbooks and random curiosity. I do hope and expect to be beyond that level as soon as I can.

      I will think further on this.

    • I think we may have been talking at cross-purposes about the word ‘fluency’, by which I mean simply the ability to speak, with however much repetition and circumlocution, in a flowing and grammatical manner, even with a limited vocabulary. The much more laudable aim of your system would seem to me to be erudition, or at least that’s what I’ll be claiming in my new blog post which should be up in a few hours (a half drafted version did get posted for one minute a little earlier this evening). I do see the point of making an effort to become an erudite speaker.

  3. I am glad that we are making each other think! As a certain Hebrew scripture puts it,

    בַּרְזֶל בְּבַרְזֶל יָחַד וְאִישׁ יַחַד פְּנֵֽי־רֵעֵֽהוּ׃

    (Proverbs 27:17)

  4. Thanks for posting your impressions of the Goldlist method. I’ve also been reviewing it, and it was good to compare your impressions against my own. It certainly seems complicated and time-consuming.

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  1. Answering a person who is not attracted to the Goldlist system. « Huliganov TV

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